“A fitting homage to one of the great outdoor extremists.”—Kirkus Reviews
Legendary climber Scott Fischer found in Mount Everest a perfect landscape for his fearless spirit. Scaling the world’s highest peak tested his skills, his courage, and his endurance. His legendary final expedition—and its tragic outcome—are portrayed in Everest, the 3-D movie adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer. Robert Birkby, one of Scott’s close friends, captures in this intimate and stirring portrait who Scott Fischer really was and what led him to climb to the top of the world—before he left it altogether.
“A personal, uncritical biography that rounds out the portrait of Fischer sketched in Krakauer’s best-seller Into Thin Air.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A much fuller picture of a climber widely critiqued in the high-profile coverage after the Everest tragedy.”—Seattle Post Intelligencer
“A vivid portrait of a superb athlete whose love of mountain climbing drove everything he did.”—Ed Viesturs, author of No Shortcuts to the Top
“Birkby succeeds in illuminating the power mountains can exert over the human soul.—Publishers Weekly
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In truth, if you want to find out about a man, go for a long tramp with him.
— Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping, 1927
Everyone who knew him has their Scott Fischer stories. Mine begins the evening he convinced me to climb Mount Olympus. He was in his midtwenties and the speed of the passing seasons was only beginning to make him edgy that there wouldn't be enough time to scale all the big peaks and make a life for himself as a mountaineer. It was before I had climbed much of anything at all, and a dozen years before Scott would reach the summit of Everest.
"He's pretty intense," my girlfriend Carol whispered.
Intense? The man who walked through the front door of the Seattle house that summer evening in 1982 might as well have been an adventure hero right out of central casting. Scott was just over six feet tall with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, his chest and arms stretching the fabric of his knit shirt, a muscle twitching in his square jaw. Beneath a tousle of blond hair his eyes shown with a pale blue iridescence, and his smile, full but also a little shy, filled the room with an energetic presence even greater than his physical size. He gave Carol a warm hug and reached out to shake my hand, the smile never leaving his face.
Carol and Scott's wife Jeannie had become friends six years earlier as students at Northwestern University. By chance the four of us had moved to Seattle at about the same time, and soon we were sitting down to get acquainted over a dinner of Dungeness crab from Puget Sound and white wine that we had purchased, not because it was from a Washington state winery, but because it had been in the least expensive bottles on the grocery store shelf. New enough to the Pacific Northwest to be without appropriate utensils for the local cuisine, we cracked the crab shells with pliers, a carpenter's hammer, and a pair of Vise-Grips, then dipped the sweet meat into melted butter. Jeannie was as blond and strikingly attractive as her husband, and as we ate she told us about her new job as a flight engineer aboard the Alaska Airlines fleet of jetliners based at Seattle's Sea Tac airport. "Flying third seat," she called it, the entry-level position in the cockpit. She was determined to advance to co-pilot and then captain, a career path that had led her and Scott to the Northwest. The fact that Seattle was surrounded by mountains was just fine with her husband.
Scott poured more wine for everyone and regaled us with several stories of his alpine exploits. In recent months he had taught outdoor leadership courses in Wyoming, climbed the highest peak in South America, and led an expedition to the top of Alaska's Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. He was organizing a climbing trip to the Soviet Union and had an invitation to work a few weeks on a commercial fishing boat in the Bering Sea. Then there were his plans for an adventure travel company. "We take clients anywhere in the world they want to go," he said as he reached for more crab. "It's called Mountain Madness."
My own adventures had been more horizontal in nature, mostly in the form of extended bicycle journeys and long backpacking trips. As the crab shells piled up and we opened another bottle of wine, I shared the highlights of what I had done, including summers leading trail-building crews in the mountains of northern New Mexico and a recent hike of the Appalachian Trail, going solo the 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Scott was interested in my accounts of constructing backcountry trails, but mostly he wanted to hear all about my Appalachian journey, quizzing me on the duration of the hike and the discipline to continue walking for five months straight. Even as I told the story, though, I sensed that my wanderings had been tempered by a caution every bit as strong as the confident abandon with which Scott seemed to approach mountaineering.
Toward the end of the evening, Scott suggested that we all climb Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Olympic National Park across Puget Sound from Seattle. "Just a couple of days," he told us. "It'll be a cruise!" Jeannie and Carol reminded him they had work schedules to keep. I, on the other hand, had left a teaching job in Missouri to hike the Appalachian Trail and then had moved to Seattle to give writing a try, which meant my calendar was nearly as unencumbered as that of a man determined to make a career out of being a mountaineer.
I confessed that while I was very much at ease in the backcountry, serious climbing was new to me. I liked hiking up mountains that had trails all the way to the top, but the idea of going where ropes and ice axes were necessities made me nervous. Scott dismissed my concerns with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry, we'll do good," he said, and somehow I was convinced we would.
A few mornings later, sunlight slanting through the branches of Douglas fir and western red cedar splayed across the scratched windshield of Scott's rusty maroon Dodge Dart as we sped along the narrow highway curving around the top of the Olympic Peninsula, the Dart's speedometer needle climbing well above eighty. "That's Dart Units, not miles an hour," Scott shouted over the howl of the engine and a Joni Mitchell tape blaring through the static of a stereo long gone mono, "but when the speedometer gets into the higher D.U's., the Dart's really moving!"
Scott slapped the steering wheel in time with the music and rocked back and forth as if urging the vehicle forward. I kept him supplied with a hot slurry of coffee and cream poured from a dented metal Thermos that had been rolling around on the floor below the backseat. The cup from the top of the vacuum bottle was all but hidden inside the grip of his hand.
"The Dart's made up of pieces from a couple other Darts," Scott said. "I had one in Alaska when I worked up there leading mountain trips and doing some commercial fishing." He glanced over at me and laughed. "I don't know where the other one is now, but this is the Dart that makes oil."
"It does what?" I asked, not sure I'd heard him.
"Every time I check the dip stick, there's more oil than before."
He shook his head. "Hey, I don't understand it either, but I'm not complaining."
We had been moving since before dawn, crossing Puget Sound aboard the Washington State ferry Walla Walla and then driving at the speed of many Dart Units into a forest that, as we neared the Pacific Ocean, became so dense and huge it felt as though we were motoring through a dark green tunnel. When we reached the trailhead parking lot deep in the Hoh Rain Forest, we pulled our packs out of the Dart's trunk and loaded them with a tent, stove, sleeping bags, and other camping gear that I knew well from my own backcountry trips, then lashed on the crampons, ice axes, harnesses, and a coil of climbing rope that Scott had brought along. We laced up our leather boots, lifted the heavy packs to our shoulders, adjusted the padded belts to put most of the weight on our hips, and walked up the muddy trail. Crowded on either side by giant ferns and by the head-high trunks of fallen trees, the first miles of the route rose gently, and we found it easy to talk as we hiked.
Scott told me about growing up in New Jersey. He'd played a little football, found the usual ways to get into minor bouts of adolescent trouble, and had felt no real sense of direction until he had seen a television program about mountain climbing in Wyoming. "That was it," he said. "I knew right then what I was going to do." He had been teaching mountaineering courses and setting off on climbing trips ever since.
I asked him how he was managing to mesh his wide-open lifestyle with his wife's much more structured schedule. It was something I was struggling to figure out myself, the urge to disappear into the backcountry for a few weeks or months at a time yet still building a relationship with a woman wired into the corporate world and showing increasing interest in the less-mobile pursuit of having a family. "Jeannie knows I'm a mountain climber and that's what I'm always going to be," Scott said. "We talked about that before we got married."
We stopped for a moment's rest and I leaned over to ease the pressure of the pack straps on my shoulders. Scott offered me a handful of raisins and nuts, and I asked him what it was about climbing that he found so inviting. "I try to be graceful," he told me. "That feeling of doing everything right, that's what I like. That can be as good as reaching the top." He described the mountains as a stage upon which to practice a mastery of motion even if there is no audience but the empty sky. His answer sounded rehearsed, and I suspected he had repeated his explanation of what he did with enough regularity that the message had become honed just the way he wanted it to come across.
"There are people who see some of the climbing I do and they say, sure, you can do that because you're so strong," he continued. "Well, I am, so they got that part right, but what they don't realize is how much effort it takes to stay tough. You've got to be smart about it, too, and not let your mind make a promise that your body can't keep."
We started hiking again. "You ever do that?" I asked. "Make one of those promises and then not keep it?"
He thought awhile, almost as if the question had no resonance for him. Then instead of answering, he told me about falling into a glacial crevasse on a mountain in Wyoming. He had ricocheted off the cold, wet walls and slammed onto a gloomy shelf of ice, dislocating his shoulder. "I'd heard somebody say it was a safe glacier, no crevasses, so I was crossing without roping up," he said, "which is real stupid." His partners had crept to the edge of the abyss and peered in, doubting he was even alive. "I saw their silhouettes way up there against the sky, and I shouted, Oh, yoo-hoo! I'm down here!" They lowered nearly the full length of a 120-foot rope. Scott tied the end around his waist and they hauled him into the sunlight. His companions bandaged his wounds and tried to reduce his dislocated shoulder, but he was so muscled that it was impossible for them to pop the bone back into place. It took three days on foot and then on horseback and then driving more than a hundred miles of rugged back roads to reach the nearest clinic where a physician could deal with his injuries.
There had been other falls, too, he told me. "For a while people were calling me the fallingest man in climbing, but I'm pretty sure I'm done with that now," Scott continued. "I'm twenty-six years old. The best Everest mountaineers are in their thirties and early forties, and I still want to be around then."
Oh good, I thought, I'm on my first real mountaineering adventure and my guide is not only compelled to climb Mount Everest, he has until recently been famous for falling. Suddenly I wasn't so much worried about reaching my thirties and early forties as I was hoping I might just make it back to Seattle.
By the end of the day we had hiked sixteen miles to the upper reaches of the Hoh Valley. The forest had fallen away below us and we found ourselves across a glacier from Mount Olympus, the snow on the mountain turning a luminous pink and then deepening shades of red as late afternoon turned into evening. In the chill of the gathering darkness we pitched Scott's tent on a patch of bare earth, fired up my camping stove, and stewed a pot of potatoes, carrots, and onions. I reached for my bandanna to use as a hot pad to adjust the position of the pot on the burner, but Scott beat me to it by lifting the pot with his bare hands, oblivious to the heat. We ate dinner, cleaned our kitchen gear, and put everything away. After we crawled into our sleeping bags Scott took out his contact lenses and put on a pair of glasses with very thick lenses, then we played chess with magnetic pieces on a little folding chessboard he had brought along. Illuminating the moves with our headlamps, we discovered we were perfectly matched in the ineptitude of our chess strategies.
The next morning dawned clear, the cold air full of promise and of the sense of distance that lay between us and the parking lot and the crowded world beyond. The 200 inches of annual rainfall that caused the vegetation farther down the Hoh Valley to grow to astounding size also ensured that Mount Olympus is perpetually draped with snowfields and glaciers, and in the early light I looked across at the cracked ice of the glacier and the steep snow slopes on the far side. The mountain was big, craggy, and topographically complicated. If I had been backpacking by myself or with Carol, this would have been the turnaround point of the trip and I would have been fully satisfied. For Scott, though, the hike had been a necessary trudge to get to the real beginning of the adventure as the trail ended and the gradual rise of the valley floor collided with terrain that was much more dramatic.
We brewed a pot of coffee for Scott and a cup of sweetened tea for me, then split a breakfast of oatmeal, which we ate right out of the pan. After I had scoured the pan with snow from the edge of the glacier, we put the day's ration and some extra clothing into our packs and stowed everything else in the tent. Scott cinched a climbing harness around me and double-looped the end of the waist belt back through the buckle, then showed me how to strap the sharpened teeth of a pair of metal crampons onto my boots. His levity of the previous day had disappeared, replaced by a quiet seriousness as he explained how I should form a figure-eight knot in the end of the rope, then clip an aluminum carabiner to my harness and then into the loop of the knot. He secured the rope's other end to his harness and handed me an ice axe, instructing me to stay far enough behind him to keep the rope between us tight, and our tiny expedition set off across the glacier.
I stepped onto the ice and followed Scott as he made his way around the ends of crevasses or found places where the cracks in the glacier were narrow enough to jump across. The points of my crampons cut into the ice and gave me sure footing, but if Scott had fallen into a crevasse I'm not sure I would have had a clue what to do. He was probably no more protected with me roped to him than if he had been traveling solo. My entire knowledge of glacier travel consisted of the recent understanding that if I dropped into a crevasse I should yell, "Oh, yoo-hoo!" and wait for somebody to pull me up. That may have been Scott's thought, too, that he had absolute confidence in his own glacier-travel skills but that tethering me to a rope would make it easier for him to drag me out of any difficulties that might engulf me. As I stepped over another narrow crevasse, I found his approach most interesting, especially after his story of the previous day about not taking glaciers for granted.
We untied from the rope when we reached the far side of the glacier. Scott coiled the line and secured it to his pack, then led the way as we started up a steep snowfield, kicking the toes of our boots into the snow. "Use the rest step," Scott told me, demonstrating how he locked his knee and paused a moment before stepping up. "Your bones take your weight and not your muscles," he continued. "You can keep going for hours." A couple of those hours brought us near the top of a hump of the mountain called the Snow Dome. From there we followed an ascending ridge across broken terrain to the summit block of Mount Olympus, a tower of stone jutting a hundred feet out of the snow.
Scott studied the rock above us, his face filling with a joy matched by the trepidation I was feeling. While I saw all the places I might fall, he seemed to imagine nothing but opportunity. "I'm not very comfortable with this," I told him, but even as I was suggesting that I wait where I was while he went on alone, Scott began climbing so swiftly that he seemed almost to be levitating, his hands and feet barely touching the stone. Jesus, I thought, that guy can move! It really did look as though he were dancing toward the sky with no thought to the consequences or even the possibility of falling. In a moment he had disappeared over the top. I heard him shout, "Bruce!" and then "Rope!" and while I didn't understand the first, I got the warning of the second as the uncoiling line whistled down from above, the end landing near my feet. "Tie into your harness and double-check your knot before you start up," Scott called out, "then take your time."
I swallowed hard. I didn't have to do this. It wasn't in my nature to put myself at risk this way. Still, there was the rope. Scott continued to encourage me. "You're going to do it," he said. "Just get started and it's going to happen."
I attached the rope to my harness and climbed a few feet up the rock and then a few feet more. So far so good. Scott kept the slack out of the line but left it loose enough so that my upward movement was mine alone. The cracks and nooks where I could put my hands and feet seemed better to one side, so I worked my way that direction without realizing that I was moving onto a face of the summit block away from the slope we had climbed. When I glanced down, I saw only empty space. My knees began to shake. Scott urged me to keep climbing. "I've got you," he told me, his voice reassuring. "Test every hold before you put your weight on it and don't forget to breathe."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mountain Madness"
Copyright © 2008 Robert Birkby.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - Olympus,
CHAPTER 2 - Thirty Days to Survival,
CHAPTER 3 - A Bunch of Bruces,
CHAPTER 4 - Off Belay,
CHAPTER 5 - Follow the Rainbow,
CHAPTER 6 - The Fallingest Man in Climbing,
CHAPTER 7 - The Alaska Factor,
CHAPTER 8 - Mountain Madness,
CHAPTER 9 - Kilimanjaro the Really Hard Way,
CHAPTER 10 - Annapurna Fang,
CHAPTER 11 - Rockin' with the Ruskies,
CHAPTER 12 - It's All Fun Until Somebody Dies,
CHAPTER 13 - Everest North Face,
CHAPTER 14 - The Nutrition Expedition,
CHAPTER 15 - The Wrong Mountain,
CHAPTER 16 - F.O.S.,
CHAPTER 17 - K2 in '92,
CHAPTER 18 - What Would Hillary Do?,
CHAPTER 19 - Everest with Good Style,
CHAPTER 20 - The Year Before the Year,
CHAPTER 21 - Last Climb,
CHAPTER 22 - After the Storm,