I don’t climb mountains. As famed Himalayan data collector Miss Hawley told Everest mountain guide Dave Hahn, “I wouldn’t think of it…I want to sleep in a bed, eat at a table, and be driven around in my Beetle.” I do not own a Beetle, but the point stands regardless.
Jim Davidson has climbed mountains before; in many respects he could probably be classified as a mountaineer. Throughout his book, The Next Everest: Surviving the Mountain’s Deadliest Day and Finding the Resilience to Climb Again he calls to mind the lessons he has learned from climbing Denali and working in mountain rescue. The crux of the book is his 2015 Everest summit attempt.
Mount Everest is one of those unique instances where you don’t need to explain what exactly it is to the layman. It might not be the world’s most technically challenging mountain (K2, any part of Annapurna, and Cerro Torre all present their own interesting challenges) but its size is its primary enticement. As John Oliver posits in his 2019 coverage of the mountains busy season, no one gets excited when you announce that you’ve climbed nearby Makalu, even though it is only 400 meters shorter.
Climbing Everest has carried with it, historically, its own challenges. Over 300 people have died on Everest, and recent years have been rife with the kinds of historic firsts that are made for news fluff pieces (the youngest person to climb Everest at 13, the oldest person to climb the mountain at 80, the first person to snowboard off the top). They have also been filled with tragedy. In 1996, a blizzard on Everest trapped several expeditions in the “death zone” (above 8,000 m/26,000 ft) and at the summit, resulting in the deadliest season to that point. In 2014, 16 climbing sherpa’s were killed at the Khumbu Icefall in a single tragic instant marking it as the deadliest day in Everests’ history to that point and prematurely ending the climbing season. Throughout this era of Everest climbing (the so-called commercialization of Everest), there have been several incredibly bad days and years, like when veteran operator Russell Brice pulled his entire operation off the mountain in 2012 due to concerns over safety in the Icefall and on the mountain in general, or in the pictures that get shown around the Internet of snowsuited climbers walking in lock step up bleach white ice on a single rope. Tragedy, it seems, is inherent to the makeup of Everest.
It is into this scene that Jim Davidson enters. The year is 2015.
There are two key things to know about Everest climbing. First is that it happens during a season, as there are typically only a few specific times that one can summit the mountain, and it can run from a few days to a couple of weeks – usually in April or May. Second, climbers spend about five weeks to two months on and around the mountain for something known as acclimatization where they attempt to increase their odds by “climbing high and sleeping low,” going up and down elevation to increase their bodies endurance to the high altitude conditions. The thing that is most likely to kill you on Everest, after all, is the altitude.
On April 25, 2015, a powerful earthquake rocked Nepal. Centered near the capital of Kathmandu, the earthquake and its aftershocks were a devastation. Almost 9,000 people lost their lives and 600k homes were destroyed; the cost of the earthquake is astronomical in a country where many earn less than $1000 a year. The shocks from the earthquake also hit Mount Everest, causing a series of landslides and avalanches and giving the mountain another deadliest day, with twenty-two people perishing. Davidson’s book, at least the first half, focuses on this event.
Davidson is a passable writer. A good memoir, however, can be saved by experience and perspective more than it can by the writing itself. That is not the case here. One of the key issues with Next Everest is that Davidson lacks agency during the course of the earthquake and its aftermath. Obviously he cannot control an act of nature, and he is ultimately limited by what actually happened but his perspective is one of a person being shepherded around by those in a position of authority.
Most of the book that is focused on the earthquake (about the first 40% or so) is mired in this issue. Davidson and the team he was a part of, IMG, were at Camp 1 during the course of the event, and almost all of the devastation took place at base camp. Because of the earthquake the Khumbu Icefall, which separates Everest base camp from Camp 1, had become impassable. Effectively, everyone on Everest was now trapped on the mountain, at Camp’s 1 & 2. But Davidson doesn’t have much in the way of decision making. He hauls a bucket of diarrhea to a crevasse to dump it. He makes a series of satellite calls to news outlets and talks about hanging up on Anderson Cooper’s team when they make him wait in the snow. When the decision is ultimately made to have helicopter teams come up and pick up the stranded climbers two by two, it’s a decision made off screen by the expedition heads. Davidson just has to keep his head low and run to the chopper.
Compare this to a book like Jennifer Hull’s Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day, which covers the same event. Hull collected interviews and information from a variety of sources, predominantly mountain guide and operator Dave Hahn, as well as his Sherpa sirdar Chhering Dorjee and base camp manager Mark Tucker. Hahn has to worry not only about the practicalities of getting people off the mountain, his job, but also he has friends at base camp. He’s been coming to Everest for a long time. His friends are down there. He can only watch and listen. Chhering cannot reach his pregnant wife in Kathmandu; he doesn’t know if she or his mother is alive. When the plan finally comes to fruition and they intend to move everyone off the mountain by helicopter, it’s a decision made in part by Hahn and his fellow expedition leaders. He’s also highly aware of the risks of high altitude helicopter rescues after having been in one that crashed before. There’s context and perspective there.
The stark blandness of Davidson’s experience is frequently juxtaposed with the wild horror of the experiences of those around him. When he returns to base camp, having been flown back down, he finds the area has been decimated. During peak season, Everest base camp can be home to nearly 1000 people and they are considered relatively “safe.” There is literal blood in the snow. As they climb down the mountain and back towards where they will drive and fly out of the valley — Everest climbers typically hike into base camp as a further method of acclimatization — they stop in a village so they can help an IMG Sherpa whose house was literally demolished by the earthquake. The massive beams of his house nearly crushed his wife and young children.
None of this is to downplay the trauma of Davidson’s experience. There is probably a great deal, though it isn’t something that he expresses well in relation to the earthquake. The death of his friend Mike, years earlier, in a climbing accident is a situation that clearly haunts Davidson. He relates a lot of other things to this experience, even taking a detour in the hike out from base camp post earthquake so that he can climb another mountain in memory of Mike. Davidson says that the earthquake is traumatizing, he says that when he posted a selfie to Facebook upon arrival back in WiFi territories, friends said he looked emotionally rough and advised that he look into therapy but he doesn’t talk about the experience of going to therapy.
What he does talk about is going back to Everest.
As the title suggests, as much as the book is about the Everest earthquake in 2015, it’s also about retrying the summit in 2017. Nepal, for whom Everest is a multi-million dollar industry, decided to honor the permits for two years. This cut out one of the expensive parts of climbing Everest — as the permits to climb cost about $11,000/person. Climbing Everest is an incredibly expensive endeavor; to paraphrase Beck Weathers in Krakauer’s climbing classic Into Thin Air, if you have disposable income and can leave your family and job for two months, you can climb Everest. The floor for most reputable companies starts at about $45,000 with other companies ranging on up, though the averages seem to be about $75,000. This Indian man discusses buying his wife a trip to Everest instead of a BMW. There are exceptions, but it’s that kind of tax bracket. When Davidson brings up the idea of returning to the mountain to his wife Gloria, in true boomer fashion he writes as an aside: “how unlike other husbands, I didn’t spend money on boats, motorcycles or fancy cars” as though there is anything more midlife crisis than spending over $50,000 on the chance to die on a very tall mountain.
And to what end? In Buried in the Sky, a book about K2’s deadliest day, Amanda Padoan and Peter Zuckerman write about the phenomenon of the commercialization of Everest.
The first generation of high-altitude mountaineers were proud “Conquistadors of the Useless,” pioneering first ascents. But what was left once all of the major peaks had been conquered? Mountaineers scrambled for ways to distinguish themselves….Crowds packed the mountain. Amateurs who had trained on sea-level StepMills arrived at Everest, clipped their ascenders onto a fixed line, and winched their way through the clouds.
This is the crux of Davidson’s book. Why does he need to climb Everest? There isn’t really a good reason that he presents, at least not one that undercuts the very solid reasons that he should not. The technical challenge is not as present as it was even 20 years ago, but that isn’t to say that Everest is safe. “Climbers older than forty years have reduced odds of summitting…while Everest appeared blind to gender, she was certainly not blind to age,” Hull writes about Hawley’s Himalayan data. At 52, he’s well into the danger zone for Everest climbers. Additionally, Davidson is working on reconstructed knees. In the time between his 2015 and 2017 summit attempts, he must retrain himself to run, an activity he physically cannot do. He’s diagnosed with diabetes before he leaves for the 2017 trip to Nepal. This is not Alex Honnold preparing to scale the Dawn Wall, this is a retiree about to have a guided climb up a mountain with a heavy support staff.
Which doesn’t even get into the support staff. Davidson pays lip service to the Sherpa and Nepali guides and support staff, speaking some of the Sherpa language, but his actions do not reflect respect. Any mountaineering documentary stresses that a mountaineer must listen to their guide because it can mean the difference between life or death, but Davidson – who specifically asks to be assigned to a twenty-six year old Sherpa named PK – repeatedly ignores and disregards the advice of his guide. When there comes a point where PK suggests that he does not think that Davidson has the ability to make it to the summit, Davidson’s response in text is incredibly telling; he gets upset that PK doesn’t “trust” him, and goes over his head to the non-Sherpa men in charge who allow him to summit despite PK’s concerns about his speed.
PK’s speed concerns are reasonable. Slow mountaineers die on high-altitude climbs. In some of the places where the path up to Everest is single file, like the Hillary Step, they also run the risk of creating severe bottlenecks and endangering the lives of everyone around them. Not only that, but depending on the expedition company, if Davidson gets himself in a pickle despite PK’s warnings, it’s not exactly like his Sherpa just leaves him there to die. For context, there’s the story of Sange Sherpa who advised his underprepared client multiple times that they needed to turn back, but could not leave him, resulting in them both needing to be saved from the death zone and Sange ultimately losing all of his fingers to frostbite.
There’s something sort of white-liberal about the way that Davidson relates to the issues surrounding the labor at Everest. There is the stated desire to connect with the indigenous population of the area paired with colonialist action. Davidson talks early on in Next Everest about the Nepali high-altitude workers and their incredibly hazardous jobs, but chooses to connect it to a story about how when he was younger, his dad hired him and a few other painters to paint high voltage electrical towers for three times the minimum wage; “though the dangers were obvious and substantial, to make that high pay we were willing to take the risk for a few months.” There is a temptation to try and empathize with others, of course. My own family history with coal mining comes to mind when I think of Sherpa labor; young men going to work in an incredibly dangerous profession, generationally, and dying young and horribly because it’s the best paying job in the area by a long shot and it’s the only way to maybe bring your family out of poverty. But it’s very dangerous to ignore the very obvious cultural and racial implications with regards to high-altitude workers and Everest especially considering the 2014 strike (laid out incredibly well in the film Sherpa). Davidson doesn’t really contend with the racial issues at hand, they’re not a part of him finding himself on Everest.
As someone who grew up in a tourist town, I can recognize a tourist and Davidson is one. He’s the kind of tourist who so desperately wants to be perceived as a local. But Next Everest doesn’t have the perspective of someone who knows the Himalayan mountains or Nepal. It’s comfortable with climbing but it doesn’t capture the magic that can happen in those icy environments. There are better books on exactly the same event, and there are far better books on Everest. Just as the mountain has been summited before, so has this topic, and by better writers than Davidson. He doesn’t bring enough of his own voice or perspective for me to want to stay and enjoy the view.
The Summit (2012)
The Dark Side of Everest (1998)
Storm Over Everest (2008)
Cerro Torre: A Snowball’s Chance in Hell (2013)
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997)
Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day by Jennifer Hull (2020)
Buried in the Sky by Amanda Padoan and Peter Zuckerman (2012)
Death and Anger on Everest – Jon Krakauer for The New Yorker (2014)
The Real Story of Sandy Hill Pittman, Everest’s Socialite Climber – Jennet Conant for Vanity Fair (1996)
Should a Teenager be Climbing Mount Everest – Patrick Barkham for the Guardian (2010)
Breathtaking: K2 (2020)
Annapurna III – Unclimbed (2017)