By STEVE WEINBERG | Special to The Courant
January 27, 2008
Everest. The name of the mountain in the Himalaya range, partly in China, partly in Tibet, suggests exotic travel — human adventure dependent upon nearly unimaginable physical conditioning.
But those who read "High Crimes," Michael Kodas' exposé of contemporary climbing, will probably never again associate the mountain with the word "exotic." More likely, they will forever associate it with nearly unimaginable — and sometimes fatal — greed. (The book will be in stores Feb. 5.)
Climbing to the summit of Everest, the highest in the world, has become a status symbol. As a result, wealthy, middle-class and sometimes far less-well-off people travel to Everest, determined to buy or steal their way if they cannot reach the summit honestly. Some status seekers are experienced climbers, but, according to Kodas, many are not. They understand at some level that reaching the summit is physically and psychologically taxing. But they are ignorant of how much can go wrong, and so quickly that people die.
Kodas is a photographer for The Courant. When he and his wife, Carolyn Moreau, then a Courant reporter, traveled to Everest four years ago, he was not planning to write a relentless exposé. Kodas, who had climbed mountains elsewhere, expected a positive experience culminating in a photograph of himself at the summit, looking down from nearly 30,000 feet above sea level.
Their unexpectedly grim adventure started innocently in their Hartford neighborhood during 2003. Kodas happened to spot some neighbors, George Dijmarescu, a Romanian American adventurer who had climbed Everest nine times, and his wife, Lhakpa Sherpa, who had climbed the mountain five times, pushing their 1-year-old daughter in a stroller. During a conversation, Kodas learned his neighbors wanted to lead an Everest expedition for Connecticut residents willing to pay guides who would lead them to the summit.
Kodas helped spread the word, received permission to climb while covering the expedition for The Courant, and began training. He felt good about George and Lhakpa. Only later, on the mountain, Kodas tells readers ominously, did he learn "the dark side of these local heroes."
As his narrative unfolds, he mixes the saga of his nearly disastrous climbing party with stories of other climbers led by other scheming organizers who charged clients up to $65,000 for the experience.
The primary connecting thread is the story of Nils Antezana, a wealthy 69-year-old Bolivian-born doctor living in Washington. Before he turned 70, Antezana wanted to climb Everest. Of all the guides he could have chosen, he inexplicably picked Gustavo Lisi. The choice would be fatal — Antezana died on the mountain, allegedly abandoned by Lisi, who also was accused of abandoning previous clients near the summit.
Kodas presents Antezana's death as a mystery, told partly through his own sleuthing and partly through that of the doctor's devastated daughter, Fabiola. The story of the Connecticut group's climb, alternating with the Antezana-Lisi match-up, is compelling, and nightmarish, reading.
But because Kodas peppers the book with numerous story lines starring expedition leaders, Sherpa mountaineers, wealthy climbers, less-wealthy thieving climbers, government functionaries and business people, the text can feel overwhelming.
I found myself flipping back to remind myself what Kodas had written previously about, say, David Sharp, who also died on the mountain; or Russell Brice, a mostly exemplary veteran guide whose reputation came under attack; or manufacturers of allegedly faulty oxygen equipment vital for survival near the summit; or — well, you get the idea.
His over-ambitiousness as an investigative reporter means readers must go slowly, so the numerous sagas can be absorbed at a high level of comprehension. That is a reasonable price to pay, however, for an important, brave and, yes, shocking book.