The Death of an American Adventurer on K2
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A dashing explorer climbs but does not descend from the world’s second-tallest mountain. Mountaineer/filmmaker Jordan (Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Women of K2, 2005) ponders the whys.

Dudley Wolfe was born into the easy life. “Like many a child of vast wealth, he lacked the need, and therefore perhaps the drive,” writes the author, “to dedicate himself to learning algebra, Latin, or the history of ancient Rome.” That’s the padded way of saying Wolfe was a rotten student, but not without ambitions as an athlete and explorer, wedded to the notion of sailing off to distant shores. So it was that he volunteered for action as an ambulance driver—training ground for literary greatness, à la Hemingway and Cummings—on the Italian frontlines in World War I, where, Jordan portentously writes, he saw “man after man, body after body, some getting hit before his eyes with their shattered legs collapsing beneath them, others blown naked of their clothes by the bomb blast, their torsos and limbs hanging from the trees above.” Or did he? Disconcertingly, the author mixes the real and the potential, setting off chunks of imagined dialogue in italics. From them, we learn that every mountaineer says “hell” a lot, but the results of the invention are without much affect: “Hell, it was more like 26,000 feet since he’d started at the ocean. And here was the end of it all; a small, almost trivial ditch of snow.” Shorn of these dubious flourishes, the narrative would have suffered no loss but that of a few pages—and the best of it would have fit into a long-form magazine article. Jordan is solid with her generous descriptions of her subject’s good nature, though, and with her account of finding evidence of Wolfe’s story some 60-plus years after the fact on the mountain he scaled but did not leave.

A second-tier Into Thin Air.

Pub Date: Aug. 16th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-07778-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2010