As readers of this column may know, I’m a devoted armchair adventurer, drawn to stories about people who brave all that nature has to throw at them. You’d think I would have gotten my fill of reading about the harrowing story of the 1996 Everest tragedy after devouring Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” but no. When I heard about Lou Kasischke’s 2015 book, “After the Wind: Tragedy on Everest, One Survivor’s Story,” I was intrigued by its dual intent and felt compelled to fork out $14 for this self-published memoir.
Obviously one of Kasischke’s objectives is to offer his own perspective on the Everest disaster, but what drew me to the book is his second goal: to write a love letter to Sandy, his devoted wife of 46 years. Kasischke explains that when Sandy became seriously ill in 2011, he wanted her to know how much her love and support has meant to him. Just as importantly, he wanted to acknowledge his belief that their deep bond, and a promise he had made to her, saved his life on Everest.
Picture this: Kasischke is struggling toward the summit, which is only 100 meters above him. Suddenly his heart begins to pound, he sinks to his knees, and in an eerie stillness, hears two warring voices. One — the voice of ambition, pride, and selfishness — urges him to keep climbing. The other — the voice of reason and love — says, “I can climb to the top of Everest. But this is not the day. I’m going home. This is a story I can tell Sandy.” And he turns around, just in time to descend to the high camp before the brewing storm, in which fellow climbers will die, hits. “This is a story I can tell” refers to the promise Sandy extracts from her husband in return for her support for a climb she certainly does not want him to make. Some years previously, Kasischke, a dedicated amateur climber, had withheld from his wife the story of a climb in South America because it showed him behaving irresponsibly and recklessly. When he finally tells the story to friends, in her presence, she is furious.
“I have often heard you tell other people you climb ‘to live a story,’ which…is nothing more than your way of putting a nice face on mountain climbing,” she says, and adds, “I need for you to look me in the eyes and promise to live a story you can tell.” Clearly, she means a story he can tell with pride.
I find Kasischke’s desire to do just that, as well as his decision to give up his summit attempt, admirable. Likewise, some aspects of his Everest story have merit. He’s often very candid about his responses to various situations, even though they don’t paint him in a flattering light. Likewise, he offers some interesting information about his training rituals, which includes practicing walking on aluminum ladders in his crampons. Also, he addresses the problems created by having a journalist (Krakauer) as a member of the expedition astutely, pointing out that a reporter’s presence may well have put pressure on Rob Hall, Adventure Consultant’s founder and head guide, to ignore the turn-around time he himself mandated in order to get as many clients as possible to the summit and thus garner positive publicity for his company.
That said, Kasischke says he opted to self-publish for two reasons: he wanted to get the book out fast, in view of Sandy’s illness, and he thought “going Indie” would result in a higher quality book that would reflect his true voice, “not the voices of a team of editors.” While I applaud the first reason, the second seems to be just another example of the author’s arrogance, or perhaps his naiveté. Regardless, his failure to make use of editorial advice dooms the book as surely as the failure to descend Everest’s summit in a timely fashion doomed some of his fellow climbers.
The bones I have to pick with this memoir concern both substance and style. Perhaps a good editor would have pointed out that Kasischke’s narrative is sometimes misleading, occasionally erroneous, and often puzzling. For example, Kasischke calls his group a “professional expedition,” implying that the climbers are professional mountaineers, when in fact, Adventure Consultants is a commercial firm, and the climbers are clients — amateurs — who pay around $65,000 to be led by professional guides. Similarly, he errs when he says that fixed-rope climbing is a “…generally accepted” practice of “the classical and ethical style of climbing Everest.” In fact, the classical style is to have two or three climbers roped to one another, taking turns finding the route and belaying their fellow climbers. One of the most puzzling aspects of Kasischke’s story is why, after signing a contract stipulating that the climb would be guided by three specific people, he would not withdraw when he learned that two of the guides had been replaced by less qualified men. This is just one example of the unexplained inconsistencies that left me scratching my head.
Kasischke rather proudly admits he’s not a professional writer. Why then, would he not elect to be guided, in matters of style, by an editor, just as he chose to be guided by professionals on his Everest climb? An editor would have helped him correct the most basic and terribly annoying writing errors: poor organization, endless repetition, the lack of interesting details and sensory description, and choppy sentences. I can’t decide which of these bothered me most, but the constant repetition that made me want to scream is right up there near the top of the list.
I wish I could recommend this book to you, but I can’t. “After the Wind” is an example of good intentions paving the road to reading hell.