I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010). Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book. I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable. In any case, here is my review of her take…
Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner. However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.
Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time. Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income. He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time. The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.
I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly. The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?
Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance. Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top. There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened. Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower. He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.
Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII. Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.
This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait. Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too. It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley. Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety. Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable. This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.
As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically. There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general. On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.