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Four Mountaineering Classics Describe Allure of Climbing

June 8, 1995

What compelled Jeffery Z. Rubin, a middle-aged psychology professor, to keep climbing an obscure 3,800-foot Maine mountain through fatigue, high winds and heavy rains in June until he slipped and fell to his death?

Why did Alison Hargreaves, a diminutive mother of two, climb Mount Everest alone and without oxygen?

And what about Jimmy Hinkhouse, a reformed alcoholic, who sought his salvation in the mountains until he died with his climbing partners in a crevasse fall on Alaska’s Mount McKinley in May?

Joe Tasker and Peter Boardmen knew.

``I wondered if climbing one of the world’s highest mountains made one a better person, if it would give courage and strength in other aspects of life. Only reaching the top would answer that and I no longer knew what the motivation was which would enable me to put one foot in front of the other when there was only pain, and shortage of air and no fun or enjoyment,″ Joe Tasker wrote in his book ``Savage Arena.″

The two British climbers were world class mountaineers who left a legacy of their Himalayan adventures, their love of mountains and their deep friendship in four books that became standards for mountaineering literature. When the world’s biggest mountains were climbed with ``siege tactics″ involving scores of people and tons of equipment, Boardman and Tasker audaciously went alone. They helped pioneer lightweight alpine climbing in the world’s biggest mountains in the 1970s and early 1980s. They climbed together and returned home to write separate accounts of their climbs.

Their four books, increasingly difficult to find in libraries and book stores in recent years, have been republished as ``The Boardman Tasker Omnibus″ ($29.95) by The Mountaineers publishing house of Seattle.

The Omnibus includes Tasker’s ``Savage Arena,″ published posthumously in 1982, and ``Everest, The Cruel Way,″ published in 1980; Boardman’s ``Sacred Summit,″ also published posthumously in 1982; and ``The Shining Mountain,″ published in 1978.

The Omnibus tells the story of their friendship, which grew from hostility to a fragile, begrudging rapport at the beginning of their lonely six-week climb of Changabang in 1976 where they shared a tent tenuously draped over a ledge at 20,000 feet, and bonded, literally and figuratively, by rope during subsequent epics. They shared a friendship few will ever know.

Boardman and Tasker were obviously gutsy climbers who overcame fear, intense cold, pain and exhaustion to push themselves to their physical and mental limits. Yet their writing is remarkably free of macho posturing. They wrote without shame about the fear that comes with climbing the hardest routes on the biggest mountains.

For everything that mountains may be, they are dangerous. Perhaps inevitably, they claimed Boardman and Tasker, who were always pushing the limits. The mountain Jeffrey Rubin died on in June was barely big enough to qualify as a mountain.

Death and risk is a large part of mountaineering literature. Boardman and Tasker described their close calls, burying climbers in crevasses and watching friends die. They wrote about death, and, prophetically, the prospect of death.

They described their many near-misses: Tasker buried by avalanche in his tent high up K2; Boardman, nearly abseiling right off his rope after being knocked unconscious by falling rock on Mount Kongur. Just days before his death, Boardman nearly fell off Everest when a piton pulled free.

It is remarkable that both should have been so compatible and skilled up in the mountains and also serious writers who could tell their adventure stories in a compelling style.

Their stories have all the elements of great literature. Boardman and Tasker were as serious about their writing as they were their mountaineering. They make the reader want them to make it to the top of each mountain they wrote about, and they make the reader mourn the books they left unwritten.

Tasker had a way of making a day’s climb read like dramatic fiction, full of tension and with such clarity that it can appeal to all readers. Boardman was most eloquent when writing about the introspective aspects of mountaineering _ the risks, the deaths and how it all related to life.

Their 1979 climb of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, was typical of the experiences they described in their books.

On the trek into Kangchenjunga, Boardman broke his foot, and during the climb his wrist was smashed by a falling rock _ all before he was nearly blown off the mountain when a savage storm demolished his tent at 26,000 feet, forcing him to retreat frantically in the dark.

Boardman merely caught his breath and went back up with Tasker, who was recovering from mountain sickness himself. They struggled for eight weeks, suffering through intense pain and risk to spend 45 minutes on the summit.

Few people ever want anything so badly to submit to such an ordeal willingly. And even fewer are talented enough to write so compellingly about the experience.

The story of Boardman and Tasker is concluded in another book, ``Everest, The Unclimbed Ridge,″ written by Chris Bonnington and Charles Clarke, survivors of their fatal climb of the world’s highest mountain.

In his story of that last climb, Bonnington commented on the strength of the Tasker-Boardman friendship. While they often bickered like an old married couple, and there was strong competition between them as writers and climbers, Bonnington sensed their friendship could withstand those pressures. Both of them intended to write books about their climb of Everest’s Northeast Ridge.

In characteristic fashion, when the Everest climb proved too much for their other partners, Boardman and Tasker decided to go on by themselves.

Before the two set off to finish the climb, Bonnington recorded Tasker in an especially poignant quote, reassuring his partner he would be able to continue.

``Don’t worry, I’ll be OK. I’ll be with you,″ Tasker told Boardman as they prepared for their final summit bid.

Bonnington describes how he watched Boardman and Tasker slowly moving along the col between two pinnacles of the Northeast Ridge. He last saw them at 9 p.m. on May 17, 1982, two tiny dots 8,250 meters up the ridge. Tasker was 34. Boardman 31.

The last photograph of the two before they disappeared appears in ``Everest, The Unclimbed Ridge. ″ Bonnington theorized they either fell down the Kangshung Face on the other side of the ridge, or were swept away by avalanche. Either way, Boardman and Tasker died as they had lived: roped together and climbing at extreme altitudes where no one had climbed before.

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