Revol and Mackiewicz had completely different styles and approaches to climbing, but they were also strangely complimentary. Yet, despite Revol’s intense focus on safety protocols, the mutual agreements that they had forged in previous high altitude winter ascents, in her words “…collapsed like houses of cards” in their final push for the summit. The first hint of trouble came earlier on their summit day climb when Mackiewicz declined or ignored Revol’s suggestion that he put on his goggles.
Revol’s euphoria on reaching the summit instantly turned to shock and horror when Mackiewicz joined her there in the encroaching darkness and announced that he could no longer clearly see her headlight. They were on the summit of one of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains, at night, in winter, without supplemental oxygen, and one of them was now blind through a combination of ophthalmia (snow blindness) and possibly pulmonary and/or cerebral oedema (high altitude sickness).
Thus began Élisabeth Revol’s epic descent and deep survival story, replete with two high altitude winter bivouacs without gear or tent, and a heroic rescue effort mobilized from around the world that involved already acclimated climbers being flown by helicopter from a parallel winter attempt on K2.
This hardcover book is not long, only 126 pages plus end materials comprising histories, tributes, maps and notes (no index). It is as much about Revol’s inner journey; her agonies, thoughts, relationships on the mountain and back at their respective homes in France and Ireland, as she struggles on the edge of what’s humanly possible to survive, all the while agonizing over her decision to leave Tomasz Mackiewicz in a crevasse at 7,283 m (23,894 ft) elevation. She had been persuaded via her InReach satellite communication device to descend alone on the grounds that Mackiewicz could go no farther and that a high altitude helicopter rescue of more than one person from that location would not be possible. Yet as time went on, it became clearer that there would be no rescue at all for Mackiewicz and that the rescue efforts would be focussed solely on Revol. She was persuaded to descend on a different route than that of their ascent, one that was more direct but which she lacked the necessary knowledge and gear to complete successfully on her own. She was descending into a trap that left her entirely dependant on rescue.
I had just finished reviewing Bernadette McDonald’s ‘Winter 8000,’ the account of the winter ascents of all but one of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, in which she describes Élisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz’s winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. (You can see the book review on the next page). So it was very timely to receive and read this very personal account. I also found it interesting and relevant to have read Sandy Allan’s ‘In Some Lost Place: The first ascent of Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge,’ which I reviewed in the Fall/Winter 2015 Cloudburst.
To say that ‘To Live’ is riveting would be an understatement; but it is also a deeply introspective and personal look into the lives of two very independent high altitude climbers. Revol went through different agonies during the months after her rescue, as she struggled with the death of Mackiewicz and the worldwide storm of media attention. In May 2019 she returned to the high mountains with a relatively straightforward (for her) ascent of Everest, but which she capped less than 24 hours later with a solo ascent from her South Col camp of the adjacent Lhotse, at 8,516 metres (27,940 feet), the fourth highest mountain in the world.
‘To Live: Fighting for life on the killer mountain’ by Élisabeth Revol; Vertebrate Publishing, October 2020; 192 pages, plus an 8-page colour section; Hardback; Retail price £24.00; ISBN 978-1-839810-17-6. https://www.v-publishing.co.uk/books/