Nick Heil, freelance writer and author of “Dark Summit,” winner of the 2008 Best Book-Mountain Literature of The Banff Mountain Book Festival, spoke to students Wednesday in the English Building about his book and his experience in Afghanistan.
“‘Dark Summit’ is the story of the 2006 climbing season on Mount Everest, and I focused largely on events that took place on the north side of the mountain in Tibet that involved a climber who was left high in the mountain to die. He was found alive, and the people who found him weren’t able to rescue him, so they left him,” Heil said.
The second half of the book, Heil said, focuses on another climber who was discovered alive but was stranded and rescued. The book looks at both stories and assesses why one man lived and the other man died.
Bailey Nutt, a junior agricultural science major from Dimmitt, said she enjoyed the talk, and it gave her more to think about the challenges of climbing Mount Everest, physical, mentally and even morally.
“At first I couldn’t believe that they would just walk away and not help him, and that kind of floored me because I would think, ‘Oh, I would be right there to help him,’” Nutt said about the climber who was not rescued. “But after hearing how straining it is on the body, and you only have so long to live once you get to the top, I can’t honestly see how you can save them without killing yourself.”
To give an idea to listeners about the physiological stresses climbers experience at high altitudes, Heil explained how the capillaries in the skin retract and how that affects the brain by drawing blood away from the frontal lobe, a vital part of the body for critical thinking. He gave an example of a writer he knows who, while ascending Mount Everest, wrote in her notebook and at the time believed her writing was legible, but when she returned to sea level, she realized the writing was merely loops and scribbles.
“When your body is slowly coming apart and your mind is coming apart, you’re not aware of it, and you can’t control it,” Heil said.
In “Dark Summit,” Heil addresses the question of humanity and to what extremes people will go to achieve their goals even if it means leaving behind others, he said.
“Once I have introduced (listeners) to the place and people that are involved, I tend to steer them towards the central idea or the scheme of this book, which is under what circumstances do we help another person, and what happens when you analyze this question in an extreme environment like the highest mountain in the world,” Heil said.
Heil spoke about Afghanistan in a creative writing class and the three and a half weeks he spent there with Shannon Galpin, a single mother from Colorado who frequents Afghanistan and works for same-gender rights through her non-governmental organization, Mountain2Mountain.
Heil said Galpin has put her life at risk while working on projects including building a school for the deaf, running a midwife program for rural communities and hosting a street art project.
Kyle Ware, a philosophy and psychology major from Midland, was present at Heil’s second talk about Afghanistan and said he enjoyed Heil’s perspective on Galpin’s work but was mostly impressed by the writer himself.
“I thought he was very articulate and very well educated,” Ware said, “and I thought he had a good mind and good heart about writing a story."