Book review: ‘Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs,’ by Bob Craig
Special to the Daily
As the Summit County community is adjusting to a world without longtime local and Keystone Center founder Bob Craig, it is perhaps a good time to revisit “Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs,” his well-written and profoundly moving book about the tragic series of events that took place in 1974, high on the flanks of the remote Pamir mountain range deep within the Soviet Union.
Though no longer in print, the book is available online, and it is well worth searching out a copy, for not only is the story intense and captivating from start to finish, it gives a deep insight into the fascinating life Craig led throughout his long and illustrious mountaineering career. If ever there were an individual worthy of the descriptive — the man, the myth, the legend — then it is Bob Craig.
Already a veteran of the first American team to attempt K2, and with several first ascents under his belt, Craig joined the 1974 climb as deputy leader to the American team — one of the many national mountaineering teams invited to the Pamirs that season by the Soviets. He was a seasoned climber, familiar with the appeal of a challenge as well as with the bitter taste of tragedy. The Soviet Union of the 1970s was a bleak and fiercely proud nation, reluctant to allow prying and judgmental eyes within its highly monitored borders, so the opening of the remote peaks of the Pamirs to international expeditions was an historic opportunity for eager and ambitious climbers to tackle and lay claim to some first ascents.
Because of the lack of maps and photographs of the Pamirs, the climbers were unable to undertake the usual mental preparation that is most often a part of mountaineering. The team — many of whom were meeting for the first time — settled for some conditioning and equipment testing on the flanks of Mount Rainier. Teammates were selected based on “outstanding mountaineering skills, geographical diversity within the group and compatibility, cheerfulness and humor.” The leaders, Pete Schoening and Craig, also took into account unselfishness, an often-overlooked trait but an attribute that is vital when working within a team in stressful and often life-threatening situations.
Two women, Molly Higgins and Marty Hoey, were added to the roster, and the Americans would soon learn that the Soviets agreed that women were every bit as capable of climbing challenging peaks, a modern and surprisingly progressive view for the era. The Soviets had so much confidence in their athletic women that they approved an all female team of eight who would be attempting a difficult traverse of Peak Lenin, one of the most challenging and coveted summits in the Pamirs.
With so many unexplored mountains within hiking distance from Base Camp, the 160 climbers from the many countries who had been granted access fanned out in small alpine-style teams, each one eager to bag a first ascent. The weather window was small, so planning and execution had to be streamlined. The Americans split into groups, and the race to conquer was under way, but the obstacles were nearly immediate, for the snows tend to fall heavily in the Pamirs, creating dangerous avalanche conditions.
Though they were feeling strong and eager to get up high, the conditions for the climbers were rapidly worsening, with increasingly unstable snow conditions. The air was feeling leaden and heavy and warm with moisture, and the dropping pressure was oppressive, increasing the tension of the climbers. All the snow needed was a trigger to release the hellish tension in the unusually oppressive air.
The Pamirs are also in a region prone to earthquakes, increasing the dangers from tumbling snow, ice and rocks. It was unlucky timing that a tremor significant enough to be felt up high shook the teams on their various peaks and simultaneous calamitous events unfolded at once. Craig deftly details what his fellow teammates experienced, as climbers all across the mountains dealt with the aftermath of those few but powerful seconds of shaking. He incorporates other climbers’ personal diary accounts and observations, giving the story a very rich tapestry of the chaotic details of those initial moments and the subsequent tragic days.
Unaware of how the earthquake had impacted the climbers on Peak Lenin, Craig and his three companions were settled in their two tents on the flanks of Peak Nineteen when an avalanche hit, and Craig’s descriptions of those immediate and terrifying moments when he found himself buried inside the tent are agonizing and vivid. A suffocating nightmare unfolded, and Craig’s escape from death is riveting, as is the tragedy that befell one of his companions, who was not as lucky.
Despair and Perserverance
What follows is a truly amazing account of two nights of despair and perseverance, as the three remaining men awaited rescue for long hours in a frigid bivouac with no tent and what little bits of protection they were able to dig out of the debris. With no climbing gear left, they were forced to rely on a Soviet helicopter to airdrop some supplies so they could safely return to Base Camp, where shock of their ordeal gave way to grief for their lost friend.
The decision was made not to abandon the expedition in spite of the death of one of the climbers, but the temperamental mountains were determined to have the final word. Despite weather warnings and the unsettled condition of the snow, climbers from many national teams continued upward, including the Soviet women’s team and an international team of female climbers.
In spite of a major storm looming, the Soviet women made the inexplicable decision to camp on the summit of Peak Lenin instead of continuing their traverse, and Craig relates the events that unfolded in heartbreaking and intense detail. As Craig and his two companions were themselves recovering at Base Camp, they, and the others, could do little but listen over the radio as the women grew weaker and more disoriented, their bodies and minds succumbing to the crippling cold. Their determination to stay together was admirable, though it sealed their fates, for as they waited for one another to die, they slipped slowly into death themselves.
Further down the mountain, the storm continued to cause harm, reluctant to relinquish its hold on the mountains. What was meant to be a feather in the Soviet’s cap in the eyes of the international mountaineering community instead became a tragedy of epic and international proportions. Bob Craig returned to America with haunting nightmares and an unforgettable story to tell. “Storm and Sorrow” is a powerful tribute to the men and women who lost their lives during those days in the remote interior of Central Asia, and it is a stirring reminder of the adventurous reminder of the wonderful man who called Summit County his home for so many years.
Paul Cuthbertson, a lifelong local of Eagle and Summit counties, died while skiing up to the Polar Star Inn to meet some friends for a celebration of his 21st birthday on Friday night.