In 1938, when wealthy 43-year-old Dudley Wolfe agreed to climb K2 on the border of Pakistan and China, he had already challenged the power of the ocean and won, easily imagining this new adventure as related to him by German-American Fritz Wiessner. The words “I’m going to die here” had no place in this man’s vocabulary, until he found himself at nature’s mercy on the icy slopes of K2 months later. Dudley readily fell under the spell of Wiessner, a man of small stature but great ambition who desperately needed Dudley’s fortune and reputation behind the venture, the successful scaling of K2 Fritz’s key to future financial success.
Wiessner promised much - reputable guides, expensive equipment - but by the time the climb began at the base of the mountain, many assumptions had proven moot, and the cost of the expedition was a growing issue between the group and Dudley. As the group assembled, high on excitement fueled by the mentality of college pranksters, Fritz realized that his team may be seriously lacking in experience. Wolfe was at the older end of the spectrum, solid but untested in climbing, the other members young and unaware of the serious dangers ahead.
There was not only a cultural disparity in this team of climbers – Wolfe, the wealthy man everyone turned to in times of financial crisis - but between “sahibs” and bearers, sherpas untrained to make critical decisions on their own, second-class citizens to these adventurers. While Dudley dreamed of meeting this new challenge, the younger men were distracted by nights of drinking and carousing, hangovers blighting their mornings. It became increasingly clear that while Fritz demanded the respect of a leader, he could do little to dampen the dissent in camp, keeping his own counsel and making decisions like a dictator.
For sixty-five years, the body of Dudley Wolfe remained on K2 until its discovery, the controversy about his fate and that of three Sherpas left to interpretation and the self-serving reports of those who returned unscathed. Dudley remains the mysterious figure, the adventurous son of a wealthy family who followed his muse when such undertakings were the stuff of legend. But who was at fault for Dudley’s fate, his snowy grave atop a desolate mountain? Certainly Wiessner was obsessed with ambition and unable to lead a disparate group who failed to appreciate the dangers of such an expedition, a lark that became a test of endurance and, finally, impossible. Fritz’s demands and orders turned the others against him, his inability to care for Dudley in distress.
Particularly interesting is Jordan’s detailed description of the physical demands of such a climb, the “death zone” at 12,000 feet, where the high altitude affects thinking and mobility. Decisions there are impaired by mental aberrations, disorders exacerbated by a lack of oxygen as a backup for the problems of altitude. A tragic, dramatic story, Dudley Wolfe is finally put to rest in a book that explores the limitations of ambition when faced with nature’s implacability.