Book review: Savage Arena by Joe Tasker

“Every step was dogged by a presentiment of catastrophe, as if, out of the mists above, a white wave of death would engulf us.”

Is it time for a mountaineer to begin questioning his sanity when he reads a book by Joe Tasker and finds himself nodding in sympathy? I remember a conversation I had with the veteran British climber Ron Rutland on Cho Oyu last year, who was friends with Tasker and his climbing partner Pete Boardman. “They kept on winding it up and winding it up, and you could have written the story,” he told me, by which he meant Tasker and Boardman kept attempting more extreme routes until, inevitably, their luck ran out and they lost their lives.

Savage Arena is part of the Boardman Tasker Omnibus 4 book set
Savage Arena is part of the Boardman Tasker Omnibus 4 book set

Tasker delivered the typescript of Savage Arena to his publisher on the eve of his departure on the British Everest Expedition of 1982, in which he and Boardman disappeared somewhere along the Northeast Ridge while making a push for the summit. Since then the names Boardman and Tasker have become synonymous with extreme mountaineering and have been given to mountaineering literature’s most prestigious annual award the (yes, you guessed it) Boardman Tasker Prize.

Tasker’s climbing CV is as impressive as it can be for such a short life, and includes an ascent of the north face of the Eiger in winter, the first ascent of the west face Changabang in India, and a new route on Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain and one of the most difficult of all 8000 metre peaks. Savage Arena covers all of these successful climbs, as well as a number of other heroic failures.

After his first attempt to climb K2 in 1978, when his team left the mountain after one of their number, Nick Estcourt, was killed in an avalanche, Tasker made an abortive attempt to climb Nuptse in Nepal with Doug Scott and Mike Covington. Tasker has doubts about his motivation after this second failure and reflects thus:

“Conditions on the mountain seemed unanswerable and we turned back, but afterwards I could never be sure if I had pushed hard enough. Afterwards there was always the niggling doubt that I was not strong enough in resolve for when the going was rough, and the doubts undermined my intentions for the future.”

I remember having very similar feelings about my own climbing last year after retreating from Baruntse due to adverse weather conditions immediately after a similar failure to climb Cho Oyu. I reflected upon the incident in this blog, and it was a consolation to me to reflect that Joe Tasker, a man who could never be faulted for his commitment to the climb, experienced the same doubts.

K2 and the Godwin Austen Glacier from Concordia
K2 and the Godwin Austen Glacier from Concordia

But the balance between caution and commitment is one every mountaineer has to wrestle with, and we all draw the line in different places. Tasker’s was in a place few would dare to tread, and ultimately it led to his death. The climax of Savage Arena describes an ascent of the Abruzzi Ridge on K2, when he woke up inside his tent with Boardman and Dick Renshaw on a small promontory a little beneath the summit, suddenly aware that they were being avalanched. They struggled free with what equipment they could retrieve and spent 3 days retreating exhausted in storms down dangerously avalanche prone slopes before reaching the safety of base camp. Tasker is typically reflective on his return.

“The experience had rendered unimportant the other anxieties in life. Having been given back my life I felt no urgency any more, as if I had all the time in the world. Every moment was to be savoured, every sensation treasured and valued more than ever before.”

But this is where Tasker and his companions stand leagues ahead of the rest of us in terms of commitment to a climb. After such a horrific and exhausting experience, the comforts of civilisation beckon and are much deserved, but two days later, with a few days to wait before their porters arrived to carry their equipment back along the trail, the three of them decided to have another attempt.

There is a phrase I have often found myself uttering in recent years: the mountain will always be there next year. Wherever you draw the line, one fact is undeniable: Tasker and Boardman have left behind a legacy of mountaineering literature which has been made immeasurably richer by their determination and bravery.

Savage Arena is a mad, exciting and dramatic tale of adventure, highly recommended for all mountain lovers.

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One thought on “Book review: Savage Arena by Joe Tasker

  • April 14, 2011 at 11:06 am
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    Thanks for review! Savage Arena is the best climbing book I have read. This book combines thrilling adventures with Tasker’s personal reflections on why he pursued this dangerous sport. The manuscript was delivered to his publisher before his departure for Everest, where he disappeared. I highly recommend this book.

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