“Savage Summit” by Jennifer Jordan: This tortured tale follows five women through extraordinary achievements and cataclysmic failures in their pursuit of the world’s second-highest peak, K2 in the Himalayas. Until last summer, they were the only women to stand atop the 28,268-foot mountain; they also had been dead at least six years.
That last fact is just one insurmountable obstacle for Jordan in her quest to expose the sexist world of mountain climbing and its forgotten heroines. The former National Public Radio personality jumped onto the frozen trail of a feminist “Into Thin Air” after the death of Chantal Mauduit in 1998. The Frenchwoman had reached the summit in 1992, the year that Wanda Rutkiewicz died. She was the first woman atop K2, in 1986, and the only other woman to survive the summit. Liliane Barrard (1986), Julie Tullis (1986) and Alison Hargreaves (1995) succumbed to temperatures dozens of degrees below zero, 100-mph winds, and insufficient food, water and oxygen on the way down.
Jordan captures those impossible conditions but falls short with the women themselves. They are unsympathetic characters and feel as thin as the air above 25,000 feet. Jordan’s most moving passage shows Tullis dreaming of the husband and children she left in England as she drifts into death. But it’s nothing more than Jordan’s vision of another woman’s noble final thoughts. We’ll never know what Tullis was thinking, and after reading “Savage Summit,” we still don’t understand what drove her and the other four women to give their lives to climbing.
Rating: Wait for the movie. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)