Book: Sheer Will
Author: Michael Groom
Subject: Adventure, inspiration, mountaineering, travel
Why: Inspiration

The title of Sheer Will is a real spoiler alert because this book is all guts, determination and tenacity without the ego or glorification of mountaineering that often comes with it. But it’s also not a spoiler because you’re never quite sure what lies ahead in this tale of climbing the world’s highest peaks. The only thing you know for sure, before you’ve even finished chapter 1, is that this is a man not to be trifled with. Throw a big peak in front of him, remove half his feet (yes seriously!), take away the oxygen, add a snowstorm or blizzard, and you know Michael is going to give it everything he’s got.

If you read a single book about climbing in the world’s highest places, and particularly the 1996 Everest disaster, this should be it. Michael Groom’s expose on his many climbs is told simply, with no fuss despite both his numerous accomplishments and the dangerous situations he has often found himself in. That I like and maybe because he’s not only an Australian but from Queensland which is also my back yard where the highest point we have is but a pimple compared to Everest and where the elements are entirely different – heat, leeches or snakes being the common threats.

To illustrate this no nonsense approach here are the final words in the afterword and a video:

“When people say to me: how can you do so many things? I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel: How do you do so little? it seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life like it goes on forever.” Michael Groom, Brisbane, July 1996

Michael was the first Australian to climb Kangchenjunga in 1987, the world’s third highest mountain, without the use of bottled oxygen or Sherpa support. However this came at a cost and on the way down he suffered severe frostbite and lost a third of his feet. Facing life in a wheelchair, Michael used the sheer will he’d employed on his climbs to get back on his feet and climbing again. He later climbed Cho Oyu, Everest, K2, Lhotse and Makalu, all without oxygen and missing half his feet!

While the chapter on the role he played in the 1996 Everest climbing disaster is incredible, and his own role remarkable, it’s not the focus of the book by any means but will perhaps be one of the most well read parts of his story. It raises critical questions such as the role of a guide in helping inexperienced climbers (with money) to the summit and if anything could have been done differently that day.  Eight climbers died that day. Of all those who reached the summit, only Michael, and Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer, survived.

Pic: acla.com.au

Pic: acla.com.au

Michael eventually reached the top of the world’s five most challenging mountains; Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. He was the first Australian to do so and his story was made into a documentary by the Australian Film Corporation in 2000 that I have not seen. He now does speaking engagements around Australia.

I was sitting in a cafe sometime last year in Brisbane when a friend said to me, “there’s someone I want you to meet”. She bustled me over to a table where two men were sitting in cycling gear. One of them was Michael Groom. I would never have picked him out in a crowd despite pouring over the photographs in his book. I had imagined a giant of a man and somehow he didn’t look like someone who had climbed mountains. I’m not sure what I expected. I guess it was a revelatory moment along the lines of what’s on the inside that makes us giants amongst our fellow man. He was softly spoken and friendly. I had read his book some six months earlier, and as you do, passed it around to friends of a similar ilk who I knew would like the story. I told him as much, talked a little about Nepal that I know reasonably well, asked if he still trekked and wished him well.

Those few moments were a defining moment in putting the story together and making it that more special to me. But if you don’t get to meet Michael, I still recommend his book, and while you’re at it, send the publisher a note to reprint the book.

Here’s an excerpt from Sheer Will about surviving an avalanche on Everest:

Am I in heaven? Or have I checked into hell? I was only fooled for a few seconds as I looked up into the pale blue light, panic quickly overwhelming my momentary relief as the suffocating feeling returned. I struggled with my left arm to crack the 30 centimetres of snow and ice that trapped me from the outside world, simultaneously removing the packed snow from my mouth with my finger.

Stars: 4 out of 5

Read more book reviews here. And see images of Nepal on the database here.

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