Tuesday, October 17, 2006

High, Cold, and Dead

Title: Into Thin Air
Author: Jon Krakauer

Jan Krakauer’s Into Thin Air may be the only non-fiction book that I’ve read more than once. I first read it as a college sophomore and was so engrossed that I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it in one day. Bad choice. I was so horrified and freaked that I don’t think I really slept that night at all.

I didn’t sleep after finishing it this time either. I just kind of lay wrapped up in my blankets and shivering – even though the heat was on and my room was a toasty 75 degrees.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s personal account of the 1996 disaster upon Mount Everest, a season when a record breaking 15 climbers died on those fabled slopes. A correspondent for Outside magazine, Krakauer was sent as a client on Rob Hall’s expedition to cover the commercialization of Everest. (In addition to the numerous frozen corpses, there are also piles of human feces and discarded oxygen canisters up there.) The fact that a writer of Krakauer’s caliber happened to be there when the disaster unfolded – and lived through it to tell the tale – is remarkable. I’d say that we were lucky to have his story, except that what happened was all so horrible.

Reading this book is the equivalent of running a marathon in a blizzard – exhausting, scary, and numbing. Krakauer’s writing is simple and straightforward, very strong and direct. The reader is transported to the Southern Col, huddling in a wind-whipped nylon tent while suffering from any number of physical ailments brought on by the freezing temperatures and high altitude. (An interesting fact included in the book is that a human taken from sea level and transferred directly to the summit of Everest without being acclimated will die within minutes from lack of oxygen and the thin atmosphere.) One of the more interesting things about Krakauer’s account is its ambiguity – since pretty much everyone there was suffering from hypoxia, there were delusions and mistaken identities and contrasting accounts of what happened. There’s controversy over how accurate his version is, but I think that just adds to the fascination of the tale.

I don’t know anything about mountain climbing except that it scares the hell out of me. It’s not a height thing, because I can climb trees like none other. I think it’s the loss of control, the fact that the only thing keeping you from plunging into your next existence as the morning special at IHOP is a harness and a rope that may or may not have been manufactured by a disgruntled worker in a Third World sweatshop. Unreasonably paranoid, I know, but I can’t help it. I guess I just don’t trust like that.

So for me, Into Thin Air is the ultimate real world horror story about not being in control of your environment. Forget the lethally cold weather, forget the possibility of plunging into crevasses, and forget the possibility of having a block of ice crush your chest in – simply being that high up can kill you. It’s the altitude that does it, the thin atmosphere, and you won’t know whether you’re susceptible or not until you get there.

Bottom line, there’s only so much you can prepare for up there. In fact, several of the people who died that year were experienced guides and climbers who had previously summated on multiple occasions. Sure they made some pretty dumb mistakes, but they also ran into a lot of simple bad luck.

So Into Thin Air comes highly recommended. I found the re-reading experience just as engrossing and terrifying as the initial journey. And Krakauer’s account isn’t all sheer adventure writing, he also gives you numerous interesting tidbits of mountaineering lore and history.

Ultimately, however, the main question is whether amateur climbers should even be allowed on Everest, and whether it’s moral/right/safe for those with the immense time and resources to blow to pay someone to haul their ass up to the world’s summit. I’m rather conflicted on the issue, but there’s one thing I do know for sure – my own frozen ass is one thing you’ll never find up there.

posted by Elizabeth at 8:25 PM


Blogger reyn said...

ket, I am holding yo upersonally responsible for Elizabeth's lack of knowledge concerning climbing gear.

Unfortunately, Everest is over commercialized, and people who climb it are very inconsiderate about leaving things (O2 bottles, feces, trash, frozen corpses of climbing party members) on the mountain. Everest should not be open to anyone with the money to charter a sherpa--Everest should belong to those who have spent their lives physically and mentally preparing to climb to the top of the world.

10/18/2006 12:34 PM  
Blogger ~e said...

reyn - why not just buy the mountain?

then you could set up an application and qualification process. people would die less often, and you could be an shadowy, omnipotent figure controlling a sweet piece of property.

10/18/2006 12:43 PM  
Blogger reyn said...

Why do you think I stopped wasting my money on food?? I've ALWAYS wanted to be a shadowy, omnipotent figure with a mountain!!

(instead of a shady, impotent figure living in a molehill)

10/18/2006 2:00 PM  

Post a Comment