Monday, June 04, 2007

...but then I got high

Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer

In the spring of 1996, Mt. Everest claimed twelve lives. Jon Krakauer was there at the beginning, when the mountain known as Sagarmatha to the locals took the first victims of the year, including two experienced guides, both of whom had summitted before.

Krakauer happened to be on that trip to document a more standard ascent of Everest for Outside magazine. Thus is made an important point: there is no such thing as a standard ascent of Everest.

Into Thin Air examines Everest from all angles long before documenting the events of May 1996, starting from the discovery (by very careful trigonometry--go, math!) that it was the world's highest peak and the near-immediate decision by a long line of adventurers to try to reach what became known as The Third Pole. Many turned back. A few died in the attempt, including some very accomplished and well-known alpinists.

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about whether the peak has become too commercialized, reduced to an instrument of commerce for the countries of Nepal and China, and the guide companies who escort their clients to the top. Are too many people visiting Everest? Will the trash they leave behind forever sully this dominating landscape? Have guide companies made it too easy, too accessible, and too commonplace to reach the summit? These are questions of not just fact and consequence, but ethics and spirit. If it becomes too easy to climb the most imposing mountain on our planet, then how will true mountaineers distinguish themselves from the rich tourists? And if the mountainside becomes littered with discarded oxygen bottles, will anyone still want to visit?

None of these stones are left unturned; Krakauer has doen extensive research and interviews to provide background, history, and haunting medical information about the effects of high-altitude climbing on people in general, and his party in particular. Most of the people who have recommended the book to me or saw me reading it somewhere have remarked that it would change my mind about ever wanting to climb Everest. In a way, they were right, but not for the reasons they thought: I was never that interested in climbing Everest. Part of me did for the same reason as Hillary--I hadn't done it, and it seemed like a unique venture, so why not? But the rest of me was disappointed that it had become so commercialized. It seemed that any reasonably fit person with the time and money to devote to the trip could do it, and in fact at least one of the expert guides detailed in the book makes the same claim. The people who told me to read the book expected that it would convince me not to climb. It should have. The experiences of the parties on the mountain from May 10-11 of 1996 were harrowing. Hell, just reading the book is enough to make you want to hide somewhere at tropical sea level with a blanket and a hot mug of something tasty.

Instead, it made me want to rise to that challenge. Perhaps it's my stubborn, determined nature, or my inherent deisre to do all the things I haven't yet done and see all the places I haven't yet been. Maybe it's some underlying self-destructive tendencies, because the strongest impression the book gave me was that even on a good day, even in the best of conditions, you don't climb Everest so much as pick a month or two to allow the mountain to slowly try to kill you. It robs you of sleep, oxygen, energy, heat, brainpower, and will. You hunger but can't keep anything down. You tire but can't sleep. You thirst, but have to melt snow before you can drink anything, and the entire time winds try to force you off the arete, snow and ice block your passage and assail you from the heavens, clouds obscure your vision, and when the sun does make it through, the reflection off of all the towers of ice threaten to cook your brains out of your head. The thinner atmosphere allows solar radiation to pummel and blind you even as it slows your progress with slow suffocation. Low oxygen levels mean more than gasping for air; it means you're more vulnerable to all of the mountain's previously mentioned threats, and your hypoxia-addled mind has even more trouble than usual handling those dangers. Ironically, the book made me want to climb Everst, just to see how far I can push myself. When you get right down to it, it's the only reason anyone climbs it. For that matter, it's the main reason I do almost anything.

Equally interesting to me was the epilogue and extended afterword (I read the 1999 printing) which detailed the aftermath not only in the lives of the survivors and the victims' families, but in Krakauer's extended literary debate with Anatoli Boukreev (one of the guides) and G. Weston DeWalt (an author who wrote Boukreev's story of the same incident), which raises questions of responsibility, fault (yes, those two are different), and journalistic ethics. Boukreev and DeWalt argue that Boukreev is without blame in the deaths on Everest, and disagree with Krakauer on some key points. Krakauer, though he mentions where Boukreev may have gone wrong, is also quick to point out throughout the book that Boukreev also played the role of hero, playing a vital role in rescuing at least two climbers. Krakauer is also needlessly hard on himself. He makes it absolutley clear, repeatedly, that he feels the deaths of two climbers (and emotional trouble for the loved ones of one of those climbers) is directly due to his own inactions. But for all the great deeds he performed during the climb, which played key roles in saving many other climbers, he only mentions them as a matter of course, as part of a complete recording of facts. DeWalt mentions only Boukreev's heroism, and then proceeds to defame Krakauer's character at every opportunity, even after Boukreev and Krakauer reconcile.

Jon Krakuer knows that the events of that climb will always haunt him, coated in the guilt he carries. After reading his story, it is only too clear why, though I feel he's too hard on himself. Such is the burden of survivors. Jon, I hope you can find some kind of peace. And maybe some day I'll have the opportunity to meet you and tell you in person that you saved more lives than you lost.

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posted by reyn at 6:17 AM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Oh, I'm so glad you read this! I wasn't sure before whether you had, and it really is a fantastic book, one of the most memorable I've ever read. Hurrah!

The commercialization question is fascinating. I think I've come to the conclusion that while Everest's commercialization is not the best thing, I would feel rather hypocritical criticizing it too strongly. Nepal and China own the mountain, and they can exploit it as they will. It's sad to lose the mystique, but it's no worse than what the Western world has done with its own lands. Once upon a time, America was a land of wonder and mystery as well.

And even though it is easier for individuals to reach the peak nowadays, there's still the challenge and prestige of summitting without oxygen, etc. So the opportunity still remains for so-called "true mountaineers" to distinguish themselves.

I really liked this sentence of yours: " don't climb Everest so much as pick a month or two to allow the mountain to slowly try to kill you." A very apt description of the climbing process. *shivers*

Although I admire your desire to perhaps one day rise to Everest's challenge, I guess you can count me among the many people whom Krakauer's book scared off of the mountain for good. (Not that there was any chance of me ever getting there. If I really wanted to see how far my body could go, an ultramarathon would be my choice.) Something that struck me about Krakauer's account was the moment when he finally summitted, and was too dazed from hypoxia and the exertion to really feel his accomplishment. It seemed like such a numbing process. Is it really worth it?

I agree with you that Krakauer seems to give Boukreev his due. I haven't read any other accounts, but I didn't feel, while reading Into Thin Air, that Krakauer ever annointed himself hero or demonized others. The book read as very balanced, and he admitted the possibility of perception errors.

And finally, because this comment is getting uber long..."high society." *snorts* That's fantastic!

You should read Krakauer's Into the Wild as well. Now that's a book to stir up controversy!

6/04/2007 9:58 PM  
Blogger reyn said...

Just as I was thinking that my post was far too long, I get a response nearly as lengthy. HA!

(I really loved that sentence, too. It went through many revisions since I first came up with it about halfway through the book.)

As long as my post was (and as un-review-y), it didn't cover nearly as much as I wanted to. I had borrowed it from the Quack, and we had a lengthy discussion about it as soon as I returned the book to his desk. Like most of our discussions, there was a break to "do work" for a couple hours, then we picked it right back up again without either of us even mentioning that the topic was reopened.

6/05/2007 6:13 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Well, it is such a great book to chat about, and well-worthy of a lengthy review. It seemed like everyone I knew in undergrad had read it or at least heard of it, and it was always coming up someway or another in conversation.

6/05/2007 9:04 PM  

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