Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: book reviews, books, everest disaster, into thin air, jon krakauer, literature, mount everest
Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is a book I enjoyed partly because it’s a good book, really well-written and striking a good balance between history, description of the commercialization of climbing Everest, and frank assessment of things the author and others did that may have made the Everest disaster worst than it needed to be, and partly because it’s the first book I’ve read since finishing the Horrible, Awful Regional Spelling Bee I spent months putting together. It was also a great book to read for the sheer foreignness of what Krakauer was describing; I’m not a part of that group of people who climb mountains, either seriously or as paying clients, and the closest I can come to imagining conditions on Everest is by likening them to my personal experience. When I read about a wind chill temperature of – 100 F, all I can imagine is that it feels like the day I didn’t have gloves and bought groceries and how by the time I got home I couldn’t even feel my hands enough to untie my shoes, and had to race inside, plug in my heater, and defrost myself before unbuttoning my coat or taking off my sneakers.
So, I can’t imagine it at all.
Into Thin Air is of course Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, when eight people died while trying to reach the summit, or on their way down. Krakauer was a member of the veteran climber Rob Hall’s group, there to write an article about the commercialization of climbing Everest for Outdoors magazine. Krakauer’s main focus is the disaster and the events leading up to it, but he also writes about the history of climbing Mount Everest and some of the controversies surrounding it. For example, there’s a debate about whether climbs done with canisters of air “count” in the same way as unaided climbs, and many people in the climbing community look down on those climbers who work as commercial guides.
I may as well start by listing some of the now embarrassing misconceptions I had, or things I just didn’t now, before starting this book: that “Sherpa” is the name just for the native guides to the mountain; that Everest is, by dint of being the world’s tallest mountain, also the most technically difficult to climb; that only people who are really, really good climbers tackle Everest; that Everest is a world removed from the crass commercialization of things on our level.
Sherpas are the native guides to Everest, but they are also a group of people; that is, not all Sherpas are Everest guides. I felt especially stupid after reading this one.
The rest of my misconceptions I think can be excused because of the place Everest has in the collective conscious. Contrary to my belief, Everest isn’t removed from the commercial world, but rather is entangled in it by the desire of average people to be able to say that they climbed it, by the need of mountain climbers to have a more reliable source of income (however slight) than is afforded by sponsorships, and by the need of both Nepal and China to sell the expensive climbing licenses for Everest. As Krakauer writes near book’s end, one way of making Everest a safer mountain to climb would be by forbidding the use of gas; this would force climbers who aren’t truly capable of both reaching the top and getting down alive to turn back once they reach their natural limit. But, “[d]esperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries [Nepal and China] have a vested interest in issuing as many expensive climbing permits as the market will support, and both are unlikely to enact any policies that significantly limit their revenues” (356).
The same commercial concerns apply to the Sherpas who work on the mountain. Most live in the Khumbu, valleys on Everest’s southern slope. Krakauer writes that “[e]ntire valleys have been denuded of trees to meet the increased demand for firewood. Teens hanging out in Namche carrom parlors are more likely to be wearing jeans and Chicago Bulls T-shirts than quaint traditional robes. Families are apt to spend their nights huddled around video players viewing the latest Schwarzenegger opus” (57), but that it “seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque” (58).
Krakauer puts to rest, too, the idea that mountain climbing is a sport for thrill seekers, and that Everest in particular draws adrenaline junkies. Climbing Everest is, he writes, “a long tedious process,” which he documents in the book. For a month there are ascents to higher camps, then back to base camp, so the climbers can become acclimatized to oxygen levels (which at base camp are about half what they are sea level, and at the summit about a third). And the climb itself, even reaching the summit, is one largely unmarked by emotion. Instead, the physical strain of toiling upward in such, well, thin air, makes it impossible for climbers to do anything besides breathe and take one step, then another. As Krakauer writes, “climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.”* It was interesting to read about the climb in such detail, as it shattered a lot of my long-held (and totally uninformed) notions of what climbing a mountain like Everest entails.
Krakauer points to a number of reasons for the disaster. Among them he includes his own presence with one of the groups. No doubt having a reporter from a major magazine, in the mountaineering world, would add pressure to a guide to reach the summit; and further, as he writes, his guide Rob Hall had urged one of his clients from the previous year to return after missing the summit by only 300 feet. Hall was, all along, shaky on their turnaround time, whether they reached the summit or not (either one or two pm), but wound up staying on the summit far longer so that this repeat client could summit despite illness. There was, too, the dangerous clot of people trying to summit the mountain that day, over 30, which led to a number of traffic jams making it difficult for climbers to get up or down the mountain. At end the sum of these delays resulted in the deaths of those eight people.
I found Krakauer’s writing about the commercial aspects of climbing Everest interesting, but also his writing on the extreme ways in which guided climbs differ from the climbing he had done his whole life. Mountaineers have to depend on their team members, but in a guided climb you don’t know anything about the other people on your team or their climbing credentials. And on a mountain like Everest, the extensive work of laying lines and ladders for climbers to use has been done beforehand, so that climbers are just following orders and the marked path. Krakauer writes:
During my thirty-four-year tenure as a climber, I’d found that the most rewarding aspects of mountaineering derive from the sport’s emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal responsibility. When you sign on as a client, I discovered, you are forced to give up all of that, and more. For safety’s sake, a responsible guide will always insist on calling the shots – he or she simply can’t afford to let each client make important decisions independently. (219)
Krakauer never makes any firm statements as to what caused so many climbers to die that day on Everest, but he does explore a number of things that may have contributed to the disaster. And as he ultimately notes, the death toll on Everest for all of that year was actually slightly lower than normal. Shocking as the deaths may have been on that day, they ultimately were a reminder that no matter the skill of the guide, or the amount of preparation done by guide and client, not everything can be planned for when you are so far above the rest of the world.
So, a great read, and the perfect book for these two days. I’ve only read one other book by Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven, but I enjoy his work enough that I’ll have to head to the library in a year’s time to check out his others.
* One of many reasons I will probably never climb Everest or do a host of other “pain bearing” activities, like…