Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: alexander supertramp, book review, books, christopher mccandless, into the wild, jon krakauer, literature
During my two years as a writing tutor at Rutgers I spent a lot of time talking about Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp. An excerpt of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was one of the texts in the expository writing textbook, and also one of the most popular pieces in the book. Every single underpaid grad student teaching expos assigned their students one or two essays on this excerpt, so that for one or one-and-a-half months each semester I spent six hours a day asking my students such probing questions as, “Why did McCandless go into the wild? What can you find away from other humans? What does it mean that even when he was in the wild he was living in a bus?”
It’s one of the stranger things about that kind of work that, now that I’ve actually read Into the Wild, I think it’s best that I hadn’t even read the excerpt at the time I was helping my students. For two years I asked my students the kinds of questions about this text that you need to ask in order to write a paper for an expository writing class, but that I would have had a harder time asking if I’d read more than a few scattered sentences from Krakauer’s work.
Almost inevitably a review of this book comes down to a response to McCandless’s actions and his travels. Anyone who reads my blog regularly can see that Krakauer has, over the past six months, become my “Go To Adventure Writer;” clearly I’ve got no qualms with his writing style. His choices in Into the Wild are as solid as ever, and even those parts that sounded questionable when I began reading (like that he would write a fairly extensive segment on his own youthful Incidents of Hubris) work when taken in the context of the narrative as a whole. Krakauer rightly understands that not everyone will understand why a privileged 22-year-old guy would, after graduating college, donate the full contents of his bank account and take off without so much as a goodbye or warning to his family, to spend two years traveling the United States in car and then by foot, avoiding any and all deeper connection with the people he met along the way, until winding up in Alaska where he would starve to death. Writing about his climb of the Devils Thumb in Alaska as a 23-year-old, Krakauer gets at the mindset that might have gripped McCandless at times, without committing that horror show error of stating, “This is who McCandless was and what he thought.”
Given Krakauer’s solid writing, my reading of it might best be documented by paraphrasing the back and forth of my Armchair Traveler mind. But to give a little away, Krakauer does a good job as ever in this book; it provides a far fuller picture of McCandless’s life, travels and errors than does the film, so that my poor opinion of the kid has faded over the few days I spent reading Into the Wild.
Adventure Ellen: Chris McCandless has abandoned all the useless and limiting trappings of modern existence to go Into the Wild. I too would like to go Into the Wild.
Sofa Ellen: Isn’t that why you joined the Peace Corps? Some day you will delete your Peace Corps blog so no one knows you spent two years drinking coffee and reading, and will tell adventurous stories of your time in Macedonia. Remember that time you waited all alone on the side of the road in the freezing rain waiting for a kombi or ride back to Debar? For two hours? Now that’s an adventure!
Adventure Ellen: But before I do so, I should be sure not to highlight any “meaningful” passages in books I am reading, so as not to guide people into crafting elaborate theories on my mindset or sexual practices. The reader’s version of putting on clean underwear before heading outdoors. Just in case.
Sofa Ellen: Christopher McCandless spent two years traveling around the country doing things that probably should have killed him but owing to sheer luck didn’t, until something did. He also ate a lot of rice and wild game. Are you prepared to do that?
Adventure Ellen: When I am done with the Peace Corps, I will travel India for two months. I will journey to Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam. I will experience the life of the people. Then I will go home and hike the Appalachian Trail.
Sofa Ellen: The last time you went on a hike it was three hours long and you complained the entire time. You said your ears hurt and you were tired. Maybe you don’t want to admit that Christopher McCandless was made of sterner stuff than you are.
Adventure Ellen: Sure he died, but before he did he explored the country in a way few of us will ever do. He shot animals and ate them. He read meaningful books. He wrote postcards to many people he met on his journeys, but never to his parents. He crossed into Mexico by riding a canoe through a dam. After I hike the Appalachian Trail I will take a cross-country road trip.
Sofa Ellen: You don’t own a car, and besides, whatever trip you take will be the opposite of McCandless’s. You will sleep in hotels and eat real meals. As stupid as some people think McCandless was for dying in Alaska in the summertime several miles from a river crossing that would have led him back to civilization, you are more stupid. You could not survive for a week in the Alaskan wilderness, let alone sixteen. What are you thinking?
Adventure Ellen: Maybe he died, but he lived more fully in the two years before dying than I ever will. I do not want to go back to America and work in an office for the rest of my life. I want to travel the world seeing new things and being awed by the sheer beauty of our world. I do not want to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I want to live off the land and experience my body as a Strong and Capable Instrument of Movement rather than as a receptacle for Macedonian snack foods.
Sofa Ellen: How is it that you’ve just finished reading a book about a boy who died while escaping modern society and “experiencing the natural world” and still want to imitate him?
Adventure Ellen: Americans were built to travel. Why do you think we all want to go on the Great American Roadtrip? We were built to head west, and I can no longer tamp down my desire to see The World that Exists Outside the Trappings of our Society and All its Rules. I want to experience the world as it really is!
Sofa Ellen: Did you learn nothing from this book? Even McCandless didn’t escape the “trappings of society” while he was in Alaska. He was mere miles from markers of society that would have saved his life. He lived in a bus. He read books. You can do your best to ignore the human world by pretending it is not there, like he did, but there is nowhere you can go anymore where you will not run into markers of civilization.
Adventure Ellen: I will hike the Appalachian Trail.
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…