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Book Review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

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Mount Everest looms large over the world. It is the highest point on earth and, for nearly 100 years was an unattainable goal. After Sir Edmund Hillary conquered it with his Sherpa guides in 1953, it continued to attract record-seekers and intrepid mountaineering explorers. Thirty-five years later the world has changed the nature of climbing of the once barely attainable goal. Jon Krakauer, writing for Outside magazine, accompanied a “commercial” expedition during the ill-fated climbing season of 1996. Into Thin Air is his personal narrative of the calamitous storm that took so many lives and was so quickly communicated to the world. It is a powerful story.

As the 1980s and 1990s arrived the nature of climbing the mountain the Sherpas revere as a god changed drastically. Now the explorers were basically sated and the rich paid to be “guided” and assisted to the top. Mountaineers of different levels of competence and of responsibility formed companies to take “clients” to the summit. The mountain began to accumulate refuse, garbage, used air tanks and corpses. Only recently did some of the more responsible groups, particularly the commercial expeditions, begin to donate time and effort to haul some of the detritus down the mountain.

The spent oxygen bottles blighting the South Col have been accumulating since the 1950s, but thanks to an ongoing litter-removal program instigated in 1994 by Scott Fischer’s Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition, there are fewer of them up there now than there used to be. Much of the credit belongs to a member of that expedition named Brent Bishop (the son of the late Barry Bishop, the eminent National Geographic photographer who summitted Everest in 1963), who initiated a highly successful incentive policy, funded by Nike, Inc., whereby Sherpas are paid a cash bonus for each oxygen bottle they bring down from the Col… (It has resulted) … in the removal of more than eitht hundred oxygen canisters from the upper mountain from 1994 through 1996.

To the Sherpas and the serious mountaineer community the sacred mountain, Sagarmatha, is endangered by the new paying customers who are led to the top (when possible), assisted heavily by their guides and who often even walk without carrying packs. Their loads are carried for them by their guides and Sherpas. It is part of the modern world where the highest summit has been climbed and the new goals are undersea and in outer space. Even there, plans exist for the tourist industry to take over lower Earth orbits by shuttle and new, private spacecraft. Even the moon awaits an H.G. Wells dream.

To a non-mountaineer whose heart failure allows altitudes no more that 2900 feet, the desire to struggle to a mind-numbing, deadly, cold environment of 29,000 feet seems totally without logic. And yet, as they say when asked why they climb the highest (but not most beautiful) peak, “because it is there.” This obsessive quality and strangeness come through in the narrative by one of the summit-bitten, Jon Krakauer. Krakauer was assigned to the commercial expedition that was one of the worst affected by the sudden storm at the summit and the string of errors that led to numerous deaths. He was writing for Outside magazine about the commercialization of the mountain as well as fulfilling his lifelong dream of conquering the great mountain.

Krakouer’s narrative, explanation and expiation are based on a very direct involvement in the events of May 1996. He was there. He was a player. He is a skilled climber and was capable of being bitten by summit madness and suffered the physical infirmities that come with exertion at altitudes too high for the human animal to think clearly even if it does survive.

I was interested in the sights, sounds and tastes of Nepal and in the description of a climb on the mountain god. Still, I was astounded by the lack of beauty in the great attempts to both reach the top and, perhaps harder, to come back alive.

These were not people who climb the mountain and revel in the views, the light and the emotional response to being at the top of the world. Instead we see driven men and women single-mindedly (often selfishly) pushing on to a goal without regard for others or for themselves and oblivious in determination and the severe physical demands of the trip to the exclusion of even registering the sights of the climb except in small bits. It is not to be enjoyed but endured, not to be learned from but to plod to the top, look around and hope to come down alive. In 1996 a large number of climbers, clients and Sherpas did not come back alive. The story is a raw, powerful, fascinating and, ultimately, sad one. We leave Krakouer still trying to figure out his role and his mistakes in the affair as more participant than observer for a magazine.

An extremely interesting thread and an evocative one that permeates more of Krakauer’s book than I would have thought, is the history, culture and place of the Sherpas in Nepal, the region and on the mountain. This part is a taste only of their culture. It left me wanting more. But it still pleased me to read his respectful introduction to their lives. That would appear to be a new thread in the annals of the mountain’s explorers. There was always gratitude to the Sherpas since (as my old World Book application put it):

Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986), a Sherpa guide from Nepal, became one of the first two people to reach the top of Mount Everest and return. On May 29, 1953, Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand reached the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) top of the mountain. Their expedition had spent more than two months moving supplies and equipment up the mountain. The men spent 15 minutes at the summit. Tenzing had tried six times previously to reach the top of Everest.

Tenzing grew up in Thamey, a village in the Solo Khumbu, a district inhabited by Sherpa people in Nepal near the base of Mount Everest. The Sherpas had migrated to Tibet from Mongolia many years previously and then left Tibet to settle in the Solo Khumbu district. The Sherpas were known for their skill in mountain climbing. After his ascent with Hillary, Tenzing became internationally famous and a hero to the Sherpa and Nepalese people. He devoted the rest of his life to improving the way of life of the Sherpas.

It goes on to relate that the Sherpas probably migrated into Nepal and India from Tibet. Their language is similar to Tibetan and the religion, lamaism, a form of Buddhism, is part of the Tibetan culture. It is thought that they came to Nepal during the 16th century and have settled into a mostly agrarian life except for the growing development around Everest and the recent building of schools to bring their children into a more modern world. The population of Sherpas spread out into these three countries is about 25,000. Krakauer points out how important the climbing industry has been to their lives and economy.

Krakauer continues to say that Buddhism,

… as it is practiced in the high reaches of the Khumbu has a distinctly animistic flavor: the Sherpas venerate a tangled mélange of deities and spirits who are said to inhabit the canyons, rivers, and peaks of the region. And paying proper homage to this ensemble of deities is considered crucially important to ensure safe passage throught the treacherous landscape.

Some time ago I wrote of Edward Shackleton’s famous expedition to cross Antarctica by foot in the Endurance. This ill-fated failure of an expedition is famous for the bravery, valor, honor and its view of the best that man can muster. The expedition was ice-bound in thick, Antarctic ice for much of a year. Their leader, Shackleton, then led them in small boats huge distances across stormy seas and barren places until they found a desolate haven. He left the bulk of his men and set out on an epic test of seamanship until he reached a lonely whaling outpost. In spite of a heart attack and amputation done under primitive conditions and a year of extreme privation, Shackleton leads every one of his crew to safety beyond all odds. It is an incredibly uplifting story.

Into Thin Air is fascinating, factual and powerful. The difference may be a difference of eras. Krakauer writes of climbers besotted with desire to reach their goal blithely plodding by dying men and women without even stopping for a word or to share some water or oxygen. He describes a South African team led by a fraud that refuses to offer any help to fellow climbers fighting for their lives. He also describes an IMAX film crew nearing the end of a $5.5 million film who stop their activity to assist in the rescue and make available a cache of oxygen bottles that have been laboriously carried up to a higher camp for their attempt to summit the mountain.

The book is raw, powerful and filled with emotion. It reads with the immediacy of a magazine article and the emotion of a first-person narration. It is well worth the price of admission. It is not, however, an uplifting story. There are too many climbers’ errors, inhumane reactions and abdications of humane assistance to others. The story of a great failure can easily be more readable as well as more useful that one of a great success. The ramifications of failure may be more invasive than those of success.

Finally, Krakauer has taken us on an expedition not only to the roof of the world but to the depths of the modern soul. What happened to the great explorers and how did they become wealthy tourists of the extreme? How has the nature of society changed enough to produce the South African expedition that refuses to help people in danger of imminent death? How can human beings walk by others who are dying without stopping to help? Is reaching a summit previously reached so important? Where have the Shackletons gone? Where, Jon Krakauer, are we going as we try for new summits as well as revisiting ones that have long been conquered?

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