Into Thin Air

Suggested by Brad Nelson • A tale of the train-wreck of people, places, and circumstances that led to the death of eight climbers caught in a blizzard near the top of Mount Everest. This is written by a journalist, Jon Krakauer, who made the trip to the top and lived to write the story.
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7 Responses to Into Thin Air

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 67% into this so I can confirm the high reviews that this book receives on Amazon. Mt. Everest has become a traffic jam of people and I’m not so sure that Krakauer didn’t write this book to deter climbers — professionals or otherwise. He notes the attempts by some (including especially Rob Hall) had worked to clean things up. But there are desiccated bodies, garbage, and used oxygen tanks strewn all over.

    I wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of Everest after reading this. And this has nothing to do with the physical hardships, per se, or the dangers of frostbite, avalanches, or falling boulders — all of which pertain to other climbs as well that, if I had the skill and gumption, I might very much enjoy doing. Conditions on Everest — all the base stations and villages leading up to it — are a complete unhealthy dive. It’s as if the route to Everest was sponsored by ClubDead. The details of the excursion are stomach-turning.

    They have boat cruises now that focus on taking a couple weeks for fitness and health. A trip to Everest — even by experienced climbers — is exactly the opposite. It’s a trip to wreck your health…whether you reach the top or not.

    Granted, usually the climbers are young and fit and will recover — sometimes minus a few toes. But it’s hard to believe there isn’t more permanent damage being done. And none of this is touched on directly by the author. These are my conclusions. Obvious conclusions, although a third of the book (the killing storm has just hit) is left and surely the author will offer various opinions and analysis.

    So far, I think Krakauer has done an honest and objective job of describing this. He even notes a time or two what (by agreement — a couple “off the record” conversations) he’s left out. And although guided climbs of Everest have been successfully done (and surely still are), the lack of just basic professionalism on this one is stunning. It’s a clusterfuck. The one biggest thing they had to abide by was the time to turn back. It’s akin to Neil Armstrong trying to land the Eagle on the moon. There was a definite cut-off point where he had to abort or they would be stranded on the moon.

    The “professional” tour guides (there were several guided climbs on the mountain at the time) all failed in this regard. A couple of the climbers who paid 25,000 or more for this guided/assisted climb of Everest had the good sense to turn back because it was getting late.

    I hope in the final pages that Krakauer will give more opinion and analysis along with his detailed description because what analysis he has offered has been pretty good. For instance, in terms of Everest, he says the motivation isn’t an “adrenaline rush” as with sky diving, bungie jumping, zip lines, etc. He notes that, in the case of Everest at least, it’s about as far from that as you can get from a rush. It’s just a dull beat-down endurance test. Yes, some areas require some skill, but on these guided tours, everything is done for the clients. They’ll even be pulled (as one gallant Sherpa did to some chick who shouldn’t have been anywhere near Everest) up the slope if necessary. All supplies are carried by the Sherpas. All the ropes are pre-strung on the routes for clipping onto. (Except, in this case, when they didn’t for some reason near the top.)

    Interestingly, some of the clients had the good sense to turn back while the professionals screwed up badly. One of the tour leaders/owners (Mountain Madness was the company name) was so sick with some kind of lingering parasitical disease that he shouldn’t have been anywhere near the mountain in the first place.

    I don’t want to just right this off as machismo or ego. There is that, as well as the competitive spirit. There’s also the feeling of camaraderie, of shared purpose. But as Krakauer expertly and frankly notes, even this goes missing on Everest. These guided climbs change the whole dynamic. And it really becomes a hodgepodge of everyone for himself with little spirit of shared adventure.

    Apparently George Mallory was annoyed by the pestering journalists when he said “Because it’s there” in answer to a question of why he wanted to climb Everest. But it’s a wholly inaccurate answer. (I assume he gave more accurate reasons and was simply ignored.) But as to the “why,” you can come to your own conclusion after reading this. “Death wish” comes to mind. And certainly many of them want the bragging rights. That may be 3/4 of it right there. It has nothing to do with enjoying the experience because to a man (or woman) the were all completely miserable.

    I think, too, they are looking for some kind of transcendent experience. No stigma need be attached to the adventurous spirit. That’s what built America. But Krakauer noted more than once that many of the professionals who signed up as “clients” on these guided/managed climbs had a wife, kids, and a very successful business. They would leave their families and businesses for months at a time. Normal life was so mundane to them that the call of the mountain couldn’t be resisted while admonitions from their own wives were easily ignored. Everest, in particular, is a quest, not a mountain to climb, per se.

    I say, light a candle in a church and say a prayer — and then climb some challenging mountain closer to home with your best buds if what you need is a lift of spirit, a challenge, and the meaning of life. I fail to see how you get it from the human misery factor that is (at least in 1996) the Everest experience. It’s actually a degrading tail of what one has to go through.

    Kraukauer does bring up the issue of himself — the media — and how it might have spurred the guide leaders on to recklessness. I should first note that both major tour guide leaders (Hall and another guy named Scott Fischer) were briskly competing which each other to make a deal with Kraukauer’s magazine. Hall won the bidding war. Publicity and advertising was a regular fact of life for these companies which charged in the tens of thousands of dollars for a guided trip (up Everest or other mountains). It was an elite clientele and there was a necessity to connect with it. Therefore, although understandable, I don’t agree with the following Amazon review and place zero blame on the climber/journalist Kraukauer. Besides, every group up there was publicity seeking as well — communicating with ground staff who updated their blogs, wrote newspaper accounts, etc. This sounded like business as usual. Nevertheless, there is this following point of view:

    However, I must note that the book itself – or rather, the Outlook article which was responsible for Krakauer’s presence on this expedition in the first place – is the real reason so many people died on the mountain that day. Had the expedition leaders not been competing for the attention of Outlook readers, this probably would not have happened; they were seasoned veterans of the mountain and would not, I am sure, made such an elementary mistake as not turning back by the agreed hour. This proved fatal for several people. Krakauer, to his eternal shame, tried to blame this debacle on the other group’s Russian guide. Who, as he admits, went out in a blizzard on his own to save his clients and brought them down single-handed. And showed a lot more empathy than Krakauer himself.

    Again, there were many independent expeditions (guided tours) on the mountain at the time — as well as a few small groups or individuals who were on their own. Did this reviewer read the book? The group from South Africa (more Nelson Mandela foolishness) was an accident waiting to happen, as was Fischer’s group because he was sick and wouldn’t tell anyone.

    Probably this kind of traffic jam on the top of the mountain, as well as bad organizational logistics and decision-making, had happened before (perhaps often) and they got away with it. But this time a violent storm came out of nowhere and hit them. It will be interesting to read Kraukauer’s analysis.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Someone reviewed this in FOSFAX, but I haven’t read it. The closest I’ve come to reading a book about mountain climbing was Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction, which not only has a great deal of climbing scenes but discusses the history of trying to climb the Eiger (which is German for “ogre”, and for good reason). This was made into a superb Clint Eastwood movie (including some great scenery as well as the usual qualities of an Eastwood film). Great Exploration Hoaxes does have a chapter about a hoax climb of a very difficult mountain in Patagonia.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      This book has a general-reader amount of detail regarding climbing (“general reader” as defined, say, in the 1950’s or 60’s, not today). I might watch the movie but it’s not really worth four bucks to me to rent it. We’ll see.

      There’s a Texan in the author’s party who the author notes was outspokenly conservative. (It’s likely the author is blind to how outspoken his fellow liberals are, 24/7.) Anyway, it was amusing to read that this Texan made mincemeat out this libtard’s comment that he thought raising the minimum wage was a good idea. The author said he pretty much stayed out of the path of this Limbaughesque character after that.

      Later in the book he noted that this Texan turned out to be a really good and reliable guy. But the author noted that the Texan certainly didn’t like Hillary. (The libtard author might have then started listening to what the Texan had to say. He would have learned something.)

      The general gist of this book leaves me with a sour impression of mountain climbers. I think they are physical activity narcissists. Something about them doesn’t sit right.

      Still, I too appreciate climbing mountains, if very modest ones by comparison. There’s much to be said for getting outdoors and gaining a little altitude. But the guided tours on Everest sound like no fun at all. It’s dirty, crowded, expensive, and unhealthy. To go to these lengths (many weeks and months as well) just to get the modern equivalent of a gold star seems shallow. Also, remember most of these guys had family. And mountain climbing — particularly Everest — is dangerous. There’s a degree of distasteful selfishness involved in this.

      I haven’t watched The Eiger Sanction in years. Now would be a great time for a re-viewing.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I’m not sure they could do it today given how Miles Melloughs comes off — a stereotypical homosexual who deservedly comes to a bad end. The book is a tad nicer to him, since his dog stays with him when Jonathan Hemlock maroons him in the desert miles from anywhere. You can guess how grateful he was — the dog kept him from getting as hungry as he would have been. But his problem was mainly lack of water, not food.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ll note about this book that I returned it to the library at about the halfway point. This is just when disaster struck. It went from being an adventure novel to one more useful for a court proceeding. The author painfully was reconstructing every movement. Who was where, when, amid all the confusing and differing reports. In essence, it got really boring. Maybe the book recovered from its own blizzard of minutia but I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

    I’ve since went onto another adventure book, The Lost City of Z. This is the kind of account that would be enjoyed by fans of Conan Doyle or H. Rider Haggard novels.

    The gist of it is that there was a famous British explorer on par with Stanley, Scott, or Shackleton who I had never heard of: Percy Fawcett. He spent a decade and a half exploring the Amazon (mostly the far western parts). The long and the short of it is that he disappeared while exploring which included a general search for the Lost City of Z.

    And then dozens were lost trying to pick up the trail of Fawcett. And now author David Grann is mounting an expedition to sort this all out. Because the book does exist, we can assume he made it back. But it’s really (so far…36% into it) an interesting account of Fawcett, his times in regards to the emphasis on manly exploration, and the hardships involved.

    It’s easy to forget that these guys did this for fun. But the hardships were enormous. It’s hard to believe so many kept coming back. But they did. An interesting fact about Fawcett is that he had some kind of super immune system. He never (so far as we know) succumbed to yellow fever, malaria, or a number of other jungle fevers. He was susceptible as any man to poison frogs, poison plants, poison snakes, and poison arrows. But even then it is said he seemed to have a Jedi-like sense for avoiding most of these dangers.

    There’s an interesting account (the section I just finished) of a British scientist who was on one of Shackleton’s excursions and thus made a name for himself. I think it was James Murray. Anyway, he got together with Fawcett to go on an expedition in the Amazon. And the author notes that the jungle is quite a different proposition from frozen lands. These were like two superstars of the time. But Murray wasn’t in particularly good shape. And he had remained mostly at base camp while Shackleton’s team did the tough stuff.

    Well, long story short, Fawcett was renowned for setting quite a rugged pace in the jungle. Murray couldn’t keep up and became a physical and emotional drag on the whole party. Fawcett’s rule was that if a man became disabled, he’d have to be abandoned. But Fawcett bent his own rule and led him to an outpost where he was dropped off.

    Months passed and Murray was never heard from. Everyone presumed he was dead. But he was at a lone shack on the frontier where a husband and wife nursed him back to health. He should have never been on this expedition at all but it’s really astonishing the pull of adventure on some. Anyway, Murray later went on an arctic expedition and the ship he was on became icebound. Murray was part of a faction who mutinied against the captain. They took some sleds and set off on their own. They were never heard from again but the captain was able to get the remaining party to safety.

    Anyway, whether talking Murray or Fawcett or Stanley, many of these explorers were a real piece of work.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I checked on wikipedia, and it seems some reviewers consider Grann rather credulous. It’s a pity I never got the book even so, and it might also have fit in with Great Exploration Hoaxes. After all, one of the chapters in that book is on a real explorer, James Bruce. His reports on his visit to Ethiopia were so different from what people expected that they were considered hoaxes — until, decades later, people went in and not only found that things were much as he said, but also that there were Ethiopians who remembered Bruce. Of course, The Lost City of Z came out later, but that’s just a little detail.

      Incidentally, the search for Fawcett was the inspiration for The Road to Zanzibar. Some people may have gotten far afield in searching for a man who disappeared in the Amazon jungles.

      There are plenty of James Murrays in wikipedia, but no explorers. Pity. That story about his mutiny sounds a bit familiar, and it would be nice to check up on it.

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