Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I just finished this intense personal account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster.  More than half of the book is primarily exposition and background information on the sport of mountaineering and on the individuals involved.  Then once they've reached 8,000 meters (approx. 26,000 ft) and things start getting dicey with the oncoming gale, the books starts getting seriously tense and I couldn't put it down.  While, the book is engrossing and truly an important warning for any inexperienced climber harboring romantic notions of reaching the roof of the world, this should serve as a sobering realization that Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha) is no small feat that relies not merely on technical skill and experience but also interminable will, self-discipline (to turn back around at the agreed-upon time even within a stone's throw of the summit), timing, and sheer luck.

I'm very grateful that Krakauer summoned the courage and resolve to write this harrowing personal account of the tragedy, but at the same time I can't help but agree with some of the criticism by the relatives of the deceased.  At many times throughout the tale, Krakauer seemed to heavily criticize certain individuals or even groups of people who he felt directly contributed to the disaster.  As I wasn't there I cannot judge the veracity of these allegations but they just rub me the wrong way.

Scott Fischer's sister, Lisa Fischer-Luckenback wrote:

What I am reading is YOUR OWN ego frantically struggling to make sense out of what happened.  NO amount of your analyzing, criticizing, judging, or hypothesizing will bring the peace you are looking for.  There are no answers.  No one is at fault.  No one is to blame.  Everyone was doing their best at the given time under the given circumstances.

No one intended harm for one another.  No one wanted to die.

What did shock me was how he described how callous some individuals were.  For instance, the Japanese team who apparently saw the dying Ladakhis on the trail coming up from the Tibetan side of the mountain and merely ignored them without offering any assistance whatsoever.  Then when interviewed about it, their (Hanada and Shigekawa) only response was, "We didn't know them.  No, we didn't give them any water.  We didn't talk to them.  They had severe high-altitude sickness.  They looked as if they were dangerous."

"Shigekawa explained, 'We were too tired to help.  Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality.'  Turning their back on Smanla and Morup, the Japanese team resumed their ascent, passed the prayer flags and pitons left by the Ladakhis at 28,550 feet, and—in an astonishing display of tenacity— reached the summit at 11:45 A.M. in a screaming gale."

This passage made me take pause and I had to put down the book for a minute and get something to drink since I could not comprehend putting the dubious goal of reaching the summit over helping fellow human beings on the brink of death.

Having lived for a period of time in Taiwan myself it was also disheartening to hear of the poor actions and behaviors of the Taiwanese team, which was apparently universally panned and derided by the other groups.  First for their incompetence in mountaineering and for their debacle on Mt. McKinley in Alaska where they placed the lives of others in danger.  Then, this time on Mt. Everest, when one of their Taiwanese team members fell to his death while trying to evacuate his bowels, the team leader, 'Makalu' Gau, just replied, "O.K." on the radio and continued to make his ascent to the summit. (He explains his questionable actions and attitude in "Frontline:  Storm Over Everest," but I'm wondering if this was just rationalization ex post facto.)

Of course, this book isn't entirely a chronicle about the foibles and frailties of man, but also about the triumph and heroism of common people.  Stuart Hutchinson and Neal Beidelman stepped up when others collapsed due to hypoxia, hypothermia, severe altitude sickness (HAPE, HACE, etc.) and/or severe fatigue.  Also, Rob Hall died almost entirely due to the responsibility he felt as leader of the expedition.  He stayed up on the summit because Hansen could not budge without bottled oxygen.  He could have easily left him and gone down to base camp but heroically and obdurately, he refused to leave him and as a result died due to exposure.

I think this message from a Sherpa hits the message home:

I am a Sherpa orphan.  My father was killed in the Khumbu Icefall while load-ferrying for an expedition in the late sixties.  My mother died just below Pheriche when her heart gave out under the weight of the load she was carrying for another expedition in 1970.  Three of my siblings died from various causes, my sister and I were sent to foster homes in Europe and the U.S.

I never have gone back to my homeland because I feel it is cursed.  My ancestors arrived in the Solo-Khumbu region fleeing from persecution in the lowlands.  There they found sanctuary in the shadow of "Sagarmathaji," "mother goddess of the earth."  In return they were expected to protect that goddesses' sanctuary from outsiders.

But my people went the other way.  They helped outsiders find their way into the sanctuary and violate every limb of her body by standing on top of her, crowing in victory, and dirtying and polluting her bosom.  Some of them have had to sacrifice themselves, others escaped through the skin of their teeth, or offered other lives in lieu. . . .

So I believe that even the Sherpas are to blame for the tragedy of 1996 on "Sagarmatha."  I have no regrets of not going back, for I know the people of the area are doomed, and so are those rich, arrogant outsiders who feel they can conquer the world.  Remember the Titanic.  Even the unsinkable sank, and what are foolish mortals like Weather, Pittman, Fischer, Lopsang, Tenzing, Messner, Bonington in the face of the "Mother Goddess."  As such I have vowed never to return home and be part of that sacrilege.

I'm not sure if sacrilegious hubris is what truly angered Sagarmatha and caused her to wreck revenge on her hapless victims but ever since the British first decided to conquer the world's tallest mountain, she has claimed 200 lives and a 120 of those lifeless remains are still frozen on her slopes.

(For those interested, you can read the original Outside magazine article that Jon Krakauer authored here.)


  1. Brlliant Review Kyle, I remember reading a short essay which compared extreme mountain climbing to anorexia and self starvation. The former is glorified self-harming (you can lose limbs, die, and take years off your life) while the latter, which is similar in the singlemindedness and tenacity it requires is looked upon as a shameful thing. The point of the essay was to say that they are both equally vacuous achievements, although one feels one can relate to the achievement of climbing up a mountain, whereas starving oneself to an extreme degree is not something that we are willing to acknowledge as a heroic act except maybe in the case of hunger strikers.

  2. Thanks, Conor! I'm glad someone got something out of that long entry. I did it more as a personal process of reflection after reading it since my mind was completely absorbed in the tale. I literally could barely think about anything else for an hour after closing the book, so I thought writing about it would help the process as good as any.

    That's a good point, which was also brought up a lot in Into The Wild by the same author. At the same time, as someone who personally sympathizes with mountain climbers (to a point) it pains me to hear the analogy. Krakauer somewhat addresses this criticism and states that climbing Mt. Everest is different in that adrenaline junkies don't go for it since it's more of an agonizing endurance trial. It's about putting yourself through a long tortuous process and only getting out alive by chance. He readily admits that anyone willing to go to Everest is not completely insane and is possessed by a preternaturally strong passion to climb for climbing's sake. At the same time, he also admits many who go to Everest go for the wrong motives, namely fame and fortune.

    Krakauer's main beef was with people like Sandy Hill Pittman (read this: http://goo.gl/6UNov), who had limited to know mountaineering experience but was conquering Mt. Everest purely for the fame and glory. She also forced Sherpas to carry 80 lb loads on their back up 29,000 feet just because she wanted to use TWO laptops to constantly update her fans and to use her satellite phone and to brew her Dean & Deluca espresso coffee on the mountain. That is no exaggeration.

    Basically, rich, bored businessmen and socialites think they can buy safety and adrenaline with just their ample funds. She was literally carried up the mountain by Longsap (a Sherpa) and she was also coddled and saved by many other mountaineers, who dragged her frozen, catatonic body and injected it with a strong steroid called dexamethasone.

    Krakauer also rails about the pollution piling up and the rampant commercialization of Mt. Everest. Later, he goes back on this and says after meeting his fellow climbers he feels bad about writing them off since who is he to judge these middle class professionals, who are chasing a dream.

    I just finished watching a Frontline special called "Storm Over Everest" and it gave me new perspective. I think I was a little harsh in judging "Makalu" Gau (the Taiwanese expedition leader), but at the same time I think the short documentary was overly simplistic and tried to paint Everest as a cheerful, beautiful place and whitewashed the dangers and perils of the mountain. For whatever reason, Krakauer, Hutchinson and others were completely written out of the story in the movie, probably because Krakauer's account has received a lot of flack. While I was a little critical of Krakauer in the entry, in hindsight I'm glad he honestly wrote his true opinion of all those on the mountain since it certainly rang more true than the simplistic, hollow rendering by David Breashears in "Frontline: Storm Over Everest." I still say that's worth watching if only to see and hear from many of the characters you read about in Into Thin Air and you also see dramatic vistas of Mt. Everest herself.

  3. *Anyone willing to go to Everest is not completely SANE (typo).

    Krakauer also talks about the 'summit fever' as once seemingly rational people, like Doug Hansen, risk everything just to reach top and then once completely spent resign to die before they can descend. (Unfortunately, Doug's 'summit fever' and costed the life of Rob Hall, who had the responsibility of overseeing Doug to safety.)

  4. Oh and to get a sense of the costs of such a trip...it costs $65,000 just to get a spot on the team of Rob Hall's guided expedition to Everest. (Rob Hall received worldwide fame when he helped Dick Bass, a rich Texan with little mountaineering experience reach Seven Summits.)

    This didn't include the costs of all the hiking gear, which would easily set you into the thousands, plane tickets, a hiking permit which cost $10,000, paying a team to set up the ropes to the summit would be another $2,000 per person.

    Clearly, Mt. Everest, as Krakauer stated, was no longer a mountain but has become a Western commodity.

  5. I'm watching "Touching the Void" now and I think they address the motives behind mountain climbing. One of the English mountain climbers stated, "There's not a lot of risk in our lives normally now. And to put an element of risk back into it takes us out of the humdrum, in that sense it makes you feel more alive."

    I can definitely relate to that.