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.)