Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I read this book in June 2016, not long before seeing the film adaptation, Into Thin Air: Death on
Everest, which engendered a certain amount of controversy concerning Krakauer's behaviour on the mountain, which he addresses in the afterword of the book. Regardless of he did (or didn't do), he paints a very realistic first-hand picture of what the mountain is like, and even more, what today's mountaineering industry has become, at least where Mt. Everest is concerned. Think less sport, more business.

To wit, this account includes Sandy Pittman, "a socialite and mountaineer" and whose presence invited criticism from those who feel that climbing Everest has become an endeavour for anyone who can afford it (whether qualified or not) and who hinted that she placed an unreasonable burden on Sherpas, both before and after the avalanche. Krakauer notes...
...her pile of luggage included stacks of press clippings about herself to hand out to the other denizens of Base Camp. Within a few days Sherpa runners began to arrive on a regular basis with packages for Pittman, shipped to Base Camp via DHL Worldwide Express; they included the latest issues of Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Allure. The Sherpas were fascinated by the lingerie ads and thought the perfume scent-strips were a hoot. 
As for himself, an experienced mountaineer, Krakauer is quick to skewer the perception of mountain-climbers as mere thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies.
People who don't climb mountains---the great majority of humankind, that is to say---tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour. Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace. Of course for some Everesters myriad other, less virtuous motives came into play as well: minor celebrity, career advancement, ego massage, ordinary bragging rights, filthy lucre. But such ignoble enticements were less a factor than many critics might presume. 
Regarding the criticism coming from all directions at the handling of the disaster, Krakauer reminds us that we're Monday-morning-quarterbacking from near sea level.
It can't be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia. In pondering how this disaster could have occurred, it is imperative to remember that lucid thought is all but impossible at 29,000 feet. 
To those who look at the business that's developed to guide climbers up Mt. Everest and shake their heads, he offers this point:  Look where Mt. Everest is located, folks.

But guiding Everest is a very loosely regulated business, administered by byzantine Third World bureaucracies spectacularly ill-equipped to assess qualifications of guides or clients.
Moreover, the two nations that control access to the peak---Nepal and China---are staggeringly poor. Desperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries 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. 
Finally, in response to those who complain about the disaster of 1996, Krakauer provides some good, solid statistics about Everest's fatality rates.  I would add, who in his right mind would consider summiting the world's highest mountain to be a low-risk effort?
In fact, the murderous outcome of 1996 was in many ways simply business as usual. Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp---which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent. Or here's another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times---a ratio of one in four. Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit---a ratio of one in seven. Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year.
P.S.  Around the same time, I watched the film Meru (2015), about three climbers who made it up India's Mt. Meru---21,000 feet of nearly sheer wall. No sherpas involved, just heart-pounding expertise and courage. My advice:  Read Into Thin Air, but go see Meru.

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