Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer, journalist for the adventure magazine Outside, was hired to document an expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996. What he couldn’t know was that by the end of the expedition, eight people would be dead and he would be left with a very different story than what he originally planned.  

We begin with the victory of Krakauer summiting the mountain, quickly followed by ominous words that presage what’s to come. But instead of heading straight into the disaster we know is coming, we’re given a history lesson on Mt. Everest instead. The book provides a mass of information on the dangerous of climbing and what summiting Everest requires in terms of equipment and fortitude. It also touches on Mallory and Irvine and Hillary and Norgay, building a solid foundation on the history of the mountain and how climbing has evolved over the years. Today it’s a commercial operation where inexperienced clients can add to the risk of climbing, endangering not only themselves but also guides and Sherpas.

In stories where the outcome is already known the ‘what’ becomes less important than the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Before reading this book I already knew it involved death and that things were going to go very wrong for a large number of people trying to ascend the mountain. This left me to discover the details around the larger story. Told in hindsight, it creates a growing anxiety as an accumulation of small problems and mistakes leads our climbers towards a slow but inevitable plod towards doom. It was unnerving, knowing some of the people I was reading about would never go home, that I was essentially reading about ghosts.  

Finishing this book I was left with one question. What is a human life worth? I already knew the story was a tragedy but I had no idea how the actions of some climbers would horrify and depress me. The actions and mistakes made along the way were one thing but to discover that climbers were left for dead, that others passed them by on the way to the summit or believed they were beyond help was sickening. It seemed callous and possibly criminal to make no attempt at saving a fellow climber and human being. The excuses made in the book were myriad. “We didn’t know them.” “It’s dangerous to help others at this altitude.” “I was worried for my own life.” But at what point does someone become culpable? They may not have had an active hand in their deaths but what if they could have been saved? Krakauer on other dwell on this, second-guessing themselves, wondering what might have been.

“The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.” 

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