INTO THIN AIR by Jon Krakauer - Dec 2008

Almost two months later, I have almost given up hope of trying to write a coherent, detailed report of the December Book Group meeting, but here are some of my notes to supplement the previous message I sent just after the meeting.

We arrived at Book in Bar to find that they had no electricity, and thus neither light nor heat. We moved up the street to the café on the corner, Vert Anglais. It was colder and noisier in the café than at our usual Friday meetings, but Jan had done a tremendous amount of preparation, and we had a very informative and pleasant discussion, and one that was quite personalised.

Jan allowed herself 15 minutes at the start to present biographical information on the autor, Jon Krakauer, and statistics on Mount Everest. She cited three primary questions: Why do people climb? What happened to the survivors of the 1996 disaster? and What has changed on Everest since then? As to why people climb, she referred to different sources, including her own brother, who is a climber.

Jon Krakauer was born in Oregon in 1954 and was introduced to mountaineering at the age of 8 by his father. Following the Everest disaster, he used the profits from sales of Into Thin Air to establish a memorial fund which provides aid to the indigenous peoples of the Himalaya. Other books by Krakauer are Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven.
I noted during our meeting that 12 or 13 people died on the expedition reported in the book, but according to the printed notes that Jan loaned me,} 8 people died on that particular expedition, and 15 people died trying to reach the summit during that season, making it the deadliest single year in Everest history.

Between 1922 and 2006, there were 3010 successful ascensions to the summit of Everest - a huge amount - with 203 fatalities, or a 6.74% fatality rate. In fact, Everest is only the tenth deadliest mountain on the list of 14 peaks above 8000 meters. In August 2008 there was a disaster on K2, the second highest summit, in which 11 climbers were killed . K2 was first summited in 1954, by an Italian team. Only 280 have summited since, but dozens have died, mostly during the descent. From 1922 to 1989 the fatality rate on Everest was 37%. Since the year 2000, the rate has dropped to 2%. One out of 56 attempts to summit Everest are successful.

Everest is considered "the" mountain to climb, but it is not by any means the most difficult. Mount McKinley in Alaska (the highest peak in North America) is more difficult.

One must ask what makes these people take these high risks. There is not just the risk of death to be taken into consideration, but also the suffering caused to surviving families, and the danger to those involved in rescue efforts. Jan's brother was a guide on Everest in 2000. He stresses that it's important to also read Anatoli Boukreev's book, The Climb, which is a rebuttal to Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Boukreev rescued others on the expedition. Jan's brother, in reply to her questions about Everest and climbing in general, wrote her that "Climbing Everest by a standard route is simply a statement of I have huge lungs, strong legs, lots of money and lots of time which I will lay at the altar of proving to people who have no clue and live boring lives that I am something special. ... Each culture has a unique persepctive on the cost, commitment, social contract, purpose, and benefit (glory) of climbing. The Eastern Europeans and Russians take it quite seriously. The Western Europeans have lulled themselves into the comfort of sport climbing. The North Americans are not willing to die, so that limits how much they will commit to the mountain. Boukreev was a kick-ass Russian doing his job and by far doing much more to save lives and get sensible things done than the other guides. New Zealanders are good, but they are far too willing to climb in uncertain conditions because New Zealand climbing is only uncertain conditions on the best of days."
"Everest has nothing to do with climbing; climbing at its core requires the climbers to form strong bonds of trust and interdependence. Everest is an expensive ultra marathon with really good bragging rights because so many people have died on it. In fact more than 1000 people die annually climbing in the Alps. Most of those who die in the Alps are very similar to those who die on Everest. They are doing something that is actually beyond their experience and technical ability. Unfortunately, dying in the Alps gives very little to brag about. Dying on Everest is much more glorious."
"Is it admirable that a blind person climbs Everest? Is it admirable if a lame person climbs Everest? Is it admirable if a young or old person climbs Everest? The question is, if they do it to be admired then are there not so many more things in the world that are much more admirable and with the same money and effort would bring far greater benefit."
Beck Weathers, one of the survivors of the expedition, wrote a book entitled Left for Dead. He is now a motivational speaker. When asked if he regretted the Everest expedition, he said, "Not at all." He said that relationships are so much closer and deeper now. But when asked what he would do if his children wanted to climb Everest, he replied that he would do "all I can to prevent it."
It was also noted that Indians (from the sub-continent) and Japanese were climbing the Tibetan side of Everest during the fatal storm. There is also a book entitled The Other Side of Everest. Reinhold Messner summited Everest solo without oxygen.
Janet H noted that it takes a certain mentality to go slowly toward death. It's not like Formula 1. It's not an adrenaline rush.
According to veteran Himalaya climbers, the main difference on Everest is ignorance, selfish ambition, theft in camps, bad commercial guides, and insufficient oxygen. To speed up the climb and cut expedition costs, some guides reportedly recommend that their clients use a catabolic steriod as a climbing aid and not clip in to the fixed ropes in the ice fall. There's also a secrecy surrounding Everest accidents and fatalities unprecedented on other Himalayan peaks. Veteran climbers criticize not the number of deaths on Everest, but rather the general decay on the peak, which includes hustling of bad oxygen, commercial efforts to discourage independent climbing, indifference to peers in distress, and cover-ups of accidents.
Jan read from the list of 12 fatalaties during the past season (April and May). She spoke of the competition among commerical expeditions, and mentioned that both Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants still exist and have websites.
We did talk a bit about professional journalist Krakauer's writing style. Of special note were the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. It was felt that he is a compelling writer. Denise said it's not just a book about mountain-climbing. She felt that the background details were not too few, not too many, but just right. Julie didn't like the book, and felt that it was "too angry." She felt Krakauer was just a journalist trying to make a point. Jan replied that perhaps that was because of his "survivor's guilt." Julie said he didn't try to put himself in others' shoes. Jan said that he WAS in the same shoes, and he blamed himself for Andy's death, and he had to write the book.
What then was the underlying cause of the disaster? Was the competition between the two major commercial expeditions even more fierce because there was a journalist present? They felt they MUST get someone to the top. (Outside magazine sent Krakauer on the expedition to participate in and write about a guided ascent of Everest.) They failed to follow their own rules. They ignored their own turn-around point, which would have allowed them the time to safely come back down.
There is a post-script in Denise's edition of Into Thin Air, but not in the others that were circulating. She "deposited" it on-line and you can get it by clicking on the link http://dl.free.fr/qh59LNBnF .
There are still some first ascents to be done on the world's mountains. We talked a bit about our own ascents.
Julie was asked what she felt was her own most difficult climb, and she replied the Matterhorn. She did the Swiss summit and then the Italian summit. She said it's a "crumbly mountain," filled with rock slides. She had a private guide and took her time - a record slow 14 hours up and down, with two overnights in a hut. She said groups went up and down in the same day. She said her favourite and most memorable climb was the Dom in Switzerland.
Katharine J mentioned getting lost in the mist in the Pyrénées and not being able to find the path to meet the skiers. She said she has no nice memories of anything to do with mountains.
Maggie told of trying to climb Mount Cameroon (4000 meters), but being short of breath and not making it to the summit.


December 2008