Monday, July 29, 2013

"Into Thin Air"

I first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (1997) five years ago, and I've been wanting to reread it ever since.

I (finally!) figured out a way to incorporate it into a class I'm teaching this upcoming fall, so now I have an excuse to reread it that isn't even an excuse.  After all, I'm working.

Krakauer is a literary journalist, best-known for his book Into the Wild (1997) and Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains (1999).  As you've probably guessed by now, Krakauer is also a mountaineer and general outdoorsman--and an extremely good writer.

In 1996, Krakauer was sent on assignment to Mount Everest to do a story for Outside magazine about the environmental impact of commercial climbing expeditions.  Being an avid mountain-climber himself, he made arrangements to accompany a climbing expedition and attempt to reach the summit himself.

He did.

Five of his teammates on the expedition did so as well, but in the end, four of them died in a freak storm that swept in and trapped them on the mountain's peak. 

One can't help but think of the Book of Job: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."

Needless to say, the story Krakauer set out to write and the story he arrived home with were very different.  Krakauer wrote the commissioned article for Outside magazine, and then immediately began writing Into Thin Air.  As he observes, "The Everest climb had rocked my life to its core, and it became desperately important for me to record the events in complete detail, unconstrained by a limited number of column inches" (xvi).

He was advised by other writers and editors to wait before doing so, to "put some distance" between himself and his experience on the expedition "in order to gain some crucial perspective" (xvi).

Krakauer opted not to do this: "what happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out.  I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life" (xvi).

Krakauer's account is both fascinating and fraught with complexity.  At extreme altitudes, when a person's brain simply isn't getting enough oxygen, firsthand, eyewitness accounts become highly unreliable--including, of course, Krakauer's own (as he openly acknowledges).  In some cases, all he can do is speculate about what happened to some of the climbers who died.

The book isn't simply about the tragedy, however: it's about the mountain.  One of the things I like most about Krakauer's work is its self-reflectiveness.  Unlike many mountaineers who glory in the bravado and machismo that surround their activities, Krakauer recognizes that in a lot of very real ways and on a very basic level, such excursions are simply insane.

The stakes are high, and when things go wrong--as they did on Mount Everest in May of 1996--the cost is enormous for the friends and family of those who simply do not return.

And, as Krakauer eventually realized, when you climb Everest, there is always a very real possibility that you will not return.  The mountainside is in fact littered with human corpses:
At 21,000 feet, dizzy from the heat, I came upon a large object wrapped in blue plastic sheeting beside the trail.  It took my altitude-impaired gray matter a minute or two to comprehend that the object was a human body.  Shocked and disturbed, I stared at it for several minutes. ...
Feeling slightly better on Saturday, I climbed a thousand feet above camp to get some exercise and accelerate my acclimatization, and there, at the head of the Cwm, fifty yards off the main track, I came upon another body in the snow, or more accurately the lower half of a body.  The style of clothing and the vintage leather boots suggested that the victim was European and that the corpse had laid on the mountain at least ten or fifteen years.
The first body had left me badly shaken for several hours; the shock of encountering the second wore off almost immediately.  Few of the climbers trudging by had given either corpse more than a passing glance.  It was as if there were an unspoken agreement on the mountain to pretend that these desiccated remains weren't real--as if none of us dared to acknowledge what was at stake here. (111)
And yet, these excursions also possess an enormous attraction for many intelligent and skilled climbers, both male and female, of all nationalities.  The bulk of Krakauer's book revolves around the question of why, exactly, this might be, and what it means to live with and to act on such an attraction.

Krakauer's elaboration on these issues sets the stage and the context for the tragedy that he will attempt to document.  They temper his retrospective reflections about what that tragedy has come to mean for himself.  After the publication of both his article and his book, Krakauer came under fire for his observations.  The friends and families of several of the victims were extremely angry and hurt by his characterizations of their loved ones and the tragedy that took their lives.

I think that, in the end, such a reaction is inevitable.  When you lose a loved one, anger is almost always part of your response to the loss.  In many cases, the anger is (paradoxically) directed at the victim him- or herself.  The death  feels like an odd form of betrayal and yet, blaming the person who died for his or her death creates an unbearable amount of guilt in the loved one left behind.

If a surrogate can be found--a target for that anger, preferably someone not directly connected to the victim him- or herself--then odds are, that person will bear the brunt of this grief-stricken animosity.

Perhaps Krakauer is at fault; perhaps his perspective is inaccurate.  At the same time, however, I think he made every attempt to tell the story in an ethical and compassionate manner.

As Krakauer ultimately admits, "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" (xvii).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."