Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer
Macmillan, London, 1997
These days climbers die live.
In Jon Krakauers Into Thin Air, the compelling account of the deaths on Everest in the pre-monsoon season of 1996, two images stuck out as being superbly illustrative of everything that is currently wrong with climbing the highest mountain on earth.
The first centres on Yasuko Namba, a middle-aged Japanese businesswoman, who despite limited credentials as a mountaineer and a previously poor performance on the mountain, rallied on summit day to power her way up the final few hundred metres. She had, says Krakauer, “the summit in her cross-hairs”. This idea of the mountain as quarry, with its echoes of tiger-shoots in the jungles of the Terai, seems apt. Self-glorification through a struggle with nature has long been an occupation of people with too much money and not enough respect.
The other image is of the team Krakauer joined as a reporter for the American magazine Outside. As Krakauer waits at the South Col, a place whose windswept misery clearly made an impact on his psyche, he reflects on the hollowness of his experience: “In this godforsaken place, I felt disconnected from the climbers around me – emotionally, spiritually, physically – to a degree I hadnt experienced on any previous expedition. We were a team in name only, Id sadly come to realise.”
The vacuum that lies at the heart of this book is a lack of emotional engagement. Krakauer quite likes most of the people he shares the mountain with, but they are acquaintances only, not friends. There is no shared dream or common purpose – in sharp contrast to expeditions of an earlier age like that which made the first ascent of Everest in 1953. When Yasuko Namba is found the morning after her ascent, exposed on the South Col with a three-inch carapace of ice over face and close to death, the misery is compounded by a sense that she and the others who lived or died on the mountain did so alone.
This impression has prompted a rash of negative publicity in the West, the theme of which is the death of a noble ideal. The last time newspapers were interested in Everest, Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were reaching the summit, the Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld were pioneering the West Ridge, Chris Boningtons team were plotting their reviewed by Ed Douglas way up the Southwest Face. These were great endeavours and now, public opinion believes, we are left with cynicism and greed. The attitude is reinforced by the garbage and dead bodies apparently strewn on the mountain, a physical manifestation of the mountains corruption.
But mountaineers are not so impressed by this argument. Last year while talking to the eminent American climber Royal Robbins, this writer asked him about the events on Everest. He professed a complete lack of interest. “What did they expect?” he replied. Its a view shared by many climbers with experience of Everest. Put a large number of inexperienced people near the summit on a regular basis, and sooner or later a number of them are going to die. The only surprise was that it was Rob Hall, a cautious and highly experienced guide, who was caught out high on the mountain.
The inquisitorial nature of Krakauers account has generated more than a little discomfort. While. the general public – in the West at least – are used to inquiries and criticism if something goes wrong, mountaineers are usually reluctant to point a finger at individuals in public. Krakauer has no such misgivings and is critical of the Seattle-based guide Scott Fischer (who also perished at the same time) and his Russian employee, Anatoly Boukreev. Krakauer has no sympathy for the Russians laissez-faire attitude which he correctly identifies as being a cultural difference from the American abhorrence of fatalism.
Krakauers additional title for his book is “A personal account of the Everest disaster”. All the way through the book one cannot help wondering which tragedy he means. The multiple deaths of those terrible days and nights in May 1996, or something else? Certainly, there have been many other tragedies on Everest. Statistically, 1996 was a pretty safe year given the numbers active on the mountain at the time, a point Krakauer does make in his concluding remarks.
The tragedy got so much attention partly because of the tragic final hours of Rob Hall, who said goodbye to his wife for the last time over his radio before he froze to death near the South Summit, but also because some of the climbers involved were well-known Americans whose colleagues at base camp had lots of very sophisticated communications equipment with which to keep in touch with the worlds media.
This instant access to the dramas enacted on Everests slopes has been one of the most significant changes of recent years. Problems encountered by mountaineers are played out in real time, not reported at a later date when the immediacy is gone. And physical access to the mountain itself has been made much easier. Helicopters flying into the Everest region have cut weeks off the approach march endured by John Hunt and his team.
The convenience of such rapid communications has cut the real story of Everest, the story, if you like, of Chomolungma, out of the agenda. The real story of Everest is not about the private aspirations of men and women who enjoy climbing, but the story of those who live and work in the Khumbu, who bring up their families and follow their dharma in the shadow of the mountain.
And while the general public are riveted by what they perceive as a tragedy, the actual story is more hopeful. Western environmentalists may warn that the Everest area is being spoiled, but there is a convincing argument to be made that the management of the region is a success, albeit a qualified one. The numbers visiting may have increased exponentially in the last 20 years, but much of the regions allure has been effectively preserved.
Western clean-up expeditions may have attracted most of the attention, but local efforts have done reasonably well in reducing the impact of the consequent increase in garbage, both literal and cultural. The mountains South Col, though much improved in recent years, is still something of a blight, but only to mountaineers who go there. Compared to the air pollution in Kathmandu the issue hardly merits the attention its received in the media.
Ultimately, Jon Krakauers account is a catharsis of the guilt he felt following those harrowing hours. Guilt at survival, guilt over the death of the guide Andy Harris and his failure to notice the young New Zealanders distress, guilt at the pain he caused relatives of the dead in his uncompromising assessment. It is a horrifying story brilliantly told. But it is not about Everest, more a comment on the over-confidence of people who believe that money and position make the slightest difference when a storm settles on the roof of the world.