Sunday, January 13, 2008

BOOKS | Thoughts on "Into Thin Air"

I've just finished reading Into Thin Air, an personal account of the May 10, 1996 Mt Everest expedition which resulted in 12 deaths. Krakauer included photos of the mountaineers, and it was eerie looking at the pictures of some of these people, knowing that you are reading about how they died.

Krakauer was sent on the Everest expedition for a story for Outside magazine. This book is an expansion of the 17,000 word essay eventually published. The book was written quickly, as a kind of cartharsis -- or exorcism. The deaths at Mt Everest haunted him.

It was a harrowing read, as one tragedy just followed another. It is a human instinct: as I was reading the book I started looking out for what went wrong: Was it human error? Could anything have been done to prevent it? In his own way, perhaps Krakauer wrote this book to make sense of the tragedy that he had been a party to.

Krakauer included a Joan Didion quote in his book:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative live upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

We write, to impose some sort of recognisable order unto the universe. And sometimes our narrative requires certain parties to fill the roles of the heroes and the villians.

But this is not a story that has easy heroes or villians. The truth is, in an oxygen depleted environment at above 24,000 feet, at sub-zero temperature -- no one was thinking straight. Everyone made the best decisions they could under the circumstances. It is the living that are allowed the luxury of accusations and blame. It is also the living that have to defend themselves for the choices they made.

Anatoli Boukreev was one of the guides on the 1996 Mt Everest expedition. His book, The Climb, is his rebuttal to Jon Krakauer's accusations that Boukreev left the summit ahead of his clients, before the brunt of the storm.

In the translated transcript Boukreev did for an interview to Men's Journal, the Russian mountaineering guide said in his own defense:

I stayed [on the summit] for about an hour ... It is very cold, naturally, it takes your strength ... My position was that I would not be good if I stood around freezing, waiting. I would be more useful if I returned to Camp Four in order to be able to take oxygen up to the returning climbers or to go up to help them if some became weak during the descent ... If you are immobile at that altitude you lose strength in the cold, and then you are unable to do anything.

It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see how some may misinterprete his decision as selfish. Yet it was Bourkreev who rushed up with bottled oxygen the moment he heard about the lost mountaineers. When it mattered, he was the only one with the strength left to do a search-and-rescue, as he had preserve his strength by coming down to a lower altitude and warming himself earlier on. Everyone else, including Krakauer himself, was too worn down to be of any help. Truth is never convenient.

But I am only writing on hindsight, in the safety of a by-stander who has never even attempted the feat that Krakauer and the rest of the mountaineers did. In short, I am in no position to judge anything.

The sister of Scott Fischer (one of the guides who perished on the expedition), Lisa Fischer-Luckenbach, wrote this letter after Krakauer's story was published in Outside magazine:

What I am reading is YOUR OWN ego frantically struggling to make sense out of what happened. No amount of your analyzing, criticizing, judging, or hypothesizing will bring the peace you are looking for. There are no answers. No one is at fault. No one is to blame. Everyone was doing their best at the given time under the given circumstances.

No one intended harm for one another. No one wanted to die.

We should just count ourselves lucky that we may never have to be in the situation such as they were, being called to make the kind of decisions in that kind of extreme circumstances. Could we really claim to be able to do better?

A few days before the blizzard that caused the death of the mountaineers, Göran Kropp, a 29 year old Swedish soloist attempted the summit without the help of Sherpas or bottled oxygen. Kropp had reached 28,700 feet just below the South Summit, with the top just 60 minutes above -- but then he turned around, believing he would be too tired to descend safely if he climbed any higher.

Rob Hall was Krakauer's guide, one of the many who perished on Mt Everest. He was an experienced climber, having reached the Everest summit in 1990. He has also helped put 39 climbers on the summit of Everest. When he heard about Kropp's descent, his response was interesting:

"To turn around that close to the summit ...," Hall mused with a shake of his head on May 6 as Kropp plodded past Camp Two on his way down the mountain. "That showed incredibly good judgement on young Göran's part. I'm impressed--considerably more impressed, actually, than if he'd continued climbing and made the top." ... ... "With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill," Hall observed. "The trick is to get back down alive."

Climbing is a sport that takes determination. It attracts men and women who are not easily deflected from their goal.

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die.

What Göran Kropp has shown admirably is this rare balance of drive and awareness. In that crucial moment right before reaching the summit, he is able to step back from his ego and his desire, and see the bigger picture: that he does not have the energy to make it down safely. And so he turned back. In that wisdom -- that remarkable sense of restraint, he lives to climb again. It just seems to me that there is a lesson here to be learned, that need for us to look beyond the object of our desire, so that we do not lose perspective.

In the words of David Robert:

[T]op climbers ... can be deeply moved, in fact maudlin; but only for worthy martyred ex-comrades. A certain coldness, strikingly similar in tone, emerges from the writings of Buhl, John Harlin, Bonatti, Bonington, and Haston: the coldness of competence. Perhaps this is what extreme climbing is about: to get to a point where, in Haston's words, "If anything goes wrong it will be a fight to the end. If your training is good enough, survival is there; if not nature claims its forfeit."

This is the brutal reality of mountaineering: you train and you push yourself closer to the edge of death. When the test comes, you either survive, or else, "nature claims its forfeit" for the transgression.

5 comments:

jenclair said...

For some reason, I've had absolutely no interest in this book. I mean, I just hear the title and without thinking move on. Your review has suddenly brought it into fascinating focus.

Love the Didion quote Krakauer uses, and Halls comment that "any bloody idiot can get up this hill" -- but getting down is the only real success. Your review gives insight into those risk-taking personalities,the phenomenon of survival guilt, and our need to make some kind of sense of terrible circumstances.

Great review!

Dark Orpheus said...

Thank you. Actually, like you, I have ignored the book for years. I was aware of it as some part of the mountaineering canon, but I just ignore it.

I picked it up because I read "Into the Wild" last year I kind of enjoyed it. I thought I try "Into Thin Air" this year, just to see what's the hype.

But it's a question we need to ask ourselves sometimes -- under the same difficult circumstances, are we able to make the right
decisions?

There was also a chapter where Rob Hall was stranded with his client Doug Hansen. Hansen was too weak to make his way down, but Rob Hall could have come down on his own. Then at least one of them might have lived.

But Rob Hall couldn't leave Hansen behind -- he just wasn't that kind of guy.

I kept thinking what would have been the "right" choice? If Rob Hall had just left Hansen to save himself, could he live with himself after that?

Because he couldn't do it, because he did the "right thing" by Hansen he died.

Iliana said...

Like Jenclair, I've never had any desire to read this book, but I saw the movie of Into The Wild and thought it was fantastic. I'd definitely be more open to reading this book now. Great review of the book.

Dorothy W. said...

I think I'd enjoy this book -- and Into the Wild as well -- it sounds like a fascinating story -- great review!

Dark Orpheus said...

Iliana Thanks. I'm still waiting for Into the Wild to be screened here. So far, no news. *sigh*

Dorothy Thanks. It was a good read -- I was surprised by that myself.