When you think of the world’s most glorious physical achievements, perhaps summiting Mt. Everest is the pinnacle (no pun intended there). While many have done it by now, still so very few have actually done it. Into Thin Air is the account of Jon Krakauer who took on an assignment to climb the peak and document his experience. His ascent happened in 1996 and captures both the folly of such an attempt and the brutal conditions one must endure to even get close to the top. If you’ve ever fantasized about making the climb, make sure that you read this book before you shell out the tens of thousands of dollars.
“No, it is not remarkable that Everest did not yield to the first few attempts; indeed, it would have been very surprising and not a little sad if it had, for that is not the way of great mountains. Perhaps we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique of ice-claw and rubber slipper, our age of easy mechanical conquest. We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?”
“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. That night when I asked Rob about it he said he wasn’t certain, but he thought the victim was a Sherpa who’d died three years earlier.”
“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. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.”
I once fantasized about doing the Appalachian Trail. Many many folks have completed the trail…why not me? Fortunately I read a book about one man’s adventure hiking the trail and it cured me of that desire. It’s not that I don’t think that it would be a great accomplishment, but it just isn’t for me. When reading about climbing a mountain, not just Everest, what struck me was that so much energy is put into reaching the summit, what do you have left to climb back down?
“Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I’d coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.”
The edition that I read contained a forward by the author. After the book was first published, he took a bit of heat about his version of events. Some of the other climbers took exception to how he portrayed things. It was valuable to me to hear him respond to their criticisms.
Though not a horror novel, the brutal conditions that some folks are willing to endure astound me.