“I’d always known that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game–without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”
Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain, and perhaps its most famous. It is located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, and its iconic triangular peak pierces the sky at an amazing 29,028 feet, just slightly lower than commercial aircraft routinely fly. Snow blankets the summit year round, and high-altitude winds blow the snow away from the peak in a plume. Its amazing beauty and dangerous heights have attracted thrill-seeking climbers for decades, despite the grim statistics stating that one in four Everest climbers may lose their lives in their quest. Those who want to climb Everest contend not only with pricey climbing fees and difficult technical climbing challenges, but also face the more serious possible dangers of judgement-impairing hypoxia from the thin atmosphere, frostbite, cerebral or pulmonary edema from ascending or descending too fast, and visibility limiting blizzards that pummel the summit. Amazingly, most say it is harder to get down from Everest than it is to get to the top.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer was hired by Outside Magazine to do a piece on the commercialization of Everest. Since Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1953, climbing expedition companies had sprung up worldwide, offering to bring anyone who was reasonably fit and wanted to climb Everest to the top… for a price. Between the expensive climbing permits required by Nepal and Tibet and the companies’ guiding fees, these days it costs about $65,000 a person to climb Everest…and this is not even a guarantee that you’ll get to the top. Doug Hanson, one of the climbers in Krakauer’s group, was making his third attempt to get to the top of Everest. Many people worried that these guiding companies would put profit before safety by allowing sub-par climbers to join their groups to bring in revenue or by pushing to get climbers to the top even in adverse circumstances to pump up their summiting statistics for prospective future clients. They felt that both of these situations might not only endanger inexperienced climbers, but might also endanger more experienced climbers who would have to rescue or assist them. Outside originally only wanted Krakauer to go as far as Base Camp, located at 17,700 feet. However, Krakauer was an experienced climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he convinced the magazine to allow him to join one of the expeditions to climb Everest himself. Into Thin Air was born when Krakauer realized he could not contain the full experience of his harrowing Everest climb in a single magazine article.
Map of camps located along Everest ascent
Most climbing expeditions allot about eight weeks to climb Everest. Above Base Camp, there are four camps located at different points along the route to the summit. Adventure Consultants, the group Krakauer climbed with, employed a gradual acclimatization program to help climbers adjust to atmospheric changes as they ascended the mountain. The group would climb to one camp, spend a day or so, and then go back down to a lower camp, and then several days later, ascend to a higher camp, and repeat the process, allowing climbers to become comfortable with the technical aspects of the climb and allowing their bodies to adjust to the increasingly thinner atmosphere. Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants group, was strict about not allowing members of his group to climb ahead of the others, but Scott Fischer, the leader of the Mountain Madness group (another group climbing Everest at the same time), encouraged and allowed his group members to go up or down the mountain as they felt comfortable and acclimatize themselves. At Camp Four, the last camp before the summit, all climbers were given oxygen.
The Hillary Step
The difficulties began on May 10, 1996. Several groups that were attempting to summit Everest arrived near the top at the same time, causing a bottleneck at one of the more famous and challenging parts of the mountain, called the Hillary Step. A long line of climbers waited to climb the one rope to reach the summit. Many of the climbers, such as Doug Hanson and Scott Fischer, were arriving at the top in sub-par condition, battling various ailments. As Krakauer looked down from the summit, weak from lack of sleep and food, woozy from lack of oxygen, and exhausted from the climb, he noticed thick clouds brewing just below them, and was lucky to get back down to Camp Four before the worst of the storm hit. The storm escalated quickly to a blizzard, limiting visibility and trapping the climbers who were either at the summit or just below it. As the climbers struggled to aid each other, several exhausted themselves and ended up needing aid themselves, and those who were already ‘safe’ were too weak and exhausted to help . Those who were able to help were heroic and superhuman by any standards, risking their own lives by searching for survivors in the storm. By the time the storm ended, four of the eight climbers in Krakauer’s group were dead, and one more was seriously injured. Of the 14 expeditions on Everest that day, a total of 12 climbers died.
As Krakauer struggles with the guilt he feels as one of the survivors, and as a climber who was too incapacitated at the time to help his teammates, he wraps the book up with a discussion of the possible causes of the disaster and what can be learned from them, which I felt was the most moving part of the book. He notes that Hall, a hard-core expedition leader who had set a safety deadline for climbers to reach the top or be turned back, inexpicably bent his own rule and allowed Doug Hanson to take several extra hours to make it to the top, knowing that Doug had failed on two previous attempts. This decision may have been the reason both lost their lives. Sandy Hill Pittman, a socialite climber in Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness group, struggled physically during the climb, and at the end was ‘short-roped’ (basically tied to another climber and dragged to the summit) so that she would make it to the top, since Fischer knew he would get positive publicity if she made it. Krakauer felt that prohibiting future climbers from using oxygen might prevent mass casualties, as fewer inexperienced climbers would be able to attempt a summit without oxygen and would be less likely to push themselves into life threatening situations–although he notes that plenty of experienced climbers (such as Hall and Fischer, both Everest experts who died on the mountain that May) had also perished. He realizes that there is very little chance of governmental regulation from Nepal and Tibet, since both countries are extremely poor and need the income climbing permits bring. In the end, there will always be people who will want to climb Everest, regardless of the money, risk and peril it entails, and those who attempt it will have to accept those risks.
I hate to say I enjoyed Krakauer’s book, because it was so tragic and scary and sad…but I did. It reminded me of reading A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Everyone knows how the story ends, as Krakauer gives us the death toll on page five. Like Lord’s description of the sinking of the Titanic, the drive of Krakauer’s narrative is the compelling moment-by-moment unfolding of the tragedy on Everest. As I read, I occasionally shook my head with incredulity that anyone in their right mind would ever attempt something so dangerous and…well…stupid. But then again, I’m not a climber, and could never understand the madness and enjoyment that climbers can get “brushing up against the enigma of mortality”. The slopes of Everest are littered with the bodies of dead climbers who lost their lives in pursuit of a dream and a goal–the IMAX expedition that was on Everest at the same time as Krakauer literally stepped over the dead body of Rob Hall to reach the summit. To endure the multiple miseries of ascending into thin air, there has to be something so compelling about climbing that in spite of the multiple dangers to life and limb, people not only do this once, but over and over again.
This was a thrilling and horrifying read, but was fascinating nonetheless. I have purchased the IMAX movie Everest, shot during the same few days in May that Krakauer’s group was on Everest, and should be receiving it later this week. I can’t wait to see it. I’ll post a review on that as well.