Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of life tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world. ~ Jose Ortega Gasset (Quoted in Into Thin Air)
Mountains, in their physical sense, exercise no pull on me. They are very beautiful, no doubt, and whenever I see an impressive snow-peaked mountain range from a train window, or during a road trip, I breathe deeply and smile. But no desire takes hold of me to scale them. The closest I ever came was roaming the gentle hills in the Black Forest with my father when I was little. Perhaps uncharacteristically then, for a seaborn and only moderately adventurous person, I developed a fascination with books about climbing. And, more generally, books about very adventurous people doing insanely dangerous things. The first of these books to hook me was Jon Krakauer’s 1997** book, Into Thin Air.
The book is a first person account of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest season, in which twelve climbers, some very experienced and capable, died in their summit attempt. Krakauer describes how he, a climber himself, joined one of the many paid expeditions to scale the mountain in order to report the experience – the mushrooming commercialisation of Everest, he calls it – to Outside Magazine, the journal for which he wrote at the time. In the aftermath of the calamitous pre-monsoon climbing season, he penned a long article about the circumstances that led to so many fatalities, only to acknowledge that even the 17,000 word long piece didn’t do justice to the unpredictability of mountaineering, or the circumstances that led to the disaster, and sat down to write the book that would capture my horrified imagination.
Mount Everest, as we still call it, was named not by any local name, as was customary, but after Sir George Everest, the previous Surveyor General of India. Sir George was apparently a superlative geographer. Even so, he was an unpleasant man who had managed to make few friends in India, Jewel of the Empire. Ancient religious monuments were below his consideration, as he deemed them pagan and mere impediments to his work. Unfortunate, then, that the name of Everest stuck. Its height was calculated, with remarkable accuracy by Bengali Computer Radhanath Sikhdar who overcame enormous challenges to make his determination. After two years he came up with the figure of 29.002 feet or 8.839 metres. He was only off by 28 feet or 8.5 metres. This meant Peak 15, later known as Mount Everest, was the world’s highest peak, and so drew the desirous glances of many adventurers aching to scale its retiring slopes.*** As Krakauer puts it: it was only a matter of time before people decided Everest should be climbed.
It would seem that the drawing power of Everest has not diminished since those days. In 1985 the first guided ascent was successfully made by relatively inexperienced, but wealthy, 55 year old Dick Bass, under the direction of the extraordinary mountaineer David Breashears. This opened up the idea of scaling the peak to people who were not necessarily experienced climbers, but who – for a sizable chunk of money and a reasonable amount of time and training – could attempt its summit. This is mainly, and not without controversy, due to the use of supplemental oxygen and the services of many commercial companies, bonafide and otherwise, offering guided climbs up Everest.
Of course, the pursuit of climbing mountains was never without its dangers. Especially at heights of over 8000 metres, the so-called ‘Death Zone’, where the oxygen is so thin that it leads to disorientation but also, in and of itself, can lead to more lethal conditions. Adding to the peril are the throngs that visit the mountain. Even with the best of the guides, the window of time in which the summit can be attempted is narrow, which can lead to queues or traffic jams. In and of themselves highly hazardous to climbers who only have a limited amount of supplemental oxygen to get them up, and more importantly down, the mountain. Krakauer describes his apprehension when, on the way down from the summit that May 10, he gets stuck in the queue and has to wait, inwardly frantic, while his oxygen inexorably runs out.
Krakauer’s report continues to boggle the mind. Starting his book in medias res, on the summit, Krakauer describes his journey over the mountain as one of the eight clients attempting to make the guided ascent led by acclaimed mountaineer Rob Hall. Among the five who reached the top, four – including Hall – would perish. By the time Krakauer makes it back to base camp, nine climbers from four expeditions are dead. Three more lives would be lost before the month was out. He draws vivid little portraits of his teammates, but is soon forced, painfully, to recount the many disasters that befell his fellow hopefuls. He does not reserve judgement, nor does he spare himself. Readers, as he readily admits, are not always best served when an author writes as an act of catharsis. But the directness of the book, and its emotional immediacy, gives us an insight into how the numinous can be inches away from hell.
These stories of Everest being swarmed by sometimes ill-prepared climbers have persisted long after Krakauer had gone home to Seattle. In the fateful 2014 season the plight of the sherpas was thrown into sharp relief through Jennifer Peedom’s acclaimed documentary “Sherpa”, released in 2015, about a people whose work has become more and more demanding and who are forced into taking ever higher risks, some of them fatal. In the deadly 2019 season several of the deaths on the mountain were attributed to overcrowding. Measures to limit the number of climbers fail to pass, issuance of permits being a lucrative business for the governments, and companies, involved.
Why then, do people still strive to go up the mountain? What is it about this pursuit that seems, even temporarily, to be worth the risk? Krakauer himself, in his earlier books, seems to struggle with the question. In Into The Wild, published in 1996 before the events of Into Thin Air, he details the wanderings of Chris McCandless, who came to his end after walking into Alaska, to commune with nature, be autonomous and – apparently – out of some unfathomable compulsion to unhook himself from civilization’s control. Krakauer seems to feel a kinship with McCandless in his youthful, possibly reckless, quest for the transcendent. In Into Thin Air, the author muses on the boyish but persistent dreams which compel him up the mountain when circumstance hands him the opportunity: consequences be damned.
“…attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act – a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.” Krakauer muses, “The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway.” “And,” he adds mournfully, “… 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.”
*The extraordinary woodblock prints are copyright by Randy Rackliff, alpine climber and artist, reproduced here from my own battered old paperback from 1998 (Pan books).
**1997 is, incidentally, the year that the band Kasabian, stars of the previous instalment of Six Damn Fine Degrees, first joined.
***Some of the historical information in this piece comes from the wonderful book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis (2012).
– A note on the audio: there is an unabridged version of Into Thin Air read by Philip Franklin, and an abridged version read by the author. I own both, and both are lovely, but contrary to my usual insistence on unabridged publications, I tend to prefer the latter.