theage.com.au/education, March 23, 2009
JON Krakauer’s account of his involvement in the disastrous expedition to Everest in 1996 is much more than a straightforward report of the ascent and descent that led to the deaths of his fellow climbers.
Among the many topics covered in Into Thin Air are Krakauer’s background and the factors that led to his mountain-climbing obsession. There are brief histories of the surveyors who measured the height of Everest and the mountaineers who tackled the mountain, Sir Edmund Hillary included.
Krakauer also comments on the commercialisation of Everest and the debate about whether ascending the peak carrying a supply of oxygen is seen as a valid method by climbing purists.
With all these balls in the air, Krakauer for the most part successfully links a number of topics to emphasise his themes.
Take, for example, the first section of Chapter 10 – “Lhotse Face, April 29, 1996, 23,400 feet (7132 metres)”.
Krakauer prefaces this and every chapter with a quote, mostly from books about Everest or mountain climbing. In this chapter, he quotes writer Walt Unsworth on Everest. Unsworth says although Europeans understand mountain climbing as a sport, “there was no such acceptance in America”.
When Krakauer is 305 metres up the Lhotse Face, he goes into excruciating detail about how he is feeling as he climbs: “I slid my jumar up the fixed line with a gloved hand, rested my weight on the device to draw two burning, laboured breaths, then I moved my left foot up and stamped the crampon into the ice, desperately sucked in another two lungfuls of air; planted my right foot next to my left, inhaled and exhaled from the bottom of my chest, inhaled and exhaled again; and slid the jumar up the rope one more time.”
Writing such as this draws us into the painstaking and painful process of breathing at high altitude. So much of the book is about breathing the “thin air” referred to in the title – and, in this instance, Krakauer’s breaths are described as “burning” and “laboured”. Air is desperately “sucked in” by Krakauer and his repetition of the words “inhaled” and “exhaled” communicates a sense of panic in an everyday process that most of us hardly notice.
Krakauer builds on this description of tortured breathing toemphasise the paragraphs that follow. He says mountaineering is not about “adrenalin junkies chasing a righteous fix”. The author believes that this is “a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest” and that “climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain”. Krakauer is certainly not naive in thinking that some climbers have less than noble motives in their quest to scale Everest, such as money or fame.
He also believes that Everest can bring out the best in his team mates. At this point in the chapter, he describes the conservative Dr Seaborn Beck Weathers, who experiences intense pain (his new boots were not worn in and had “chewed his feet to hamburger”), as tough, driven and stoic. This was eventually borne out when, near the end of the expedition, Weathers was left for dead but managed to survive a fierce snowstorm against unimaginable odds. On his return to the US, Weathers lost all his fingers and his thumb on his left hand because of frost bite. His nose was amputated but reconstructed. He still practises as a doctor and bears no grudge against those who did not assist him.
It is interesting to connect Weathers’ experience to Unsworth’s comment about the Americans’ failure to accept mountain climbing. Weathers followed his dream to be a climber despite his wife’s resistance. “Climbing was like life itself . . . nothing had ever hooked Beck to such a degree.” His wife, Peach, “became increasingly concerned about his immersion and the way climbing robbed their family of his presence”. Perhaps Krakauer is also examining the other side of the coin here where such single mindedness, though essential in reaching the Everest summit, can also blind people to the risks involved.
The author now shifts his focus to an interview Weathers gave on his return to the US where he answers the question: “How’d you feel about a reporter being along?” In his reply, partly quoted here, Weathers tells the interviewer: “It added a lot of stress . . . I was concerned that it might drive people further than they wanted to go.” The author lets this comment speak for itself, but you can’t help feeling that in quoting it Krakauer is making amends for his presence.
This, of course, is only one aspect of Krakauer’s wider soul-searching in the book, especially in what he sees as his culpability in the death of Andy Harris.
Krakauer finishes this section, as he does throughout the book, with three short vertical lines. He then draws the chapter to a close with a description of Camp Three, the medical hazards of climbing Everest, and the jockeying for position that so many climbers (at least 161 spread over 16 expeditions) had to negotiate. Given the numbers on the slopes of Everest, it is hardly surprising that tragedy struck.
Author : Paul Byrne is a teacher-librarian at Williamstown High School.
* Source : – http://www.education.theage.com.au/
Everest BC Clinic: basecampmd.com
Everest ER: www.everester.org
** See :
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Filed under: books, Climbers, Expedition, Himalayas, Travel | Tagged: book, Camp Three, Climbers, Everest, Everest Base Camp, Expedition, Himalayas, Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, Lhotse Face, Nepal, Rescue climbing, Travel, trekking |