As an adventure traveler who has participated in many worldwide adventures, I plunged into reading Into Thin Air enthusiastically. This is the story of the disastrous climb up Mt. Everest in May 1996. I have flown over Mount Everest on a sightseeing flight and camped in the Himalayas but have never entertained the notion of climbing this mountain. I did briefly consider a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, which is Africa’s version of Mount Everest. But thankfully, that madness soon passed.
I wanted to read about the challenges the climbers faced tackling the ascent of the highest mountain in the world and learn a bit about why these folks felt they needed to do this. Mt. Everest is not for sissies. It is for hardcore, experienced climbers. I cringed throughout most of Jon Krakauer’s personal account of this expedition. If you’re not a mountain climber then what these men and women endured seems not only foolhardy but downright egomaniacal. You must spend weeks going from one camp to another (Base Camp, Camp One, Camp Two, Camp Three & Camp Four), edging your way slowly up the mountain to best acclimatize your body. It is nearly impossible for your body to survive at 29,028 feet and all the while scale the world’s highest mountain. According to Krakauer, you feel near death most of the time after 25,000 feet. Your body literally starts to break down and without tank after tank of oxygen you will not survive.
So this begs the question, “Why do it?” Why push yourself so hard? Why submit your body to a near death (if you’re lucky) experience? Why risk falling off Lhotse Face, snow blindness, pulmonary edema, frostbite, or dozens of other ailments just so you can say you reached the summit of Sagarmatha, which is what the Nepalese call Mount Everest?
After reading Krakauer’s story I still cannot answer this question. I can only assume it is why any of us undertake adventurous activity—because we can. Some of us are wired to “need” to do these things. Some call us thrill seekers and I guess that’s true to an extent. But the truth lies beyond this flimsy justification. I think there’s a burning need in some of us to experience life at full throttle. I’ve never done anything half way in my life. If I succeed, I succeed big and if I fail, I fail in a grandiose manner. I think that some of us need more out of life than the rest of the world requires. That is why we find adventure (daredevil?) activities so compelling and satisfying.
So Mount Everest—the Roof of the World—is an irresistible challenge for mountain climbers, at least those with money or sponsorship. It costs in the ballpark of $35,000 – $70,000 to take part in a guided expedition. The price discrepancy is because different guides charge different prices and the permit cost is different according to whether you climb via Nepal or Tibet. You can access Mount Everest from Tibet for much less than the Nepalese government charges for permits. Similarly, some guides charge half the cost of their counterparts. Of course, some argue that you get what you pay for. It seems to me to be false economy to hire a less experienced guide and cheaper Sherpas for such a monumentally dangerous feat. But I guess I should point out that the best Everest guides in the business, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, both perished at Everest in 1996.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this story, two rival expeditions set out at roughly the same time to reach the summit of Mount Everest in May 1996. Mountain Madness Expeditions was led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall led Adventure Consults Expedition. Of course there were many others climbing the world’s tallest mountain that spring. Among them were IMAX/IWERKS Expedition, Taiwanese National Expedition, Johannesburg Sunday Times Expedition, and Indo-Tibetan Border Police Everest Expedition. Many made it to the top but most did not make it back down the mountain. That’s the irony of Everest. It is easier to reach the summit than to descend safely back to Base Camp. Timing, expertise, Mother Nature, and luck all play a hand in your success or failure. In this case, Mother Nature delivered one of the worst storms in recent years. We’re talking wind that was so strong it carried tents away in a blink of an eye, snow, freezing temperatures, and zero visibility. So it is no wonder that this remains one of the deadliest seasons in the history of Everest.
In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a review of Into Thin Air. I have no way of verifying Krakauer’s account or the facts of that day. There are many different versions of this story since different people witnessed different scenarios. Much has been pieced together since we don’t know exactly when or how some folks died. They simply did not return. We know what happened up to a point but after that it is supposition, especially as far as what someone was thinking when he or she did or didn’t do something. Furthermore, at this altitude and being out of oxygen at times, the mind plays tricks on you. You can hallucinate or be way off base about time or place. Some may have even told untruths to look better. If you stepped over an injured climber just so that you could reach the summit, you may well keep that fact to yourself. It seems like Krakauer made every attempt to tell the true story. Whether he did or not is a matter of great debate.Whether he should have even told this story seems to have sparked debate.
Since a major motion picture, Everest, was just released about this expedition, I thought it was worth a post. And as adventure travelers, we can understand and appreciate the motivations of these men and women. We have all done what some would surely deem “foolish” or “irrational” in the name of adventure. If I were to recount some of the things I’ve done, I fear I would come across as both. Suffice it to say, if you’re an adventurer, you probably get—at least on some level—the appeal of “conquering the mountain” and reaching the Roof of the World. If you’re not an adventurer, count yourself lucky that you don’t have the burning desire to do such wild and crazy things!
Regardless, you should read Into Thin Air or watch Everest as it really is an incredible story. Even though at times I was horrified and shocked, the book was interesting and enlightening. And you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about how much abuse a body can endure…
Some folks feel that we have no business climbing Mount Everest. They argue that the loss of lives is too great for a man’s folly. Some believe we are spoiling (commercializing) one of nature’s greatest gifts. Others argue that the mountain climbing business supports many people who would not otherwise be employed. What do you think?