And the risk that might break you is the one that would save.
A life you don’t live is still lost.
So stand on the edge with me.
Hold back your fear and see
nothing is real till it’s gone.
Goo Goo Dolls, “Before It’s Too Late”
I have a rather newly developed thirst for adventure. For most of my life, I found enough in the books I read: treasure hunting and killing pirates with Robert Louis Stevenson, resurrecting dinosaurs with Michael Crichton, perpetuating the prophecies of witches with William Shakespeare, even – reluctant as I am to admit it – falling in love with vampires with Stephenie Meyer (although I really prefer werewolves). But more recently, I found that while great books are nigh-perfect conveyors of information and emotion, they simply can’t provide a substitute for all life’s experiences. Some experiences must be lived.
I found this out firsthand when a good friend surprised me with a tandem skydive as a graduation present. No matter how many books I could read about it, no matter how many articles I could find online, no matter how perfectly another skydiver might describe it – I would never have really understood unless I’d done it for myself. I wouldn’t have understood the uncanny solidity of the rush of air past my face, the roar in my ears that drowned out my screams, the blur of a blue and green vortex swirling around me in my disorientation as I initially tumbled from the plane and then rocketed at 120+ miles per hour toward the earth… It changed me. It got me out of my room, off my posterior, and into this beautiful world.
Now if only I could afford all the exploits I want to undertake. But alas, skydiving, traveling, excavating dinosaurs, photographing lions in the Okavango Delta, and – should the technology be developed in my lifetime – building my own Starship Enterprise are all rather expensive endeavors. What an ironic misfortune to be enthusiastic and broke… So for now, a dreamer I must remain, the ex-teacher-in-career-crisis, doing what I can, and otherwise living vicariously through my first true love – books.
And I do live in books. I have lived in them my entire life. Even before I could read, I was told stories and read to on a regular basis. So don’t misunderstand – books are not simply my outlet to live out what I’m yet to do (although that is a perk); books are life and love and family to me. And the best books are those that are perfectly real and honest about life and death, those with lessons to learn, those that not only engage and interest a reader but go so far as to invite her into the setting to experience the tumult and surprise and awe and joy and heartache alongside the narrator or characters – those that portray those grand and frightening experiences.
So when I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, I was rendered speechless. My affinity for adventure had caused me to pick it up. “Mountain climbing? Sounds good to me!” I’d thought at the time. What better adventure story than that of a dangerous quest to the summit of Mount Everest? But as I quickly found out, there is so very much more to this story than a mountain-climbing incident. In Into Thin Air, Krakauer describes a 1996 guided expedition of Mount Everest and the dangers that beset him and the other climbers, several of whom perished on the mountain. In a first-person narrative, Krakauer recounts the perils of Everest in a matter-of-fact but incredibly moving tone. And listening to the audio recording read by Krakauer himself as I read along wrought an even more intimate and honest quality within the story.
Let me first clarify: I have no intention of comparing a couple of tandem skydives, in which I was both statistically and practically in far less danger than Krakauer and his teammates on Everest, to the author’s emotionally-wracking, life-and-death struggles on the world’s highest mountain; with the exception of risk, as Krakauer asserts, mountain climbing is nothing like skydiving: “What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour… I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.” My skydiving experience was simply my “wake-up call,” as it were; it was the thing that made me realize that life consists of more than four walls. And that epiphany of the dilettante skydiver, in turn, drew my attention to the veteran mountain climber’s story.
Krakauer begins the book with his experience on the summit of Mount Everest, and the rest of the story consists of what happens before and after. His summit experience is contrary to the glory and exhilaration readers might expect to find in his descriptions; on the summit, literally the top of the world, where so few have journeyed, Krakauer says, “I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.” Exhausted, unable to retain nourishment, sleep-deprived, suffering from separated ribs due to an unending cough, Krakauer tells readers what it’s really like on Everest. Hardly a hearty, exciting celebration of triumph.
Others among Krakauer’s teammates and other expedition members suffered similar ailments, and worse, such as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – a condition that causes swelling of the brain, impaired mental and physical capabilities, and in some cases, coma, and death. These difficulties and more assailed the 1996 Everest climbers, yet they persevered.
The fact the Krakauer begins with such a bleak and dismal image of his triumph of the summit foreshadows the horror of the descent. A terrible storm was near, a storm that would catch some of the climbers and stop them where they were, preventing their making it back to camp, and sending others scrambling everywhere but camp. For my regular readers (if I may flatter myself so to believe that I do in fact have regular readers), you’ll know I refrain from plot summaries, serious “spoilers,” and giveaways in an effort to preserve the integrity of the authors’ own stories, as well as to interest you in the books yourself. But for this book in particular, I feel compelled even more than usual to do so.
I’m reluctant to even refer to the other climbers by name simply out of respect, for I was not there and did not experience what they did. What right have I, an outsider, to discuss them in detail? I lay awake at 2:00 AM in the dark weeping after listening to Krakauer himself describe the deterioration and deaths of his friends, the miserable decisions of which climbers to leave for dead, the dreadful anxiety of mistakes that cost lives, the heart-wrenching confusion of being a survivor and knowing that comrades would be left behind on the mountain… That very early morning I finished the book, I couldn’t fall asleep. When I’d squeeze my eyes closed, lachrymose images played across them: those of shaking, near-corpses in their death throes; those already dead and frozen; the sick and distraught survivors; the anguished families as they received word that their loved one wouldn’t return from the mountain. I could hear the voices calling out for help that couldn’t come. I could read the minds of the survivors who couldn’t help but ask why.
As an outsider, as one who was not there and did not experience the nightmare, it’s so easy to place blame, to criticize, and to offer our own smug opinions about what should have been done to save lives. But I prefer to instead thank Jon Krakauer for relating his story to us; I can’t imagine the resolve it must have taken to offer such as story to a discriminating and often arrogant public. Krakauer tells us that he feels that he “…was a party to the death of good people…” and that that knowledge will stay with him; I, however, say (quite humbly) that I see this tragedy as an exceptionally unfortunate accident, one that could not necessarily have been prevented entirely. No one has the right to say, “Well, if it had been me, I would have….” or “If so-and-so had just done this or that….” One person might have remained unwaveringly courageous, or might just as well have lost all sensibilities in fear. I also know that no apology or kind word can bring a lost loved one back from the mountain, and even now, months after finishing the book, I still weep for them. There’s simply no way I can fully understand that despair, and words are painfully inadequate to express my sorrow for their losses.
I reiterate, I simply cannot place blame. I cannot say that any person is at fault. But are we to say that those lost are responsible for themselves, as they knew the risk they were taking? Are we to continue to personify Everest, projecting cruelty, indifference, and murderous tendencies onto it, and let this be the reason for the deaths? Shall we call it chance or bad luck? Could it be a lack of respect for the sacredness of Sagarmatha? Or mankind’s innate hubris, the desperate need to rend the despicable prefix “Im-” from “Impossible” as Beowulf rent Grendel’s bloody arm from his body? Maybe all of these. Maybe none. Krakauer offers us his explanation: “…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.” But no matter the reasons for the losses, I encourage you, readers, to not allow the deaths of the Everest climbers to be in vain. They all went to the mountain for their own reasons, but they all had one thing in common: the courage to decide that the risk was worth it.
After my first tandem skydive, I decided confidently (or perhaps, arrogantly or stupidly) that if I were to die skydiving, there would be absolutely no better way to go – doing something few people do, something that provides a unique and beautiful view of the world, something exhilarating and memorable, something that requires real guts and resolve… But after reading Into Thin Air, I realize what a selfish notion that is. I might feel victorious and justified considering such a death (rightly so or not), but I hadn’t previously given thought to those who would be left behind, continuing to live with the turmoil of that death. That isn’t to say that I’ve been scared off, but rather I will make sure my family and friends know how I feel about them, about the risks I take, and about my attitude toward life and death.
In closing, I must once again extend my thanks to Jon Krakauer for writing what was undoubtedly a difficult book to write. He understands that thirst for adventure, but he also knows what it can cost. I’ve taken so much from his story. And as I said about continuing to skydive, I’m not afraid to pursue all my goals, even the riskier ones; but I have received a healthy dose of the author’s firsthand wisdom that will serve me well. I’ll continue to live, both in my books and outside them; and someday my enthusiasm will wed its perfect outlet. Continuing forward, and upward, is my path right now. It’s too late to avoid all the storms, but perhaps I won’t succumb to the worst of the dangers. Perhaps.
Pages: 333 FOA Pages: 19,220