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Book 51 Completed

August 5, 2010

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer did not disappoint me. He is a truly compelling read — thought-provoking and with great emotional depth. I was totally engrossed in the details about the failed Everest expedition; the nail-biting was real, the sadness at the loss of life was heartbreaking, and the villains larger than life.

The book is worth reading. But I’m an easy-sell on Krakauer’s books — even if his vocabulary is impressively lofty — holy thesaurus.

But what I am still thinking about, after finishing the final pages, is the question that haunted me from page one: What on God’s green (or glacial) earth compels people to climb this deadly mountain? Okay, no…I get it. It’s the top of the world — literally. It’s not an impossible feat. There is fame and prestige awaiting those who make it to the summit and successfully make it back down. On a very basic level, I do understand the appeal of adding your name to the growing list of successful attempts.

However, from what I can gather from this book, climbing Everest isn’t your average thrill-seeking adventure. It’s painful. Your lungs feel like they are being ripped apart, your chances of suffering from altitude-induced pulmonary or cerebral edemas is great, you will likely get frostbite — and that is, of course, assuming that you aren’t hit in the head by a tumbling bolder, struck by an avalanche, accidentally walk off the side of a cliff, or run out of oxygen. (1 in 4 climbers have died trying to reach the summit. Would you jump out of an airplane if you had a 25% chance of parachute failure?)

Krakauer talks about how everyone was getting earth-shattering headaches, their fingernails were falling off, no one could keep any calories down, and hallucinations were just part of the deal.

No thank you. Sounds HORRIFIC. Only a sadist would pay (in 1996 — who knows what it costs now) roughly $70,000 to get guided up a giant death-trap.

Right, which  brings me to my second point and something that Krakauer explores in-depth. The commercialization of Everest is at the core of this tragic tale. A long time ago, men and women (okay, not really women) climbed the mountain because they were the best mountaineers in the world. But now, any Tom, Dick, and Harry can plop down money, hire a guide, and get pulled up the mountain. The inexperience of climbers and the money-race between expeditions offering guided trips, is at the root of what happened atop that summit in May 1996. Since guides having paying customers, they are less likely to trust their instincts about turning back for the camps. Can you really tell a guy whose 200 yards from the summit to head back down? After he’s paid that much money?

So, not only is this book a tale of adventure and tragedy (and some pretty amazing Lazarus-quality moments too), but it’s a deep exploration into what has become of Everest climbing in the past thirty years. Commercialization, sherpas, using oxygen or not using oxygen, evil leaders. Because I am going to sit at home and read about Everest and never-ever-ever-ever even see that mountain with my own two eyes, Into Thin Air provided me with a glimpse at this crazy mountain. Captivating. Thrilling. I recommend it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mome Rath permalink
    August 5, 2010 8:11 pm

    Sounds like an exciting book, and it’s one I’ve meant to check out but haven’t gotten to yet. Like you, I can understand the adventure aspect, but I’m amazed at how many people participate in the danger of the climb. I’d only attempt Everest vicariously through a good book. That said, I have done some low-level mountaineering (with guides and crampons and ice axes) in Canada, and the views at the top were exhilirating and very worthwhile. The 3am wake-up call amidst snow flurries and freezing rain was not so much.

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