Mt. Everest Essay, Research Paper
Although Mount Everest had defied human attempts to conquer it for more than a century, although one person had died for every four who made it to the top, the world’s loftiest mountain had, in recent years, come to seem more accessible, even tame: in 1993, 40 climbers reached the summit on one day alone. As the journalist Jon Krakauer notes in his gripping new book (”Into Thin Air”), Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants expedition, bragged that he could get almost any reasonably fit person to the summit. His rival Scott Fischer, head of the Mountain Madness expedition, boasted, ”We’ve got the big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired.”
On May 10, 1996, both Hall and Fischer along with another Adventure Consultants guide and two clients died in a sudden blizzard that swept across the mountain. By the end of the month, a record 12 climbers had lost their lives on the mountain.
Having joined Hall’s group to do an Outside magazine article on the growing commercialization of Everest, Mr. Krakauer provides the reader with a harrowing account of the disaster as it unfolded hour by hour. An experienced climber himself, Mr. Krakauer gives us both a tactile appreciation of the dangerous allure of mountaineering and a compelling chronicle of the bad luck, bad judgment and doomed heroism that led to the deaths of his climbing companions. His book turns out to be every bit as absorbing and unnerving as his 1996 best seller, ”Into the Wild,” the story of a young man named Christopher Johnson McCandless who left civilization and died mysteriously in the Alaskan wilderness.
As described by Mr. Krakauer, even the routine facts of climbing in the death zone (above 25,000 feet) sound dangerous and painful. Bone-chilling, finger-freezing cold at night and blinding, skin-burning solar radiation at noon, not to mention the perils of frostbite, hypothermia, HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, brought on by climbing too high, too fast) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema).
In the case of Everest, the climber must also negotiate seracs, huge, tottering blocks of ice (sometimes 12 stories tall) that can topple over without warning. Sheer faces of ice must be scaled with the help of axes and ropes, while crevasses — glacial fissures that continually open and close — must be bridged with ladders lashed end to end. ”The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on,” Mr. Krakauer writes. ”I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.”
In response to the question the reader repeatedly wants to ask — Why would anyone in his right mind want to try such a thing? — Mr. Krakauer supplies a variety of answers. Because it’s there, because it’s a challenge, because it offers a chance for ”minor celebrity, career advancement, ego massage.” For the earliest climbers, it was ”the most coveted object in the realm of terrestrial exploration” after the conquest of the North and South Poles. For their elite followers, it was a kind of grail, a test of skill and will and courage.
”Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there,” Mr. Krakauer writes of ”the culture of ascent.” ”Prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.”
All this began to change in 1985, Mr. Krakauer observes, when Dick Bass, a wealthy 55-year-old Texan with limited climbing experience, reached the summit of Everest with the help of a gifted young climber named David Breashears. Suddenly Everest seemed within reach of the weekend climber, at least the rich weekend climber with enough money to acquire the very best guides and the very best equipment. By 1996, the most reputable guide services were charging $65,000 to join an Everest expedition.
Indeed, Mr. Krakauer quickly discovered that his fellow Everest clients were ”nothing like the hard-core climbers” he had climbed with in the past. Among them were Seaborn Beck Weathers, a 49-year-old Dallas pathologist who described himself as a Walter Mitty type (he later lost an arm and the digits of his other hand, to frostbite), and Sandy Hill Pittman, a wealthy New York socialite who arrived with a satellite phone, two computers, a CD-ROM player, an espresso maker and ‘’stacks of press clippings about herself to hand out to the other denizens of Base Camp.”
Neither expensive technological gear nor raw technical expertise, however, were enough to save those climbers who died in the blizzard that unexpectedly kicked up on May 10. Mr. Krakauer acknowledges that human errors were made. Intent on getting their people to the summit, the guides, already exhausted from shepherding their less competent clients, ignored the turnaround time of 2 P.M. they had set to reach safe ground by night. Both Fischer and Hall, after all, had a lot to gain by delivering on their promise of a successful ascent: publicity, renown and more clients down the line.
In the end, it was the mountain itself and the random hazards of weather that determined the climbers’ fate, for as Mr. Krakauer notes, ”on Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance.”
Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.
Date: May 18, 1997, Late Edition – Final
Byline: By Alastair Scott
INTO THIN AIR
A Personal Account of the
Mount Everest Disaster.
By Jon Krakauer.
Illustrated. 293 pp. New York:
Villard Books. $24.95.
”With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” observed Rob Hall, the leader of a commercial expedition, on his eighth tour of Mount Everest. ”The trick is to get back down alive.”
The particular descent ahead of those on the ”hill” on May 10, 1996, resulted in the greatest loss of life in the history of mountaineering on Everest. As news spread of the nine deaths (including that of Hall, who spoke to his wife in New Zealand by radiophone as he lay stranded in a snowstorm on the summit ridge), a barrage of questions resounded: What went wrong? Why was the approaching storm ignored? And, most emphatically, why are ”tourists” with more money than expertise being taken up Everest in the first place?
Jon Krakauer was one of the survivors, and in ”Into Thin Air” he relives the storm and its aftermath, trying to answer those questions. As he sees it, essentially nothing ”went wrong,” at least in terms of the storm, which struck with little warning. Instead, the root of the problem lies in the famous explanation George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb the mountain, an explanation that still holds true, albeit with a slight amendment. People climb Mount Everest because it — and the money — is there.
Mr. Krakauer was 42 at the time of the disastrous attempt on the highest peak in the Himalayas. Formerly an enthusiastic mountaineer but by then a slightly overweight author and journalist, he was sent by Outside magazine to write about the commercialization of Everest. He joined a fee-paying expedition led by Hall, using what Mr. Krakauer and his climber friends called ”the Yak Route,” over the less severe Southeast Ridge. In 1985, one of the first tourists was ushered to the top. Since then, as many as 40 people have reached the summit on a single day. In the spring of 1996, no fewer than 30 expeditions were preparing to ascend the mountain. Mr. Krakauer traveled to the Everest Base Camp through a region that is now visited by 15,000 trekkers every year. In the nearby hamlet of Lobuje, ”huge stinking piles of human feces lay everywhere.” He was astonished to find more than 300 tents at the base camp and, later, over 1,000 empty oxygen cylinders discarded at 26,000 feet on the South Col.
While Mr. Krakauer recoiled from such sights, his mind was also full of other concerns: ”I wasn’t sure what to make of my fellow clients. In outlook and experience they were nothing like the hard-core climbers with whom I usually went into the mountains. But they seemed like nice, decent folks.” Among them were a ”gentlemanly lawyer” from Michigan, a 56-year-old Australian anesthesiologist, a 47-year-old Japanese woman (who was bagging the highest peaks on each continent and would be left behind on this one) and an American postal worker who had almost conquered Everest the previous year. They had little or no mountaineering experience and had paid $65,000 each, excluding airfare and equipment costs, to be led to the summit.
”Into Thin Air” is a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it. ”The expedition . . . became an almost Calvinistic undertaking,” Mr. Krakauer remarks, adding that he ”quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.” Most people who publish mountaineering books are more skillful as adventurers than they are as writers; Mr. Krakauer is an exception. The author of three previous books (”Iceland,” ”Eiger Dreams” and ”Into the Wild”), he has produced a narrative that is both meticulously researched and deftly constructed. Unlike the expedition, his story rushes irresistibly forward. But perhaps Mr. Krakauer’s greatest achievement is his evocation of the deadly storm, his ability to re-create its effects with a lucid and terrifying intimacy.
”Into Thin Air” is also a work of atonement. No one could have done much for those who were lost, but Mr. Krakauer still feels remorse. ”I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life,” he confesses in his introduction. ”It hasn’t, of course. Moreover, I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment.”
After the tragedy, there were calls for the banning of commercial expeditions from Mount Everest. Some suggested that guide-to-client ratios should be increased to 1-to-1. Others recommended that the use of supplemental oxygen be prohibited, thus closing Everest to all but supremely fit mountaineers. Mr. Krakauer offers no definite answers, but he recognizes that for a poor country like Nepal tourism is a major source of income. The Government charges $70,000 for a climbing permit, which covers an expedition of up to seven people, with $10,000 added for each additional climber. The blunt fact remains: there is no economic incentive to reduce the traffic on Mount Everest.
According to Mr. Krakauer, Rob Hall ”ran the tightest, safest operation on the mountain.” But although Hall was ”a compulsively methodical man,” he and his competitors knew that their success depended on the number of clients they could deliver to and from the summit, and their rivalry may have impaired their judgment. Mr. Krakauer calls the amateur climbers ”Walter Mittys with Everest dreams” who ”need to bear in mind that when things go wrong up in the Death Zone — and sooner or later they always do — the strongest guides in the world may be powerless to save a client’s life; indeed, as the events of 1996 demonstrated, the strongest guides in the world are sometimes powerless to save even their own lives.”
Up until May 1996, Mount Everest had been climbed some 630 times and had claimed 144 lives. Although a record 12 people died in 1996, 84 reached the summit, which actually made it ”a safer-than-average year.” ”In fact,” Mr. Krakauer concludes, ”the murderous outcome of 1996 was in many ways simply business as usual.”
Books of The Times
Date: September 5, 1983, Monday, Late City Final Edition Section 1; Page 27, Column 1; Cultural Desk
Byline: By ANATOLE BROYARD
CATHEDRAL. By Raymond Carver. 228
Diffuse Regrets pages. Knopf. $13.95 A small, good thing” is one of the two best stories in ”Cathedral,” Raymond Carver’s third collection. It shows you how his stories work – when they do work, that is.
Though this is necessarily something of an oversimplification, the story is about a woman who orders a cake from a bakery for her son’s eighth birthday. But the boy is struck by a car on his way to school and taken to a hospital, where he dies after a few days. The baker, unaware of this, makes anonymous phone calls asking, ”Have you forgotten your son?”
Finally, the boy’s mother and father go to see the baker, who, when he learns what happened, offers them hot rolls, coffee and sympathy. His loneliness – he has no wife or children – and his ordinariness, together with the warmth and nourishment of his work, make him into a sort of symbol, and the boy’s mother and father sit in his shop and allow themselves to be comforted. It’s as if he had reheated their lives and kept them from going stale.
It is typical of Mr. Carver’s stories that comfort against adversity is found in incongruous places, that people find improbable solace. The improbable and the homely are Mr. Carver’s territory. He works in the bargain basement of the soul.
”Cathedral,” the title story and perhaps Mr. Carver’s best piece to date, is – again allowing for over- simplification – about a blind man who comes to visit a married couple. He’s an old friend of the wife, but a stranger to the husband, who is both jealous and uneasy at the prospect of entertaining a blind man.
But the blind man is cocky and robust, with a familiar manner and a booming voice. He eats and drinks heartily and frustrates all the husband’s condescensions. After the wife falls asleep, the blind man and the husband turn on the television set, which the blind man says he ”watches” all the time. There’s a program about cathedrals, and it occurs to the husband that the blind man may have no conception of what a cathedral looks like.
After the husband tries unsuccessfully to convey an idea of a cathedral, the blind man suggests that they draw one together, with his hand on top of the husband’s. Afterward, he traces the drawing as if it were in Braille.
The point of the story lies in the mystery of human resourcefulness. In drawing a cathedral for the blind man, the husband has also experienced it for the first time and learned to see and feel in another way.
Some of the other stories in ”Cathedral” are not so easy to describe or to respond to. There are inspired touches, such as a couple who have a very ugly baby and a peacock, or a father who travels all the way to Europe to realize that he does not want to see his son, who is studying there.
But several of these pieces are as enigmatic as anything in fiction today. In ”Preservation,” a couple seems utterly undone, almost panicked, by the fact that their refrigerator has gone off. It never occurs to them to fix it, as if all vicissitudes were final, as if the heart of their life together had suddenly ceased to beat.
In a similar story called ”Careful,” the ear of a recently separated man become stopped up. Instead of going to a doctor, he phones his wife, as if only she can cure him. But one feels here that the metaphor is too pat, like the refrigerator. Then fate seems rigged by the author, who has arbitrarily eliminated all the natural alternatives.
Mr. Carver seems fascinated by disconsolateness and the precariousness of happiness. His stories are rather like the proletariat fiction of the 1930’s, but these are proletariats of the psyche, not of economic forces. They are the silent majority of fiction, and Mr. Carver is like one of those intellectuals who wear work shoes and overalls. In most of his stories, failure or a vague diffuse regret are the principle drama.
Where, the reader wonders, is the folk energy, the manic invention, that makes the similarly placed characters of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor so vigorously interesting? We care about those people because they act, they believe in action. The loss of the belief in action may be Mr. Carver’s melancholy theme, and it can certainly be argued that this, too, is important. At least it’s an issue that seems to divide current fiction.
The trouble with this school of writing, though, is that it obliges the reader to be something of a semiologist, an interpreter of the faded signs of culture. The drama is almost always offstage, beyond the characters. Yet, compared with his previous two collections of stories, ”Cathedral” shows an increase in vitality. Like a missionary, Mr. Carver seems to be gradually reclaiming or redeeming his characters.