Monthly Archives: March 2011

Into Thin Air

This was a million months ago. Jon Krakauer wrote this book, which is somewhat about the drive to climb really tall mountains and somewhat about the effect of commercial guiding operations on high-altitude mountain climbing, and then mostly and specifically about being on an Everest-climbing expedition in which people died. If you’re curious but don’t want to read the book–the book’s better–you can read Krakauer’s article about it here. (The article’s account of Andy Harris’s death has since been disproved and corrected.)

Reading this was all about the dread of knowing that it does not go well. It’s like watching a horror movie–“Don’t leave your cell phone behind! Don’t run upstairs! Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie?”–except the analogous yelling would be “Don’t you know you’re on Mr. Everest?” and that’s not a question.* The climbers’ mistakes seem small and unfairly portentous, but I couldn’t empathize the way I might with the serial-killer-stalkee, because, however unlikely it is that I’ll be targeted by a strange murderer, it’s even less likely that I’ll be beamed to Everest in a transporter. At that altitude, it’s apparently difficult to eat, sleep, or think. Krakauer’s cough separated some ribs. And in addition to pushing personal limits over which one arguably has some control, there’s the risk of spontaneously bleeding into the brain or lungs. Two of the names after “in memory of” on the dedication page belong to people who died in two separate avalanches after the climbing season Krakauer chronicles.

Krakauer is scrupulous in reporting the facts he witnessed and investigated–detailed, nuanced, careful. And I don’t mean, by saying that I didn’t empathize with the climbers, that the story lacked drama. The stakes, combined with the knowledge that this really happened, made for plenty, if distant, pathos. I don’t know what to make of my voyeurism in reading disaster books like this, or tendency to wax metaphorical when thinking about the leader of the team stranded on the highest point on the planet overnight in a storm, trying to help his client-friend. Krakauer’s own meaning-making is omnivorous. He talks about the history of attempts on Everest, the effect of Everest-climbing on Nepal’s economy, the climbing skills and practices of those on the mountain, the prestige and backgrounds of various guides. And he includes quotations: Joan Didion, from The White Album (which I still want very much to read),

We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and to introduce the book as a whole, José Ortega y Gasset: “Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.”

(Another Jon Krakauer I want to read is Under the Banner of Heaven. It combines two topics sure to keep me reading Wikipedia and sundry blogs until dawn: religious fundamentalists and strange murderers.)

*Despite how I will continue to torture this analogy, I don’t watch horror movies. The empathy makes them scary.



Filed under excerpts, reading, recirculated internet