Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Into Thin Air

Book: Into Thin Air
Author:Jon Krakauer
Edition:eBook, read on OverDrive from the Fresno Public Library
Read: February 10, 2015
474 pages
Rated: 4  out of 5

In 1996, Krakauer was on assignment for Outside magazine. The assignment: be part of one of the commercial climbing teams going up Everest. Climbing Everest would be exciting no matter the circumstances, in 1996 he got caught up in a deadly competition among climbing companies, novice climbers, and an Everest size storm. 12 people died on the mountain that year. Krakauer turned the magazine article into a book, both to tell the story, to rebut counter stories, to assign measure of blame and to talk through his own guilt.

... to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act. Then why do it? The best answer ever has been, because it is there. Even my backpacking, some people consider irrational. But to me, it is a mostly safe and enjoyable time. It matters on your perspective. I judge the risks there is inherent to be in the outdoors to far surpassed by the gain I get from the beauty, fitness and sense of accomplishment of being there. I suspect those who climb Everest feel somewhat like that. except you also have a sense of competition and the bragging rights to being on top of the world's tallest mountain.

To continue receiving sponsorships from companies, a climber has to keep upping the ante. The next climb has to be harder and more spectacular than the last. It becomes an ever-tightening spiral; eventually you're not up to the challenge anymore. (72) Krakauer quoting Bill Atkinson. Krakauer identifies the problem with economics and capitalism. You always have to achieve more. Eventually you fail. The question is how do you get off of this  conveyer belt? If the conveyer belt is Everest, which is inherently dangerous, you now get into an unstable situation where the risks go up and statistically you will have disaster happening.

One of the problems of bringing so many Westerners into Nepal is that Nepal and its people are changing because of this exposure. Forests are being cut down to house the climbers. The quaint  Sherpa people, the backbone of expeditions are being Westernized. Video games, T-shirts, ... Krakauer notes that the people are not complaining as their level of living is rising. When a porter can earn 10 times his normal annual earnings in two months of work, it is hard to argue this change is terribly bad. Is there a case where what brings success to Nepalese will destroy them?

Did Krakauer wear on Everest the katas which the Sherpa lama blessed to keep him from harm? (91) I do not recall him saying anything about while climbing Everest. But in the beginning of the book, this is one of the stories, spends a couple of pages on it. Did it work to protect Krakauer? Or did it not work because he did not have it on and deaths resulted?

Who should be allowed to attempt to climb Everest? That is the question which Krakauer starts with. Before 1996, there were deaths, just not that many at once. Is climbing just for the elite of climbing or for anyone? Is it just for those who can pay and are in good physical condition?  Who makes the determination about who can climb? In some ways, the country of Nepal has made that determination: it is those who can pay for the permit. But that does not really answer the question of who can or maybe who is it reasonable to climb the mountain? I think there is also a bit of how are they going up that mountain? Guided by experienced mountaineers? Going with a group pretty much just providing the equipment? Self provided? Krakauer tells of a man who bicycled from Sweden to make the attempt. I believe he made it. Without a bit of skill, you will not make it past the base of Everest. Still, in my backpacking I am not sure I want someone to tell me it is OK to go somewhere, besides the need for permitting to restrict from over-usage. But I am the one who determines if I have the skill and strength to do the trip.

Also, the question of who should climb Everest comes up? In my mind the larger question can be what should any of us be allowed to do? If we are restricted because of the danger, what should be allowed? Crossing the street as a pedestrian is dangerous. Judging by the daily carnage on the road, driving should be more restricted. So what is the criteria? Who sets this criteria?

A couple of years ago at our local REI store, Ian Woodall, somewhat from South Africa, spoke about his time on Everest and recovering bodies of those who died. During his talk, he seemed quite defensive about the book-since I had not read the book yet, I was wondering why. Then I read the book Krakauer portrays him as pompous, cantankerous and a downright fraud. Why? According to Krakauer, Woodall put together an all South African climbing team which was to represent the black-white reconciliation effort. Through his leadership, the team fell apart. The journalists he recruited was kicked off the team, which lead to the newspaper dropping their sponsorship. During the time when people where dying on Everest, he refused to allow the use of his radio to connect to base camp. The irony to the all South African team was that Woodall was British, not African. I suspect the Woodall is a mixture of being a persuasive speaker with imperfect abilities as an organizer and lax morals. And, according to Wikipedia, Woodall, and his girl friend, did go back to Everest and dispose of at least one body of a friend

Are climbers daredevils? (216) That is a question Krakauer raises. Somewhat yes is the answer. But there difference is that they also have the skill and temperament to back their desires.  I have a Annie Dillard quote running through the back of my mind:
Several years ago,  I admired his [David Rahm, stunt flyer, geology professor] flying. I had thought that danger was the safest thing in the world, if you went about it right.  
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, pg 107

What is a Calvinistic undertaking? (216) or seeking a state of grace? (217) What is this Calvinistic undertaking mean? About the only thing I can hang onto is a few sentences later, Krakauer says that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. If that is what Krakauer is equating to Calvinism, then I wonder about the rest of his word usage. Does he play that lose elsewhere. Then he talks about this state of grace. Here I think he is closer to the traditional thinking that grace provides a place of rest from the sufferings being experienced. But I do not think he has in mind a Christian sense of grace which allows you to be in communion with God and his creation. Rather Krakauer is more looking for a Nirvana where all is dead to them, sufferings is no more, or at least suspended.

Krakauer blames a guide from another expedition for a good portion of the Everest disaster of 1996. There is the question of was Antoli Bourkeev a hero or villain? Krakauer says villain. I am not sure it is clean. Yes he climbed Everest without oxygen and was not able to help up on top. But he was there to rescue two others. My question is if he had been doing the role of a traditional Western guide, would he have been another causality on top? Would he have tried to convince his boss to honor the hard turn around time he had established? If he was a more traditional guide would the leader of Mountain Madness been stronger and more alert, allowing him to make better decisions? All unknowns.

But that does lead to the question, what should the relation of an Everest guide be to the clients? Bourkeev thoughts were that a guide would allow a client to make it with his own abilities and where withal. But is that what the client paid for? Did they expect more for their $65,000? Such as at least a person willing to help them over rough spots?

Solitude is a rare commodity on Everest. (251) Why go if you cannot enjoy that peace of mind from being away from 99.99999% of the world's population? At least backpacking there is many times when I can withdrawal and enjoy the world around me. Of course, I am only gasping at oxygen at 10,000', not dependent on oxygen canisters to let me live.

One of the climbing teams which come up shortly afterwards found some of the climbers still alive, but did not stop. One of the Japanese climbers explained, Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality. Do I really want to go to a place where you cannot be basically human? Why would I want to go there? What would be the overwhelming reason? I would like to think that even if I did spend $65,000 to climb Everest, that I would try to stop and see if I could do something for a person who is dying, or even try to save them. But would I? I can understand not retrieving bodies, since that is an almost impossible task. But not to help someone and just continue on, that smacks of what Jesus talks about with the Good Samaritan.

Four of my teammates died not so much because Rob Hall’s systems were faulty—indeed, nobody’s were better—but because on Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance. (405) While this is an interesting conclusion, I am not sure how true. Would Hall and Hansen have died if Hall had followed his own system of having a hard turn around time? I think that this points more to that all systems will fail when humans are introduced. We all have our own desires, wants and dreams. These interfere with the systems we construct.

Coldness of competence - a phrase from David Roberts book, Moments of Doubt pg 189. So many ways to take this phrase. To be competent in a profession, you need to be able to follow the dictates of it, without feeling. But why even live if we cannot have feelings?

Krackauer has an ability to transcend experience across the page to the reader, allowing the reader to place themselves on Everest, albeit with a bit more atmosphere and more warmth.  

There are two stories here. The first is the actual story of the doing the Everest climb in 1996, including the cold hell of friends and guides dying on its slopes. The second story is why did death happen on its slopes.

The first, Krakauer excels. He is assigned by Outside magazine the task to write on the commercialization of climbing Everest. As part of the assignment, he is a client on one of the companies doing the climb. He goes through the entire climb, going to base camp, being acclimatized, and then the big day of the climb. All of this he tells with a flare of an experienced writer and the understanding of someone used to the outdoors.

He also talks about the conditions and the people involved with the climb, You have an understanding of their personalities and why they wanted to either do this climb or why they were guiding the clients up. You recognized the guides were top notch people who were able to take take of themselves and others. You understood that the mountain also had ways of killing climbers, even the best. So it is no surprise when death happens.

The second is where Krakauer's book can be questioned-does he properly assess where fault may lie on the many deaths which occurred while he was on the mountain. I think he was too close to properly make this assessment. He was too close to the situation and too close to some of the people involved. This skews his assessment. He blames one particular guide. While I think this guide did not show good judgement, the leaders of two of the companies, two of the people who died, showed a lack of backbone in their leadership. While not glossing over their lack of good judgement, Karkauer lays principle blame elsewhere.

Should you read this book? Yes if for no other reason to help with understanding that death in the outdoors comes in many ways and can be from small decisions, gone bad.

Book Group:
  1. Why did you want to read this book?
  2. Is this the first Krakauer book you have read? Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, Three Cups of Deceit.
  3. What attracted you about the book? What gripes did you have? Mine was the phrase Calvinistic undertaking. What does that mean?
  4. Krakauer notes that to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act. How do we measure acts of irrationallity, particularly when the act is outside of our knowledge level?
  5. One of the points of Krakauer's book is that many of the climbers were inexperienced. How should the climbers be chosen, weeded out? Amount of money they bring? Climbing ability? …
  6. The big controversy in this book is first, Is there some one who is culpable for the deaths on the mountain? If so, who and why? Krakauer assigns the blame to the Russian, Bourkeev. Why does Krakauser paint him as the person who did wrong? Is Krakauer right? What part does the heads of the mountaineering outfits have in not turning back?
    1. See the Osher question on Discuss Rob Hall's decision not to turn around by 2:00...
  7. One of the Japanese climbers explained, Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality. Is there anyplace where you cannot afford morality? How do you triage a situation like this? When you have paid $65,000 does that give you the right to pursue your goals and not save someone else Could these people have been saved?
    1. See the Osher question on Talk about the decision to leave Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba to die,
  8. Like much of sports as well as business, there is push to continue to do more. to continue receiving sponsorships from companies, a climber has to keep upping the ante. Was this a correct analysis? Is this kind of model sustainable?
  9. As foreigners entered Tibet, the people changed. Video games were being played, people on phones, … It seemed like what made the country interesting is being changed. Have you ever gone to a place and then revisited it to find what you liked about the place has changed? Tell us about it.In what ways was the change for the better? Worse? Should these places change? Should our lives be changed?
We had a brief discussion on rescues and the costs.  Costs to both government and the victim is dependent on the location. Generally if it is the National Park Service, reimbursement is not sought. The Coast Guard gets the most action each year. The military, if called, uses it as a training exercise. My brother, who does SAR as a sideline, noted that in Colorado if the local SAR is called out, there is no charge, but if the fire department is called, there is a charge. So you get the idea. In a 2009 article after the Mount Hood disaster, a journalist noted that NPS would not be charging. How much does SAR cost the Park Service? About 1.9 cents a visitor. A podcast, probably around 2010, called How Stuff Works has an overview. One of my all time favor sites is the Friends of Yosemite SAR. Take a look at the pictures, then stories. Also, Yosemite NP also has a SAR site which is worth reading, but not before bedtime. 

New Words:
  • Hypoxically (39): a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of an adequate supply of oxygen supply.
  • Theodolite (43): a precision instrument for measuring angles in the horizontal and vertical planes. Theodolites are used mainly for surveying applications, and have been adapted for specialized purposes in fields like meteorology and rocket launch technology.
  • Raconteur (69): a person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way
  • Crepuscular (82): of, relating to, or resembling twilight :
  • indolent (89): wanting to avoid activity or exertion; lazy; (of a disease condition) causing little or no pain
  • rimpoche (91): Tibetan Buddhist lama who was born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1939. His personal name is Gelek; kyabje and rimpoche are titles meaning "teacher" and "precious," respectively
  • katas (91):
  • ambrosial (92): very pleasing to the sense of taste or smell
  • suppurating (115): undergo the formation of pus; fester
  •  peripatetic (118): traveling from place to place, especially working or based in various places for relatively short periods
  • serac (132): A serac (originally from Swiss French sérac) is a block or column of glacial ice, often formed by intersecting crevasses on a glacier. Commonly house-sized or larger, they are dangerous to mountaineers since they may topple with little warning.
  • histrionic (135): overly theatrical or melodramatic in character or style
  • analgesic (142):  drugs used to relieve pain
  • Chorten (209): built in 1974 to honour the 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972), is a prominent landmark in the city with its golden spires and bells. In 2008, it underwent extensive renovation. It is popularly known as "the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan".
  • Avuncular (209): of or relating to the relationship between men and their siblings' children
  • mirabile visu (256): latin-wonderful to see
  • obdurate (277): stubbornly refusing to change one's opinion or course of action
  • hypoxic (281): a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply
  • Compos mentis (411): having full control of one's mind; sane

Book References:
  • The Climb by Anatoli Bourkeev and G. Weston Dewalt
  • Sheer Will by Micheal Groom
  • Everest : Mountain Without Mercy by Broughton Coburn, Tim Cahill (Introduction), David Breashears.  National Geographic Society, 1997. 
    Brashears, David, John Mallory, and Audrey Salkeld.
  •  Brashears, David, John Mallory, and Audrey Salkeld. Last Climb : The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory. National Geographic Society, 1999.
  • Weathers, Beck. Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest New York: Villard Books, 2000.
  • High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places by Jon Krakauer and David Breashears
  • Krakauer cites 16 books in a selected bibliography
  •  Upon That Mountain by Eric Shipton
  • Everest: The West Ridge By Thomas F. Hornbein
  • Letter from a Man by John Menlove Edwards
  • The Savage God: A Study of Suicide by A Alvarez
  • Everest by Walt Unsworth
  • Alone to Everest by Earl Denman
  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Moments of Doubt by David Roberts
  • The Crystal Horizon by Reinhold Messner
  • Lord Jim by Joesph Conrad
  • "Manipulations" by Harold Brodkey
  • Scott's Last Expedition by Robert Falcon Scott
  • The Epic of Mount Everest by Sir Francis Younghusband
  • "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats
  • The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrad
  • Blood Orchid by Charles Bowden

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:In March 1996, Outside magazine sent me to Nepal to participate in, and write about, a guided ascent of Mount Everest.
  • Last Line: Seven weeks later, however, Anatoli was killed on Annapurna, and I realized that I'd begun conciliatory efforts much too late.
  •  With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive. 233, quote from Rob Hall
  • in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die. 277
  • ...lucid thought is all but impossible at 29,000'. 402
  • Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilised world. quoted from Jose Oretga y Gasset on pg 18
  • But there are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. Usually they are not experts: their ambitions and fantasies are strong enough to brush aside the doubts which more cautious men might have. Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad... by Walt Unsworth, Everest
  • We tell ourselves stories in order to live... by Joan Didion, The White Album
  •  How much of the appeal of mountaineering lies in its simplification of interpersonal relationships, its reduction of friendship to smooth interaction (like war), its substitution of an Other (the mountain, the challenge) for the relationship itself? by  David Roberts in  Moments of Doubt, pg 189
  •  It is so pleasant to sit doing nothing - and therefore so dangerous. Death through exhaustion is like death through freezing - a pleasant one. by Reinhold Messner in  The Crystal Horizon, pg 248
  •  I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquillity, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to re-enter and be riven....I admire the authority of being on one's knees in front of the event. by Harold Brodkey in "Manipulations"

  • Author's Facebook site
  • Wikipedia-Book
  • Wikipedia-Author
  • Amazon-Book
  • Amazon-Author
  • Barnes and Noble
  • GoodReads-Book
  • GoodReads-Author
  • New York Times Books review
  • Random House interview with Jon Krakauer
  •  Quizlet Into Thin Air vocabulary
  • Dramatization of IntoThin Air called Death on Everest

    Notes from the CSU, Fresno Osher Book Club (with thanks to Kay Davies):
    This updated trade paperback edition of Into Thin Air includes an extensive new postscript that sheds fascinating light on the acrimonious debate that flared between Krakauer and Everest guide Anatoli Boukreev in the wake of the tragedy. "I have no doubt that Boukreev's intentions were good on summit day," writes Krakauer in the postscript, dated August 1999. "What disturbs me, though, was Boukreev's refusal to acknowledge the possibility that he made even a single poor decision. Never did he indicate that perhaps it wasn't the best choice to climb without gas or go down ahead of his clients." As usual, Krakauer supports his points with dogged research and a good dose of humility. But rather than continue the heated discourse that has raged since Into Thin Air's denouncement of guide Boukreev, Krakauer's tone is conciliatory; he points most of his criticism at G. Weston De Walt, who co-authored The Climb, Boukreev's version of events. And in a touching conclusion, Krakauer recounts his last conversation with the late Boukreev, in which the two weathered climbers agreed to disagree about certain points. Krakauer had great hopes to patch things up with Boukreev, but the Russian later died in an avalanche on another Himalayan peak, Annapurna I.
    In 1999, Krakauer received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters—a prestigious prize intended "to honor writers of exceptional accomplishment." According to the Academy's citation, "Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer. His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general re-evaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport; while his account of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, who died of starvation after challenging the Alaskan wilderness, delves even more deeply and disturbingly into the fascination of nature and the devastating effects of its lure on a young and curious mind."
    Discussion Questions
    1. Much like Krakauer's other book, Into the Wild, many readers lacked sympathy for the climbers and were angered by their lack of skill and the carelessness of the guides who attempted to get them to the top, letting a hefty fee get in the way of sound judgment. What is your opinion?
    2. Discuss Rob Hall's decision not to turn around by 2:00 as he had stipulated but to help Doug Hansen reach the summit. It was a difficult decision because it was Hansen's second attempt, and the men had both an emotional and a monetary stake in Doug's success. If you were in that situation (yeah, right...), would you have been tempted to push to the top, to reach a goal that you'd trained for and wished for...and paid for?
    3. Talk about the decision to leave Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba to die, knowing both were still alive. There was only one choice, however difficult: let nature take its inevitable course..., and save the group's resources for those who could actually be helped. It was a classic act of triage.
    4. Which individual did you find yourself most symphathizing with ... which did you most admire ... which least admire?

    5. Who pays for the expensive search and rescue efforts? Is it right to endanger other lives (helicopter pilots) to transport injured climbers down to hospitals?
    6. What did you make of the survivors' attitudes, especially Beck Weather's, when Krakauer later contacted them?
    7. How would you feel about a loved one who was passionate about climbing, who felt the pull toward Everest or K2? Would you encourage him/her to pursue the dream...or be more mindful of leaving behind families should something happen?