Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Into Thin Air

I just read Into Thin Air, a tale of the fatal 1996 Everest expedition.

The author is a mountaineering enthusiast turned journalist. He went on the expedition in order to write an article about the commercialization of Everest. When he came back, he instead wrote a much longer article about the tragic events that unfolded.

Later, he continued to feel survivor's guilt, and tried to reach catharsis via recording his grief into this book.

The book really puts you into the mindset of an Everest climber. 2:00pm is the latest time to reach the summit and get back to Camp Four before nightfall. The climbers typically start for the summit around midnight and climb through the night, to get there before 2:00pm.

If by 2:00pm a climber has not reached the summit, he is advised to turn around and go back. One of the reasons for the catastrophe was that the expedition guides ignored this rule. They permitted clients to keep climbing until 4:00pm.

After the tragedy and the evacuation, other expeditions continued climbing. A couple weeks later, a South African climber by the name of Herrod summited just after 5:00pm, seven hours after the rest of his team. As soon as you read this, you know he will likely die on the mountain.

Herrod had been up on the South Col from the evening of May 9 through May 12. He'd felt the ferocity of that storm, heard the desperate radio calls for help, seen Beck Weathers crippled with horrible frostbite. Early on during his ascent of May 25, Herrod climbed right past the corpse of Scott Fischer, and several hours later at the south Summit he would have had to step over Rob Hall's lifeless legs. Apparently, the bodies made little impression on Herrod, however, for despite his lagging pace and the lateness of the hour he pressed onward to the top.

There was no further radio transmission from Herrod after his 5:15pm call from the summit.

I marvel at how someone could blithely ignore every warning and continue to ascend past 2:00pm. Stronger climbers had already perished by ignoring this rule, yet Herrod did not listen. On the other hand, I could imagine myself falling prey to this.


Wanda said...

Maybe... he didn't care?

Piaw Na said...

While this book is good reading, be aware that it's controversial amongst climbers. In particular, it paints Anatoli Boukreev in a bad light, and other respected climbers like the late Galen Rowell thinks that Boukreev did incredibly well. Here's a review of Boukreev's account.

I did once stopped dating a woman when she proudly told me she did not turn back from a Shasta summit despite incredibly bad weather conditions. It reflected a lack of good judgement.

Niniane said...

I don't think the book is as harsh on Boukreev as others seem to think. (I heard how Boukreev got a ghostwriter to write his rebuttal.)

That's funny about your former date. You didn't consider just imparting the severity of the situation on her? Maybe she acted out of ignorance and not bad judgment.

Blake said...

If you enjoyed this, you might also like his collection of essays, "Eiger Dreams". It's not as well known as his other stuff, but is an equally riveting view into the minds of climbers.

Kirk said...

There is a reason they call it the Death Zone. You have to take into account the complete exhaustion of these climbers as well as the low blood oxygen levels from the extreme altitude. It is not fair to compare compare a decision made a sea level with one made above 20,000 feet.

Niniane said...

Piaw, I read the PDF you attached. It makes sense that Boukreev would be angry if the original magazine article (in Outside) was more harsh than the book.

I do think that Boukreev was able to make his numerous heroic forays because he was well-rested in the camp. By contrast, the author of the book collapsed as soon as he got into camp, and slept until 6:00am the next day. He was not able to participate in any of the rescues, whereas Boukreev rescued three people.

Piaw Na said...

Niniane, yes, Boukreev was definitely well rested and put himself in a position where he could perform rescues, while nobody else was able to do it.

As for my date, I wasn't there. She was there, in a white out condition, and was suffering from severe altitude sickness. Despite the fact that her friends had all turned around, she pressed on ahead. At some level, that kind of foolhardiness is bad for a relationship.

writer said...

Apparently you and Kimberly have Antarctica and Mount Everest in common. She read The Other Side of Everest, which was apparently going on at exactly the same time as your book? I guess you'll have something you can talk about together. She also wants to go on an Antarctica tour.

Wes Bigelow said...

The audiobook version is excellent, read by the author himself. You can hear the emotion in his voice although he tries to be stoic about the whole thing.

Boukreev's book Above The Clouds is a worthy read. It's from his diaries about the event and also how someone makes mountaineering their whole life.

It's good for all these people to remember that they have to come back down the mountain and still live their lives. If my life was somehow incomplete without making it to the top, maybe something is wrong with how I'm living.

Sergei said...

This is a little bit out of date, but I'm just catching up on your blog after quite some time away. It is hard to imagine just how impaired one can gradually become from hypoxia. The victim is unable to self-diagnose.

Check out this recording:

One time we had a passenger solve interview coding question in an airplane at 13,000. The code he wrote down was junk, although he is normally quite good at this.

None said...

krakauer is not some 'mountaineering enthusiast' -- he is a serious climber. enthusiast makes him sound like some weekend duffer.