This is my first non-fiction review EVER and, I’m sorry to say, it might show. It is hard to assess the work that so necessarily deals with a troubling and disastrous event without addressing the author’s views as well. As is much the case with fictional works it seems as though one of the necessary questions a reader should ask themselves is, “What is the purpose of this book?” That this is a recitation of the author’s first hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster does not make the question null and void, instead it seems more pointed and vital.
For those of you who don’t know, this work by Jon Krakauer recounts the guided expedition he took up Everest during the spring of 1996. It was with a group called Adventure Consultants that Outside (a magazine) booked Krakauer for the summit climb in order to write an article about the experience. The disaster, totally unknown to me at the time, refers to that summit climb on May 10 in which eight people died during descent. Krakauer’s team alone lost four people; two out of the three guides perished as well as two clients.
This work was not simply about the deaths, but about the whole journey as well as the history of climbing on the mountain itself. Krakauer takes an obviously journalistic approach to recounting the stop in a nearby village, seeing the resident lama, and then the onward journey to Sagarmatha (the Napalese name for Everest) and the boastful highest peak of hers measuring in at 29035 ft (8848 meters). There are many flavors of the area introduced to us, how seemingly auspicious it was to be called directly to a meeting with the lama prior to the climb, as well as the friendliness of the people and the determination and competition involved in being a sherpa.
Unfortunately, where this could have been expounded upon well Krakauer can’t seem to get passed himself. Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of piousness and “poor me” attitude prevalent through out:
Trust in one’s partners is a luxury denied those who sign on as clients on a guided ascent; one must put one’s faith in the guide instead.
(This is absurd to me on many levels, the first of which is that it doesn’t address the luxury of having someone take care of so much for you including that guide who usually charges $65k a person.)
It can’t be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia (high altitude sickness).
[When making a climb of this nature it is not a matter of force to make decisions under such conditions, but rather something that should be expected. A given, as it were.]
Then there’s the matter of his absurd attempts at mathematical justification of how the summer wasn’t that bad:
Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp – which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent. Or here’s another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times-a ratio of one in four. Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit-a radio of one in seven. Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year. [p. 274] ** my notes: Comparing decades, boiling them down to a ratio then comparing them to one year doesn’t work. Measures have to be uniform for just comparison to be made.]
Still, my larger frustration with the work is the piousness with which Krakauer analyzes team mates and certain guides. Anatoli Bookreev (a guide with Fischer’s group – another attempting to summit the same time Hall’s team was) climbed without oxygen and did not pander to the clients – this was a source of contention with Krakauer, just as another client getting (perhaps demanding) help from a Sherpa to reach the summit that was beyond prudence was. That same guide later saved lives because he got up to the summit, then back down expeditiously before the blizzard hit, rested, then went out when the storm was in full effect. Krakauer, however, admits that he should have spoke to Andy Harris, explained that he was reading the Oxygen canisters wrong, instead of merely grabbing one then going on his way. Harris would later be with Robert Hall, both of whom would die on the mountain.
At times this was an interesting read, but for me it was difficult to come away from this and not harbor some hostilities against Krakauer. He’s constantly judging others, pointing a finger and stating what they’re doing wrong (his notions of wrong are notably not fixed), and when it comes to his own culpability he blows it off, diminishes them. I will say, however, it raises some very good points.
First, I now really want to read The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev about the same event; second, when taking on an endeavor that risks your life it is, perhaps, in your best interest to minimize how much faith must be put in other people to secure something so precious.
Anyone else read this book?