Goddess, Mother of the World

Into Thin Air: A personal account of the Everest disaster - Jon Krakauer

Harrowing and yet totally fascinating. 


My interest in the 1996 Everest disaster spawned in the aftermath of viewing one of 2015s blockbuster films, simply titled Everest. My father and I took a trip to the cinema to see it on the eve of our first ever walk over striding edge ridge up to Helvellyn Mountain. Although not anything close to the scale of Everest, I was quite nervous about my first ever walk over a narrow ridge a couple of thousand feet up in the Lake District. In hindsight, watching a mountain disaster movie wasn't the best thing to do to help calm my nerves. 


I don’t regret it though. It left a deep imprint on me. First and foremost there is Rob Hall, a man with a pregnant wife risking his life by taking people up and down one of the World’s most dangerous mountains every year. Sure he was an experienced, talented climber and you’d probably think a guy like that would be able to deal with most situations… But at the end of the day storms don’t discriminate, avalanches don’t wait for people to get clear before they happen, the human body can only cope with so much no matter who you are. I came out of the cinema just totally awestruck at what motivates people who risk it all to get to the top of the peak of the world.


Straight away I visited Wikipedia with that familiar hunger for information, a burning curiosity to find out more, to try and understand why they all do it, why things go so wrong. Jon Krakauer’s name kept popping up with his book into thin air, the most well-known book about the disaster followed by Anatoli Boukreev’s version, the climb. Both Boukreev and Krakauer were present on the day of the disaster and the actions of both would could under scrutiny after the disaster.


I have to say that I will never judge Jon Krakauer for not going out of his tent during the storm to try and save other people’s lives. In my eyes he made the correct decision, it might be one that is morally questionable, but it is one that saved a life, albeit his own. I will also never criticize Anatoli Boukreev for being a guide without using supplemental oxygen. Boukreev did manage to save 3 people’s lives in the storm. He was a hero and could have died in the process. Krakauer’s criticisms in into thin air seem unnecessary and one thing they have done is divert the discussion away from the issues that really matter about the 1996 Everest disaster, reducing the debate down to petty squabbling and finger pointing.


Which is why I will steer away from that and say that I think Beck Weathers deserves attention for pulling off an incredible feat of survival; His story isn’t celebrated enough. Here was a man who was left for dead on the mountain, who then spent 15 hours at sub-zero temperatures, during a storm and somehow managed to pull himself up and get back to camp. Only to then be left in the night again in a tent that was blown open by the storm, because the others didn’t think he’d survive his condition. Yet survive he did and thanks to some ridiculously risky piloting, he was hauled off the mountain at 21,000 feet by a helicopter.


It must be devastating to go through incredible trauma to survive the elements, to think that you are dead and you will never see your loved ones again, only to be left a second time. He deserves all the praise he can get for having the sheer strength to live.


I’ve got sidetracked a little and this has gone away from a review of the book and more a general commentary on the day’s events. Sorry it’s hard to stay on track because it fascinates me and I have a lot to say. The result will be a long, disjointed review no doubt.


Krakauer’s book is gripping. I blasted through it in about 5 days. Obviously I will be reading other accounts of the disaster in the coming months, but I think this was an excellent platform for a solid, well researched account of the day. I do not agree with everything, nor do I believe that anyone’s memories can be trusted totally when it comes to things like this. The only way we’d ever know for sure what happened that day is if everyone was wearing everlasting video recording devices, but they weren’t, so we have to rely on the opinions and recollections of minds that were subject to oxygen deprivation, horrific cold and the confusion that can be caused by a storm.


My slight reservation about the book is that it seems a little insensitive to me, to be involved in something so horrific and then put it all into a book and sell it for personal gain, whilst at the same time dragging the reputations of others down. I strongly disagree with coming down too hard on the actions of fallible human beings in environments such as these. It is a different world up there, with no rules, I almost feel like the actions that people take and the mistakes that they make should stay up on the mountain and not be banded around for the world to see as if the people who made the errors were in their natural environments, totally sound of mind. But then again I guess you could look at it from another angle. By selling the book at least Krakauer managed to make sense of what happened up there in his own mind and make some money in the process. So in a way he has taken a bad situation and turned it to his advantage. 


However you look at it, maybe the reason that the tragedy sparks so much curiosity to people like me is because it strips people down and shows you what they are really made of. That’s probably the same reason I find gruesome history so fascinating. When you look at events such as these in depth you see that people are capable of absolutely anything, whether that is total selflessness in the face of great personal risk or whether that is absolute self-preservation at the cost of others. (I know I just said last paragraph it should stay on the mountain… But still…)


I think the overriding lesson to be learnt here, is the one that Beck Weathers learnt. When you are dying, you regret the time that you didn’t spend with the people you love. Achievements, material possessions, careers, it all goes out of the window and what is left is people. It’s all been said before and it’s easy to say and not to live by, but the people that you love shouldn’t be a sideshow to personal ambition.