in Blog, Books

“The shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience”: some thoughts on Into Thin Air

I finished reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (subtitle: a personal account of the Mount Everest disaster) on Saturday, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Just some thoughts that go through my head:

As I said on Facebook, my reaction to much of this is WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER SUBJECT THEMSELVES TO THIS? Climbing Everest seems to be playing Russian roulette with natural phenomenon to begin with (storms, a serac falling on you), but on top of that, the whole “you probably won’t sleep or eat above 20,000 feet, and you’ll either be freezing cold or burning up from the solar radiation; also did we mention the risks of pulmonary or cerebral edema?” just made me not even understand why, even if you’re a risk taker, you’d put up with that misery.

I’m just appalled/intrigued/blown away to the extent to which people trust themselves (or their guides) to make decisions that may end their lives when they are hypoxic and sleep-deprived. I mean, I guess you don’t have much of a choice. (Unless you don’t climb Everest to begin with, but we can tell that’s not going to happen).

On that note, the most poignant story for me was that of Rob Hall, the head guide for the expedition that Krakauer was on. By all accounts he was imminently sensible, setting turnaround times to ensure climbers weren’t getting so exhausted that they couldn’t get down from the summit. Except that then he decided to ignore his own rules, seemingly to get a client to the top. He ended up at the South Summit when the storm struck, unable to go on. He was basically stuck, dying there, for like 24 hours, able to reached by radio and satellite phone, but unable to be rescued. There’s a quote from his wife in the book, saying that when she talked to him on satellite phone it was a “Major Tom moment,” and yeah, wow. How do you even go on with that?

I know Krakauer gets some criticism for this book, and his role in what happened. Even as I was reading, I had a dim recollection of a conversation I had with a fellow staffer when I was working at the Adirondak Loj. She was reading a book about mountaineering — it might have been Anatoli Boukreev’s book, The Climb — and I made some comment like, “oh, like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air,” and she went off on Krakauer, talking about how Krakauer “huddled in his tent” the whole time instead of helping with the rescue effort.

But honestly, having reading Krakauer’s book, he comes across as super honest about his capabilities, or lack thereof. He’s introspective and you can tell there’s a lot of pain there for what he did or did not do. I can’t blame him for any decisions he made there, because he, like everyone else, was delirious with hypoxia. If he was huddling in his tent at Camp Four, so were a lot of other people. You can argue that he knew things were worse than he let on, of course, but to me, he comes off as earnest.

(And as I understand it, Boukreev has since met his end on Annapurna, so he perhaps should not be cited as an example of sensible mountaineering).

Also, reading that climbers in the IMAX expedition, summitting on May 23rd, sat beside Scott Fischer’s corpse and talked to it? Is just grisly. It speaks to the mindset of the person who would actually climb Everest, to my mind — the absolute denial of the monstrousness of death.

And the book is full of monstrous, gruesome images like that. The sherpa coughing blood into his mask. The porcelain-doll look of frostbitten skin. The corpses, like landmarks, that litter the trail.

There’s a Joan Didion quote as one of the chapter headings — the famous “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” one, somewhat expanded. It speaks of the “shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

Man, was that book a shifting phantasmagoria.