I must’ve been a wee child when dad got me an illustrated book from the library for kids on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, depicting their fascinating journey to conquer the highest mountain peak on this planet. That’s the first time I got to know about Mt Everest, a magical place indeed. I was in awe. However, it did not tug at my heart; it did not stir in me any sense of mania to get my feet on the mountain, to discover its terrain for myself. It was just a story, an immensely enjoyable one for sure. And even now, decades later, I still have no yearning to go mountaineering.
Last year, through the lockdown, K and I saw a number of travel vlogs. It was quite the digital escape for us. And even though I’m scared of heights and have zero fondness for adventure travel, Mt Everest featured heavily in our lineup. K is an avid traveller and dreams of getting to the Base Camp at least. It upset me quite a bit when he told me. It is a bit of a precarious journey, isn’t it? So, after numerous documentaries and movies, one in which author Jon Krakauer was portrayed, I knew I wanted to read up more about mountain climbing, and what better way to start than Krakauer’s book itself, Into Thin Air.
Please Note: A word of warning to begin with – do not read this book onboard an aircraft. If you have flight anxiety, which came out of nowhere for me because of Michael Crichton, avoid this one as well. In effect, you’re not just in ‘thin air’ but also approximately at the same height as the world’s highest mountain peak, if not higher. Mt Everest, at 8,848 mt or around 29,000 ft above sea level, is a little short of the cruising height of a Boeing 747.
Many people have lost their lives in the quest for conquering Everest, climbers, guides and sherpas. Into Thin Air describes the personal account of one such disaster on the mountain when eight people died in a single day and twelve in the entire climbing season.
After a brief snapshot of the tragedy, Krakauer begins his narrative with a brief background on the mountain, going back to 1852 when a Bengali computer (job description, not machine) Radhanath Sikhdar had discovered the highest mountain in the world. Nine years later, when the calculations were confirmed, Peak XV was christened Mount Everest in honour of a former surveyor general of India, Sir George Everest. With this, there were enough madmen across the world who wanted to scale its peak. It was not until 1953 when Norgay and Hillary climbed the peak.
Since then, the number of people racing to the top only grew. In due course of time, Mt Everest did not remain elusive only for the elite climbers. In 1985, when Dick Bass, a wealthy fifty-five-year-old with limited climbing experience, reached the top guided by a brilliant climber, did the scene change for others as well. This feat showed that climbing Everest could be accomplished by people who were “reasonably fit and have some disposable income”.
Thus, commercial expeditions came into being with rich clients spending obscene amounts of money to get guides to escort them to the top. Of course, the number of people making a beeline to Nepal for this purpose increased manifold, but apart from providing hard cash to the country, its people, economy and tourism, it was also creating issues related to safety and to the environment. The government kept hiking the price of the permits, but it did not deter the rich. Around 1996, people would have to spend some $65,000 per person, excluding flights, equipment, etc. It’s a staggering number.
With people who paid such princely sums, they assumed that they had bought a guaranteed ticket to the top. Climbing the summit depended on so many factors, including the weather. Not to mention one’s health and acclimatisation to an area with such scant oxygen.
Anyhoo, in 1996, the author was part of an expedition led by noted mountaineer Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants. He was on an assignment as part of Outside magazine. From Kathmandu, they took a short flight to Lukla from where the trek to Everest Base Camp began. With Lukla at around 9380 ft, the walk to Base Camp got you to 17,600 ft. Right before reaching the base camp, is the Khumbu Glacier that has a large icefall and is extremely dangerous. One must remember that this glacier is moving, constantly. Due to this, large crevasses show up suddenly while massive ice towers or seracs are known to come crashing down. Also, there is approximately half as much oxygen at Base Camp as is present at sea level. At the summit, it’s a third of the level.
Sherpas help establish camps for the main group at four levels. They carry massive loads of food, oxygen and cooking fuel. From the Base Camp, the group would move towards Camp 1, at 19,500 ft, crossing the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. It is the most technically demanding part of the route. The author compares it to the Russian roulette, as one doesn’t know when a serac would keel over or a crevasse would enlarge and swallow someone.
There were other groups out there too on a quest for the summit – American, South African and Taiwanese expeditions. There is much scandal associated with the South African group. Look up Ian Woodall if you want to know more.
In Rob Hall’s group, there was another controversial member – Sandy Pittman. She wanted to be the first North American woman to climb the Seven Summits, but the last, Mt Everest let her down. Nevertheless, she was determined to conquer the last peak. A former fashion editor, mountaineer and socialite, she had reportedly brought ‘humongous’ duffel bag full of gourmet food that took four people to lift. She even had a portable television to watch movies in her tent. Quite outrageous, if you ask me.
I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes – enjoy, that is, in the ordinary sense of the word. There is a certain grim satisfaction to be derived from struggling upwards, however slowly; but the bulk of one’s time is necessarily spent in extreme squalor of a high camp, when even this solace is lacking.Eric Shipton, Upon That Mountain
Perils of mountaineering
At Camp 2, 21,300 ft above sea level, there were some 120 tents scattered on the rocks. The altitude gave many quite the headache. The author described his as a raging red-wine hangover. If the fear of tumbling over the edge wasn’t enough to deter me, these prospective migraines do the trick. Also, as climbers make their way higher, they also came upon bodies in the snow. The first probably left them shaken but by the second, they would try to ignore the harsh reality of the space. I truly wonder how much it could unhinge one’s morale.
You may also want to look up HAPE and HACE. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema is a potentially lethal illness brought on due to climbing at a higher pace and not letting the body acclimatise. An extreme case could have you coughing up bloody froth. High Altitude Cerebral Edema is nothing cheerful. Here the brain swells up with fluid and could leave one disoriented, lethargic, nauseous and dead.
On May 10, 1996, eight climbers got caught in a blizzard on the mountain as they were making their way down. Their trip to the summit was not only delayed due to the fixed lines not being placed by the sherpas, but the leader of one expedition, Rob Hall, got stuck at the summit while helping client Doug Hansen realise his dream of reaching the summit. Hansen was in a very bad shape and had run out of supplemental oxygen. Hall really wanted him to reach the top because nearly a year earlier, he had forced the latter to turn back at a short distance from the summit due to prevailing conditions. Hansen was desperate to reach the summit this time. He wanted ‘Everest’ out of his system. With Hansen unable to move, Hall had to spend the night out in the open, refusing to let go of his client. He told Base Camp that Hansen was gone and Harris, who had been sent to help him, was missing. His hands and feet were frostbitten, making it impossible for him to navigate the fixed lines. He even asked for a call to be connected with his pregnant wife. Soon, he froze to death. I shudder when even thinking about it. Mountaineers are really made up of equal parts of courage and crazy.
There were over thirty climbers attempting to reach the summit that day. With delays after delays, it had a terrifying impact. Meanwhile, Anatoli Boukreev, a guide in Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, hurried down after reaching the peak when he should have hung around to help his clients. This account becomes a main bone of contention between the author and the guide, whose story has been penned in the book, The Climb by G. Weston DeWalt. In the storm, Fischer and Makalu Gau, leader of the Taiwanese mission, were unable to descend beyond the Balcony, which is at 27,400 ft. The blizzard prevented any help from reaching them. Many clients got lost in the storm. Others were exhausted with their trip to and from the summit and did not have the bandwidth to venture beyond their tents. Gau was rescued later, but Fischer suffered hypothermia and died on the mountain.
Not a walk in the park
The first thing one must know about climbing Everest is that it cannot be done in a day. There are camps at various altitudes and people trek back and forth, and spend a few nights at the different camps to acclimatise better.
Another thing one must know, climbing Everest is not a walk in the park. I mean, really. Going by this book, it seemed some people had the perception they could conquer a peak so mighty irrespective of their competence, their agility, fitness and experience. On the other hand, there was a time I suppose, when guides and adventure travel groups pitched the mountain as a guided tour. The gall! If you had enough dough to throw around and a decent physique, they believed they could get you to the peak.
At one point in the book, the author mentions how he was sizing up his companions, after all in such group expeditions, one may have to rely on the expertise of another. Not everyone in the group was a professional climber. Heck, not everyone had even gotten enough practice on actual mountains. Just being fit was not going to be enough. “Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.” The author scolds himself for thinking like a ‘snob’ but I felt that he was quite right. This was not just about being a snob but being well trained and prepared to take on the elements at such a height when one wrong step could mean death.
In fact, I very much second what Boukreev said, “If client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide, this client should not be on Everest. Otherwise there can be big problems up high.”
And that’s what happened. Well, a number of things went wrong.
Considering the paradigm shift in mountaineering at the time, everyone knew a disaster was imminent. They just didn’t expect it would hit Rob Hall’s expedition. Hall was known to be a meticulous planner, and he respected the sherpas a lot and communicated the same to his clients as well. He expected trouble from the other lesser qualified mountaineers that day, but did not expect to be on the spot himself. One of the main issues leading to the disaster was the slow trek to the summit. Remember, the sun’s heat hits different at such a high altitude and the weather can turn deadly in a split second if you’re not careful. Most treks to the summit began in the dead of night (I did not know this), making for an arduous climb right to the top and back down. You’d think it would be easy, but the Hillary Step is one very tricky ridge to maneuver. Just looking at the pictures gives me goosebumps. Shiver me timbers. Also, remember that you’re moving at a very slow pace. At that height, even on bottled oxygen, the brain gets lesser oxygen and the body moves slower. And guess what, there was a traffic jam at the top. Not only on the way up, when due to a miscommunication the sherpas did not establish the fixed line into the mountain face, but also on the way down, when the Hillary Step became more like a choked lane.
The author also mentions how Hall may have been impacted by his cockiness and his desperation to get as many clients to the Summit as he could. The rival American expedition, led by Scott Fischer, was trying to eat into his business. Not to mention how rational thinking was no doubt likely to have been impaired at 29,000 ft.
What I like/ dislike
I am not well versed with mountaineering. I do not know every peril associated with it. I would not know clearly how one climber would trump the other in a certain skill set, apart from the obvious that is. What I mean to say is that I read this book as an entity in itself. At the moment, I have not read beyond these covers to get a better understanding of the author’s account, parts of which have been contested by other survivors. I have not read those books. I do not mean to/ want to take sides. The author, in a postscript, has shared his side of the argument, which I have read diligently, but I tried not to dwell on that a lot. I am not an expert and my opinion, which I did freely share so far, makes no difference. Also, while I do feel strongly about mountaineering, in a rather negative way, please, I implore, do not take it to heart. It is my opinion. My words do not take anything away from the actions, trials and tribulations or even the achievements of those who have conquered or desire to conquer the peaks.
However, I did enjoy Krakauer’s account of the incident, in the sense that I like his style of writing. I was never inclined towards reading his most famous work, Into The Wild, but I think I am now convinced enough to go pick it up. I’ve seen the movie and it moved me a lot. I feel strongly about it, so much so I had vowed to never pick the book up. But that may change. Krakaeur’s way with words are supportive. They don’t comfort me. Both subject matters are harsh, almost everything opposite to my being, but the manner in which he describes is something I can lose myself in.
As always, leaving you with one of my favourite quotes: