Having enjoyed several of Jon Krakauer’s books, including INTO THE WILD and UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, I expected INTO THIN AIR would provide more of the same–a well researched and thought-provoking explorations of a subject matter not commonly scrutinized carefully. Krakauer brings a moral objectivity to books, and allows the reader to form an opinion based on an internal process. INTO THIN AIR departs from this formula in a dramatic way.
On the surface, this books derives from the literary tradition of George Plimpton and Ernest Hemingway, in which a writer immerses himself in an activity and then writes about. INTO THIN AIR goes way past this.
I will encapsulate. The writer, Jon Krakauer, an avid but small time hobbyist mountaineer, gets a chance to go for the ultimate mountaineering laurels–the conquest of Mount Everest. Everest is the highest in the world, the most storied, what every idiot, including myself, thinks of when mountaineering is discussed. Pro mountaineers are savvy enough to be more impressed by other mountains, but for everyone else, Everest has the most cachet.
Jon is supposed to get a free trip up the mountain for writing an article about his experience, which is no small thing. I would say an assault on Everest costs about a hundred grand, factoring in fees, plane tickets, time missed from work, and equipment, and I probably lowballing this. Except Krakauer’s trip is anything but free.
His Everest expedition got hit by a freak storm when most of them were on top of Everest, or close enough as to make no difference. What follows is a morality play, as people try to choose between personal survival and kumbaya camaraderie as best they can. “Above 8000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” as one climber explains about the region known as The Death Zone.”
There are heroes. The IMAX film team up there for some reason survives the book fairly well. I’m going to try to watch the movie they were making.
Socialite Sandy Pittman does not fare so well.
What the heck was she doing on Everest? I finally got the gag you hear about Everest climbers, when they say disparagingly “the Sherpas had to carry him up Everest.” Still, if not for the freak storm, Pittman would be another F List celebrity I was blissfully unaware of. She had some bad luck with the weather. All the deaths on that ascent garnered way too much publicity and attention, and her behavior was perhaps overly scrutinized and blamed. Krakauer is a bit merciless with her, possibly even trying to deflect some blame.
This brings me back to the central point of why this is such a different Krakauer book. On the one hand, it’s almost lucky there was a disaster on his ascent, because it made the book so darn interesting. On the other, Jon seems to sincerely wish this were not the case. He’s having a form of PTSD about the whole thing, and the book served as therapy and an Apologia. Jon seeks to justify his actions to his readers, people who for the most part have never had to deal with Boolean Morality.
What I came away with is how human the whole thing is. Adventurous thrill seekers suddenly get wake up call from Reality, and find out, in a sense, that they are nothing special, and are going to die someday, possibly within the hour, if they don’t make some unpleasant choices and face some unpleasant truths. They choose to save themselves, and then need to justify this after the fact. None of them signed anything saying they would sacrifice themselves to save others on the ascent, but they still need to justify themselves for doing what 95% of us would do.
The disaster saves the book from what would be just another sojourn into Victimization Literature, the Oprah inspired genre where people recite a litany of personal misfortunes in prose, and this means we are supposed to like them. If not for the disastrous weather, Krakauer’s victims would have been complaining about the callouses they got from wearing their brand new crampons on their adventure to the expensive Himalayan summer camp, a sort of Outward Bound for adult millionaires. I mean, on a good day, any reasonably fit, motivated person with some training and some personal courage can climb Everest, but nobody forces them to climb.
Only one unmitigated shining star emerges from this book. Beck, the Texas doctor, comes across heroically as the person who realized nobody was going to save him but himself. Passed over three times by rescue teams, he rose and walked down the mountain under his own power. Nobody even helped this badly frostbitten man secure his tent back at camp. One wonders if his teammates, Alpenstock Liberals, I would imagine, secretly wanted this Texan, who apparently subscribed to the Austrian School of Economics, to die, lest the story of this 1996 ascent would become a parable about the failure of Liberalism in The Death Zone. Call me crazy, but Beck made a perfectly accurate criticism of the notion that raising the minimum wage inevitably increases the standard of living of the working class to Krakauer at a dinner table in the beginning of the book, and then Jon abandons him as eagerly on Everest as Peter abandoned Christ in Jerusalem. Most people, including Liberals, honestly believe we are still on some form of the gold standard, or did the last time I checked. Clue–the more pieces of paper with numbers and weird Masonic symbols you have, the less valuable they become. It’s called inflation, and I believe people are learning what this term means, or will very soon.
Beck also made some unfortunate (for him, apparently) remarks about Hillary Clinton to Krakauer. Hillary Clinton, as you may know, views Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to scale Everest, as a personal hero, and even says she was named after him.
Trouble there, though, is Edmund Hillary scaled Everest on May 29th, 1953, while Hillary Clinton was born 6 years earlier, in 1947. So, either Hillary’s parents waited until she was six to name her, or Hillary is lying again.
Misguided ideas last longer under circumstances where they can’t be disproved immediately. If only we could give The Death Zone scrutiny to all our policies, we might see that exporting all the jobs and importing the entire Third World is the way towards disaster for the United States. Trouble is,our “leaders” are killing us slowly. When they start killing us more directly, perhaps we’ll awaken, and hopefully it won’t be too late for Americans to remember we never signed on to save the world, and unless we want to join the impoverished masses of humanity sprawled across the Earth, we better get back to the Base Camp of American Values, even if we have to leave a few bodies out on the slope.