Saturday, June 23, 2012

Can't breathe #1

Over the past two years I've reviewed several books about some famous and not-so-famous explorers, including those who explored icy oceans and steamy jungles. But those were older history. To wrap up my armchair exploration theme – and as I prepare for a backpacking trip to climb Mt. Whitney this summer – I thought I'd share a couple of books about more recent history and explorers who went to frightening extremes.

I first came upon Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer about 10 or 11 years ago while we were spending a week at the beach house. I had already finished the book I'd brought with me (I think it was Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which wasn't very good) when I found this one on the shelf. I was still more interested in fiction than non-fiction, but it was the only thing that looked half-way interesting. It only took a few pages though, before I couldn't put it down. (Incidentally, our vacation ended before I could finish the book and I was sorely tempted to "borrow" it from the beach house – but I found it at the library instead when I got back home.)

In May 1996 a number of climbers and guides found themselves caught near the summit of Mt Everest during an afternoon blizzard. Five of them died in the worst disaster in Everest climbing history (at least I think it's still the worst; I think 4 people died in a storm just this last May). Krakauer, a writer who was one of the climbers who managed to summit the mountain early, tells the events of the ill-fated expeditions and the people involved. Additionally, he gives a bit of history on climbing Everest and discusses – in chilling detail – the effects such high altitude has on the human body. From the details of altitude sickness to the account of the tragedy itself, this book is gripping and a real page-turner. Krakauer comes across as objective and believable in his telling of the events as he places the blame on too many people on the mountain and in particular on Scott Fisher, the main guide of another expedition group, for not turning around early enough (Rob Hall, the lead guide of Krakauer's group, also died trying to help Fisher's group).

But... there's always more than one side to every story. I later found Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers, another member of Krakauer's expedition, who was 'left for dead' by Krakauer and another climber when they decided Weathers wouldn't make it and would only endanger their lives if they helped him. Weathers later wandered into camp on his own and eventually lost his nose and parts of his arms and feet to severe frostbite. His account, although not as compelling or well-written, was critical of Krakauer's version of events – and he's not the only one. So, while I recommend Into Thin Air as an exciting read, I wish to emphasize that there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding the tragedy and Krakauer's best-seller probably shouldn't be taken as the definitive history.

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