Thursday, May 3, 2012

Five Books to Read: #3 - Into Thin Air

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

The first post on Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose can be found here.
The second on 127 Hours by Aron Ralston can be found here.


I honestly have no idea how to write this entry. Few books leave you complete exhausted after reading them, and even those I feel have had a profound emotional impact on me rarely do so. Yet, I'm worn out. I've just read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer for a second time, and I am physically drained. I feel much like I expect Krakauer did at the summit of Everest, dizzy and confused to the point that I'm not sure I can do the book justice in this brief post. I encourage you to read the book itself rather than this fumbling account of how it affected me, as Krakauer is an infinitely better writer than I will ever be.

Into Thin Air is an account of Krakauer's 1996 assault on Everest and an extremely well-written and entertaining tale of adventure and tragedy. It's a fantastic story made more so thanks to the fact that it's true.

Krakauer details his assignment by Outside magazine to report on the ascent of Everest and the growing commercialization (guided expeditions, increase in climber-carried trash, and the like) of the mountain. The first half tells of his climbing history and the growing bonds he forms with the other climbers of his and other expeditions. Minor tragedies strike - climbers are stricken with high-altitude sicknesses and the dangers posed by amateur climbers are revealed - but it isn't until Krakauer reaches the summit and starts back down that the story descends with him to disaster.

Before it was over, eight people would be killed in a 24-hour period, their deaths scattered all over the mountain. A total of fifteen people would die in that '96 season, the deadliest year in Everest history.

Taken as it is, Into Thin Air, lives up to its billing as one of the greatest adventure books ever written. It's thrilling and emotional with moments of tremendous bravery and abject failure. And, it's all true. This actually happened... and it's remarkable. If you're looking for an amazing read, I urge you to look no further.

But, that's not what grasps me and wears me down. If you pick up a later version of his book (post-'99 should do it), Krakauer's post-script addresses controversies that emerged from that day's ascent and the books (Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, in particular) of other climbers. Boukreev was a guide on the sister expedition to Krakauer's, and - though Krakauer paints Boukreev in a mostly positive light and commends him for saving two people's lives - Boukreev took offense to his portrayal and a heated relationship developed.

In summary -

Five climbers in the two expeditions died that day (the other three that make up the 8 were part of a Indo-Tibetan Border Police squad climbing up the other side). Two were clients and three were guides (including the two expedition leads, Rob Hall leading Krakauer's and Scott Fischer leading Boukreev's). Boukreev himself was a guide for Fischer and took heat for (1) climbing without oxygen and (2) descending ahead of his clients, those people that paid him to keep them safe. The storm that blew in immediately after was... unexpected.

The controversy comes from Boukreev's comments regarding a supposed plan that his boss, Fischer, had for Boukreev to descend ahead of the clients. However, interviews after the disaster indicate that no such plan existed. The discussion is compounded by the fact that Boukreev climbed without gas, an impressive feat though not uncommon. Indeed, Boukreev had scaled Everest before without gas. The problem is that he was a guide, and the guides have other lives for which they are responsible. Guiding without oxygen is universally accepted as unnecessarily risky.

Krakauer didn't spend much time on this aspect initially, because accounts varied. But, he felt the need to address it when Boukreev's book came out and flung inaccurate and flat-out untrue accusations at Krakauer.

THIS is what makes the story for me. Not the arguments. Not the emotional interactions between authors. It's the leadership lessons that can be plucked from the pages. Even without the postscript, questions fly off the pages that cannot and will never be answered thanks to the deaths of so many.

Why didn't Hall turn his clients around at the predetermined time of 2PM? Did the presence of a reporter on the mountain impact the aggressiveness of the guides or the actions of the other clients? Has the draw of Everest encouraged unskilled climbers to make attempts and those around them to assist... for a price?

These questions are all brought up if not addressed by Krakauer. The most likely explanation is a mix of numerous factors including the reason Krakauer was there - business. You don't get people to sign up for your expeditions if you never reach the top. Another likely culprit is the altitude. You and I weren't there. We don't know what it was like to have to rely on oxygen-starved brain cells to make cognizant decisions at the roof of the world. I'll defer to the judgment of those that were there in the same way that I'll let the soldiers in the trenches handle the enemy as they see fit.

Either way, the examples of leadership - both successes and failures - are numerous and noteworthy. Clients became saviors. Guides lost their senses. Boukreev's plunge into the early morning storm to save two lives is juxtaposed against his lack of forethought in climbing without gas. Hall's historically conservative nature is something to aspire to as a leader, so why did he contradict his experience and instinct by continuing to the top so late in the afternoon? At least two of the climbers were strong-willed, business-minded individuals with type-A personalities. Why, then, did they become the heaviest weights on the teams, and could it have been avoided? One client was a former SAS-member from Australia, a group not known for their passivity. Yet, little is said about any role the man played. Did he not have the opportunity to step up? I find it hard to believe he would sit idly by as people died a few hundred feet from him had he known.

There aren't answers to these questions. These are discussions points, and I would love for my friends and readers to take the time to read the book and allow for some discussions. I feel entire college courses could revolve around decisions such as these, and Into Thin Air could be a tremendous learning tool.

The thing that strikes me, though, and something that to my knowledge has never been discussed, is this: Much is made of Boukreev not using gas. Did this contribute to the disaster? Was it a poor decision? I think both those can be answered with a justifiable 'yes.'

But, if that is a danger... if Boukreev, as a guide, should have been on gas the whole time to ensure the safety of his clients... Why didn't his expedition leader, Fischer, make him? It was Fischer's responsibility to get his clients up and back. Why didn't he tell Boukreev that it didn't matter what the man wanted to do... their first duty was to their clients. It shouldn't have been Boukreev's decision in the first place.

I still rack my brain considering the variables and how things could have gone differently. Krakauer makes the point that they would have all made it back safely if the storm hit two hours later. He also notes that they would have all been dead if it hit an hour earlier. The countless variables and randomness of it all are what keep bringing me back to this story, much like it does with Ralston's 127 Hours.

Krakauer was saved because he was running low on oxygen and had to descend quickly.

Running low on oxygen saved Krakauer's life.

See? This entire book is fascinating. Pick it up, and tell me that I'm wrong.

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