Climbing Everest

I read Into Thin Air earlier this week–an account of the 1996 Mt Everest disaster in which eight climbers died. Written by the same guy who wrote Into the Wild–only this time Krakauer was actually there, one of the surviving climbers.

It’s fascinating–I love good narrative non-fiction and I don’t get to read enough of it. (Recs encouraged!) I’m aware it’s a controversial book–Anatoli Bourkeev, one of the mountain guides, co-wrote his own book contradicting Krakauer on basically all the point haivng to do with Bourkreev. But honestly, I found the evidence refuting that book in the postscript of ITA convincing, and I just didn’t think Krakauer really criticized Boukreev that much, certainly not enough to spark their epic bitchfest about it which only resolved when Bourkreev died on Annapurna. But then, I’m part of a small literary community too, I know people flip out over perceived slights that didn’t result in anyone dying.

Krakauer originally went to Everest to write an article on the commercialization of the mountain and the climbing of it. Bits of that make it into the book, but it’s understandably overshadowed by, you know, horrible death. However, I find this fascinating, and I wish I knew of another book that covered it more fully.

How can climbing Everest go in 60 years from an impossible feat that even the best of men failed at to something that, if you’re reasonably fit and understand the risk, you can pay someone to get you up and down the mountain with little climbing experience of any kind? Given that state, what is the point of corporate sponsorship of such expeditions? What can the companies get out of it when it’s not longer this humanity-elevating activity? There’s a huge trash problem, too, not just discarded gas canisters on the mountain (and bodies of the dead) but Base Camp has got to be just a wreck by now, given the book was written in 1996.

I’m fascinated by how Everest is climbed now–mostly white people pay Sherpas to climb it ahead of them and build camps for them. Sherpas do the crazy climbing (for relatively little pay compared to the white guides) just to set up ropes and support for the clients, who have a much easier time because of said ropes, oxygen, food, tea. The Sherpa who climbed with Hillary is famous among mountaineers, but Hillary is The Guy Who Climbed Everest in the West. It’s amazing to me. All these men standing on the shoulders of Sherpas to crow their victory over a mountain they could never have done had others not climbed it several times beforehand to turn down the beds. (Slightly snarky, it’s still hard, obviously, and the cold and altitude still kill people and munch off their fingers and toes with frostbite, but Krakauer makes the point that Everest is huge, but not technically nearly as difficult as nearby shorter peaks. It’s the altitude, not the climbing that’s a problem. But part of that lack of difficulty has to be that there’s a whole group of people smoothing the way for you!)

I’m not a climber and I never will be. I love mountains, but I love the feeling of being in them, surrounded by them. I don’t feel the need to stand on top, to measure myself against them because, well, the mountain wins. Every time. I have no desire to climb Everest or anything else. My fascination is akin to the one I have for polar exploration–the extremes are just so mind-boggling, the bizarre things that this planet can throw up in the face of humans poking their heads into remote and untouched places.

I would like to see Everest. To see the Himalayas with my own eyes. The one thing that really did spark my desire to strap on boots was the Khumpu Icefall, this crazy glacial labyrinth not very far up the mountain. That made my heart beat faster, the idea of mad ice seracs tottering everywhere. Like another world. But I don’t really think one can go to Base Camp to just hang out and talk to people, when you are not a climber and also a white American girl. I would feel very much like a poser and a douche. Also I hear the permits to enter Nepal are insane, price-wise. So I will probably never see them–but I have a longing, I do.

Have any of you read the book? Been to Nepal? Know any other books on the commercialization angle? (Or other good narrative non-ficiton?) I’m eager to discuss it, but have no one to talk about it with!

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