"His voice sounded like a record played at half speed. It was slow and creaky. I was three thousand feet below him. I was lying in a tent inside a sleeping bag with everything I had on, and I was unable to get warm. Just think of what he must have suffered that first night in those hurricane force winds. With no oxygen. With the wind chill at, I don't know—160 degrees below zero. It was horrifying to think of him up there. It was sad. He was our leader."
That's journalist Jon Krakauer recalling one of the more wrenching and surreal episodes in last year's disaster on Mount Everest. Krakauer's own voice slows as he talks about the radio transmissions from head guide Rob Hall, stranded and slowly freezing to death at 28,700 feet. "Rob Hall was a great person and, by all accounts, the best guide up there. . . . That this happened to him is a sad and cruel irony."
In all, nine climbers perished on Mount Everest in the second week of May 1996. Since then, numerous magazine and newspaper accounts have appeared, including Krakauer's own initial firsthand report in Outside magazine, completed just five weeks after his return from Nepal. Versions of events have varied. Climbers and commentators have pointed fingers, traded accusations, absolved themselves of responsibility.
Krakauer's extraordinary new book about the disaster, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, does something different. Meticulously researched and exceptionally well written, Into Thin Air avoids the hype and easy condemnation that have infested other accounts. The book offers instead vivid details told matter-of-factly, almost quietly. The result is a deeply moving narrative that honors the courage of the people on the mountain while raising profound and possibly unanswerable questions about human behavior in a crisis. "People performed badly at times," Krakauer said in a recent phone conversation. "But like everything in life, it's more complicated than that. Everyone up there was a complicated personality. There were no heroes and there were no villains. It was just this really sad disaster."
Of course there were contributing factors, errors and weaknesses that compounded the effects of the "rogue storm" that blew across the mountain, catching the climbers high on the peak unawares. Recent attention has focused on the fact that the clients on this expedition had paid as much as $65,000 each to be guided up the mountain, the belief being that these "trophy climbers" were unworthy and unprepared for the lofty summit.
But even here Krakauer holds to his complicated view. "No matter how much you pay, even with all the assistance the Sherpas and the guides provide, it's still an incredible amount of work. No one can haul you up Everest. You can't just buy the summit. You've got pay with sweat and puke and maybe with your life. That is worth some grudging respect."
In fact, nothing is more evident from reading Into Thin Air than how physically and mentally debilitating the extreme altitudes near Everest's summit are for all climbers. "I've done a lot of hard climbs," says Krakauer, a passionate mountaineer since boyhood, "but climbing Everest was by an order of magnitude the hardest thing I've ever done. It's mostly just slogging up slopes that aren't particularly steep, but it's day after day of hard painful work and putting up with headaches and throwing up. "On May 10, the day we set out for the summit, most of us were in such bad physical condition that if we had been home we would have been in bed, wouldn't have gone to work, wouldn't have answered the phone, would have just been lying there in agony. And here we were, having not slept or eaten in a couple of days, setting out for what is probably the hardest physical thing we've ever done. You really have to have this puritanical streak, this belief in the nobility of suffering and work, or you'd never do it. The drive to climb is extremely irrational. It defies logic."
But even skill and a fine madness are not enough for Everest, according to Krakauer. "The statistics I quote at the end of the book are constant: for every four people who summit, one dies; for every 30 people who even attempt the mountain, one dies. Being a brilliant climber doesn't ensure your safety; as many brilliant climbers have died as stumblebums. Much of it is the roll of the dice."
And the most spectacular roll of the dice last May was that of Dr. Seaborn Beck Weathers. One of the wealthy clients, a voluble doctor from Texas whose conservative politics were in stark contrast to Krakauer's own, Weathers was stricken on the mountain during the storm. After a night without shelter or oxygen, he fell unconscious, was judged too weak to survive, and was abandoned by his companions. "He remained comatose for more than twelve hours," Krakauer writes in the book. "Then, late Saturday afternoon, for some unknowable reason a light went on in the reptilian core of Beck's inanimate brain and he floated back into consciousness." Not only that, he staggered into Camp Four and somehow survived the horrible complications of severe frostbite.
"It's an incredible tale, and Beck's an incredible guy," Krakauer says. "He lost a hand and all his fingers, and he just tells it like it is. He doesn't try to embellish his story or put a spin on anything. His story is horrible but it is also uplifting. It may be the one uplifting part of this whole sordid mess."
As for Krakauer's own sense of why things went so horribly wrong? "We had never climbed together, there was a disparity in strengths among us, so, wisely, we were taught to rely on the guide if things went wrong. Not only that, we were never ever roped together. Everyone climbed independently, at their own pace, which was good. But when you're roped to someone you develop this weird intimacy; every time you take a step, they have to take a step. You develop a bond that was just lacking on Everest. We weren't encouraged to look after our fellow clients and certainly not after the guides.
"And that's inexcusable to me. It's the thing that eats at me most. If I'd been up there with a bunch of friends, instead of guides and fellow clients, I can't imagine that I would have left [guide] Andy Harris up there in a storm when I clearly should have seen that he wasn't feeling well. And having gotten down to the South Col, I just wouldn't have crawled into my tent and into my sleeping bag without accounting for each of my partners. Climbing is a subculture that prides itself on the purity of its ideals. It has these weird rituals and rules that most people wouldn't understand. Some of it is kind of sick, because it idealizes boldness and risk-taking to such a degree. But its ideals about respecting your partner and about 'how you climb being more important than what you climb' are really good. I betrayed those ideals. For that I really beat myself up," Krakauer says sadly near the end of our conversation. "I can't think of a single good thing that came out of this climb."
No single thing, perhaps, except this extraordinary book.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.