Monday, June 30, 2014

BOOKSHELF: JON KRAKAUER'S "INTO THIN AIR"


I'm a bit of a mountaineering enthusiast. Well, let me rephrase that - I'm a couch enthusiast, an armchair mountaineer. I have a terrible fear of large things, which google tells me is termed "megalophobia," though I have yet to see this term authenticated in a dictionary. It started with large Soviet statues during childhood, then grew to include a wider array of objects like jumbo Boeings, ships, skyscrapers, large bodies of dark water, and mountains. Not just any mountains, however. I do enjoy hiking tremendously, but the highest I've ever been is a measly 3,000ft.  I like "green" mountains, ones you can scale in a span of a day and be home for dinner. I stop where the hiking part ends and the real climbing begins. Just looking at pictures of Everest, K2, and the concretely sinister north face of the Eiger sends shivers down my spine. It's not so much about the height, but the difficulty of the trek, and most of those monsters look uninviting, unforgiving and, frankly, malicious. No nature to enjoy, only a vastness of rock, ice, and wind. That doesn't deter me from the fascination one bit, whether it's working with oldies like S.O.S. Iceberg (1933), marathoning through Everest: Beyond the Limit (2006), watching the cheese-fest that is Vertical Limit (2000), the suspenseful North Face (2008), the devastating Touching the Void (2003), or the countless TV documentaries on the subject of world's most dangerous high peaks. Sometimes, even Stallone's Cliffhanger (1993) will satiate.

 The most fascinating parts of mountaineering? The disasters, of course. I know that sounds terribly morbid, but it's true. And so with the most recent deadly season on Everest, which I followed rather closely in the news, it occurred to me that Into Thin Air has been gathering dust on the shelf for some 3 odd years. It was finally time to have at it. Why are people compelled to go into these death traps? You can get hit by a bus tomorrow, sure, but that sort of logic doesn't make climbing Everest any more sane. Seven chapters in, the author somewhat agrees, pondering that, "Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality." Indeed.

Krakauer's first impressions are very telling in that once you are there, you feel so sick, you don't give enough of a damn to properly enjoy any of it. Your brain is deprived of oxygen, you can't even make basic decisions, the death ratio is something like 1 for every 4 climbers, so what's the appeal? Krakauer does his best to give his climbing group and those around them a voice and a face, but none seem particularly likable in the grand scheme of things. It takes a certain kind of arrogance and selfishness to pursue these endeavours, not just as a one off climber, but as a full time guide, especially for people with spouses and children at home. It all seems so reckless. As I think it, Krakauer tells me it isn't so, and that the experience is not an adrenaline chase akin to extreme sports junkies, but a journey of physical and mental endurance, with most participants chasing "a state of grace" amid the incomprehensible pain and suffering of the rapidly deteriorating body and mind.

I remain largely unconvinced. With that said, the book serves as a kind of late-night, teatime gossip. Once you strip its textbook elements and the sometimes daunting rehashing of historical trivia, you are left with a narrative of who said what, held a grudge, had a fight, was jealous, or slept with the help. A soap opera at 29,000ft., it leaves you shaking your head at every bad decision, of which there are many. It reads as a string of bad omens and wrong choices. The suspense is there, but the main selling point of the book - the disaster - only culminates in the last quarter. That's a long time to spend with a slew of unlikable characters for the "unsympathetic public" like myself.  In fact, the improbable and ludicrously over the top mountaineering caricatures of Vertical Limit seem to be a near perfect depiction of the real people in Krakauer's retelling. I thought it was bad Hollywood writing, but they actually did/do talk, walk, and think this way. That's not a good thing. A fairly gripping read, but is it a book that'll leave the shelf again for an encore read like so many others? Afraid not...

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