The first successful ascent of Mount Everest occurred in 1953 following years of failures and tragedy, Irvine and Mallory perhaps being the most famous of those, but just before the Queens’ Coronation Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, summitted along with his companion Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, its peak in the thin air usually reserved for pressurised aeroplanes! Achieving the lofty heights continued to be an ambition of people and over the years many more people went onto climb Everest until, in 1996, businesses were charging $65,000 per person to guide people to the peak. And it is in 1996 that the story starts.
Jon Krakauer is a freelance journalist and having done several pieces of work for the US magazine, Outside, he was asked to produce an article on the over-commercialisation of the slopes of Everest. Jon had been a mountain climber for years but had never tackled Everest and thought that he didn’t want to, describing that it had become a slag-heap that any Tom, Dick or Harry could conquer for the right price. But the offer was too tempting and primal and in 1996 he found himself part of an organised group led by New Zealander, Rob Hall trecking towards Base Camp.
What eventually happened on their peak day, 10th May, is the stuff of nightmares as well as Jon’s own personal recriminations and questions. The party were hit by a storm in the upper reaches of the mountains and many, including Rob Hall, were killed as well as several of the paying clients. Jon had managed to descend to camp 4 as the storm was starting but many were still left stranded above and around him. The effect that being in such an oxygen depleted zone can not be understated and not only can that mean physical exhaustion but mental exhaustion, confusion and poor memory. Jon provides a harrowing and emotional account of the events he witnessed and, because of extensive interviews he carried out with other survivors, what others saw too.
The most amazing survival story is that of Beck Weathers who never summitted due to an eye issue which he initially had hoped would pass. Rob Hall had told him to wait for him and he dutifully did. Rob never came down though and Beck was left waiting in the freezing temperatures until it was too late and his descent began when the storm had taken hold. He and a small number of other climbers became disorientated in the snow and were unable to find the tents of camp 4 though relatively close by to them. After some hours the storm broke enough for one of them to make a break for camp with the hope of finding help. The storm did not abait completely though and continued to batter all those in its icy grasp. Beck was left waiting and when help did arrive he appeared to be in a coma and not anticipated to live. He was left out there. Hours later, somehow, he walked back into camp four. His hands and face were black with frostbite but he was alive, barely. He was put into a tent and many thought he would not survive the night. Jon checked on him in the morning fearing the worst and found him yelling for attention but not being heard because of the wind battering the tents. His arm had swelled so much that his wrist watch was biting in to it causing him immense pain. Jon helped him but then was urged to descend, to ensure his survival. Sometime later Beck was brought into base camp having, again, made a short lived miraculous recovery. When Jon heard that Beck was being brought into camp he assumed that they meant his body. Base camp is at just over 17,000 feet, considered too high for helicopters, but a brave pilot managed to land one briefly to assist in the rescue of Beck who ultimately had his hands and nose amputated but got home. Unlike many on that trip.
Rob Hall’s wife hadn’t accompanied him on the expedition this time around because she was pregnant though usually she would have been the camp doctor. She spoke to him for the last time on the 11th May 1996 when he was stranded by the peak of Everest, where he remains, and reassured him that she would name their baby Sarah.
This was a particularly tragic expedition though Krakauer is keen to reassure us that statistically 1 in 4 climbers die trying to climb Everest and the 1996 season only saw 1 in 7 die.
The questions raised in this book really bare thinking about. Like just because you have the money should somewhere as dangerous as Everest be accessible to you? Does paying an awful lot of money for something like this compromise the tour guides? Does paying that money and being guided release you from the obligations of caring about your fellow man? And fascinating information about littering (thousands of empty oxygen bottles littering the slopes of the mountain) and excrement (lets just say any ridiculous ideas I had about climbing a mountain were quickly forgotten when the toilet situations were gloriously detailed).
I recently read Thin Air by Michelle Paver, a fictional ghost story about climbing a Himalayan Mountain, that caused me to watch the film Everest starring Jake Gyllenhaal and my interest in the subject was well and truly piqued. This book is a fascinating account of the tragedy that occurred on the side of that enormous mountain in 1996. Jon Krakauer is an excellent writer and I found reading the book addictive! I went out for a walk and just wanted to get home and carry on reading it! And I knew the ending.