"Illusion of control" drives those risking their lives

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine

Jon Krakauer

"Illusion of control" drives those risking their lives
Question: Jon,

I have just finished your book and I felt compelled to contact you and thank you for writing it. I believe that you are not alone in your search for answers as to why people are so incredibly drawn to activities that could potentially gravely injure them. I do not climb mountains but I have been involved with riding and racing motorcycles for more than 20 years and have often had to face the injury and death of friends and acquaintances.

I thank you for writing this book because your search for answers has led me to search deeper to find my own reasons for choosing this sport. Although we do not share a similar "hobby" I feel that the people involved in these and many other dangerous activities share some personality traits. As I read the book, I found myself comparing our activities and coming up with reasons as to why mine was the more "sane" of the two. I imagined that I am in more control of my surroundings and I am not placing myself at nearly as much risk because I do not have the variables of altitude-impaired judgment and a fiercely unpredictable environment. Of course, this is far from the truth; there are many things that can go wrong at high speeds on a racetrack, none of which I have any direct control over.

Once I had time to reflect on my thoughts, I realized that this "illusion of control" might be one of the needs that we both try to fulfill with these activities. The need to control something or a situation that is by normal human standards beyond control. To feel that we have some ability or aptitude to control that others do not may be part of what everyone involved in a dangerous sport is looking for.

I was very surprised to see that so many people, including family members of the victims on the mountain, criticized you for your actions or your account of the event. The people on that mountain with you were there because they could not live without achieving that goal in their lives. These people were driven by their quest and their family members should be more aware of that than anyone. I believe that you have been far too hard on yourself for not making different decisions up there. You have no idea what any one of those decisions you wish you had made differently might have accomplished. You may have only succeeded in getting more people, including yourself, killed.

I think that you may have saved far more lives by living through this event and writing your account of this disaster than you may ever know. You have certainly raised awareness of the problems and absurdity of the commercial enterprise fighting for high client-summit percentages.

I do not think that anyone who is thinking of climbing the mountain from this day forward will do so without reading your account. If one inexperienced person reads your book and decides not to risk theirs and others lives by making the trip, then you have saved one more person than you likely would have by making any different decisions on the mountain that day. Everyone's ability to make rational, conscious decisions was impaired up there. I believe that the years of training and experience ingrained into your subconscious allowed you to make the best decisions you could under the circumstances.

Had you been able to make more conscious decisions based on what you saw, your emotional responses may have led you to make far worse ones. Had you stayed with Andy Harris and heard that Rob was in trouble, there is no way you would have allowed him to return to the Step alone and you would have been lost with him. You would not have been in the camp to check on Beck the morning after he walked into camp. You were responsible for saving Beck's life and that would have never happened if you had made any one of many decisions differently.

You should be proud that you had the skills to stay alive and to help others survive the incident. You could not have saved everyone that day and it is not your place to feel responsible for all those people. As morbid as it may sound, the deaths of others in the past are part of what makes the sport challenging and exciting to you and everyone who was lost on the mountain.

For some, facing something that they know might kill them is what makes them feel alive. The deaths will dissuade some but they will also add to the future of the sport and compel others to face a mountain to prove to themselves that they can do it. It's just the way some of us are.

P.S. In Scott's picture taken from the South Summit at approximately 1:00 p.m., there are three climbers above the step. I believe from the text that one of them might be you. Is that correct? If so which one is you?


Dave Van Meter
[email protected]

Jon: Dear Dave,

When Scott took that photo at 1 p.m., Anatoli, Andy Harris, and I were just arriving at the summit, and had already climbed out of the picture, just beyond the upper-left corner of the frame. The three climbers in the photo pictured above the Hillary Step are actually (in descending order) Neal Beidleman, Martin Adams, and Klev Schoening.

N E X T   Q U E S T I O N

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