Right around the time I started working at Outside, the editor Mark Bryant assigned Jon Krakauer a story that required climbing Mount Everest. The office was always supercharged, but in the weeks leading up to Krakauer’s May 1996 summit, the intensity at our morning meetings--which were always held in the hallway--ratcheted up 20 notches as we waited for the latest satellite update from Nepal.
Everyone who has read Into Thin Air knows how that story ended. Love it or loath it, Krakauer’s book has become a powerful force in contemporary literature, the standard by which adventure narratives are measured. In addition to being a gripping read, Krakauer’s book also pushed the mountain further into the mainstream. Suddenly, the mountain's climbers were being scrutinized like Superbowl quarterbacks and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about the wisdom and ethics of climbing Mount Everest.
As the letters editor during the “Into Thin Air” era (the story first ran at 17,000 words in the September 1996 issue), I read letters of praise and sympathy, letters of vitriol, and letters asking the same question asked of George Mallory almost 100 years ago: "Why climb Everest?"
It took a few years for the mania to subside. I finally decided that unless I raised the cash, acquired the skills, and found the guts to summit Everest myself, I’d refrain from making a judgment about anyone who did.
Fourteen years later, I still haven’t found the guts, acquired the skill, or raised the cash to summit Everest--but I am starting starting the trek to Everest Base Camp this week, where I’ll be reporting for Expedition Hanesbrands (climbwithus.com), a team led by the Canadian mountaineer Jamie Clarke, who will be attempting his second summit.
I’ll also be blogging for Outside Online, writing about life at base camp and checking in with the assortment of climbers starting out from the south side, the likes of whom include Dhani Jones, a Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker, and Chad Kellogg, a Washington-based climber attempting a solo speed ascent with no oxygen.
I can’t deny that I’ve wondered what it would be like to see the view from 29,029 feet. I’ve certainly read about it. After Into Thin Air, I turned to Everest: The Mountaineering History by Walt Unsworth, the biographies of Sir Edmund Hillary and George Mallory, Reinhold Messner’s Expedition to the Ultimate, Thomas Hornbein’s Everest: The West Ridge, and Seven Summits by Frank Wells, Dick Bass, and RickRidgeway. Then I read Nick Heil’s Dark Summit, which analyzes the 2006 Everest season, the second-most fatal in the mountain’s history. And, for comic relief, I laughed out loud at Contributing Editor Kevin Fedarko’s July 2007 story “High Times.”
As Thomas Hornbein wrote in The West Ridge, his account of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition, “Everest can be an overwhelming experience that is more complex and deeply felt than simply the exposure for several months to discomfort, exhausting effort, uncertainty, and awesome scenery.”
If I make it to base camp (a place Fedarko described in “High Times” as, among other things, “an absolute fricking blast”), I’m hoping to get a measure of the mountain’s complexity and grandeur. Then, I’ll pass it on to readers.
Photo by Chistopher Herwig