Do you worry about upsetting the victims' families?
Question: I just finished reading your book. It was quite gripping; I can't stop thinking about it. Do you grapple at all with its release being so close to the anniversary of the disaster? More specifically, do you worry that all the excitement and publicity might be disturbing or upsetting to the victims' friends and families (yours included)? Such emphasis on the book and the disaster (again — we went through this once already) seems a little like the commercialization of a tragedy. Any thoughts?
As I'm writing this response to your question, the date is May 18, about a week after the anniversary — and I have to say that it affected me more than I anticipated.
I'm not usually a very sentimental person — anniversaries don't generally mean much to me — but this anniversary was surprisingly rough, in large part because I have friends and acquaintances who are back on Everest again this year, waiting at this moment for the wind to abate so they can attempt the summit — Ed Viesturs, David Breashears, Pete Athans, Guy Cotter, Veikka Gustaffson, and others — and I'm very worried about their welfare, especially given what has just occurred on the mountain over the past couple of weeks (the deaths of Mal Duff, Ang Mingma Sherpa, Ang Nima Sherpa, Peter Kowalzik, Alexander Torochin, Nikolai Chevtchenko, and Ivan Plotaikov).
I certainly regret that the publication of my book has caused additional pain for the friends and families of those who were lost in the 1996 calamity — I regret it very, very much. I don't know how to respond to those who feel wounded by what I've written except to say that I understand why they may feel hurt and pissed off, and I don't expect them to see things from my perspective, but at the same time I believe quite strongly that this story needed to be told. I think I had a duty as a witness and a journalist — a duty to the survivors of the disaster, to the many grieving friends and families, to the historical record, and to all the climbers who perished — to report what happened on Everest last May as completely and accurately as possible.
In writing the book I tried very hard to recount the events truthfully, in an even-handed, sympathetic manner that did not sensationalize the tragedy or cause undue pain to friends and families of the victims. But readers of Into Thin Air will have to decide for themselves whether I was fair and sensitive and responsible in my reporting.
You may recall that I was sent to Everest as a working journalist, on assignment to report on the commercialization of the mountain for Outside magazine, long before anyone knew what was going to transpire. Believe me: If I'd somehow known beforehand what was going to happen up there, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near Everest. There are plenty of people who think journalism is a disreputable way to make a living (and as practiced by some, it most certainly is) but throughout my writing career I have tried hard to perform the job honorably. Whatever one's opinion of journalists, I have been plugging away at it for something like 16 years now with varying degrees of success — it is not something I undertook after returning from Everest simply to turn a quick buck.
I expect that many people will dislike Into Thin Air; not a few will despise it. I only ask that the book be judged on its literary merits (or lack thereof) rather than the fact that I was paid for writing it. Moreover, some of the money that's come my way has been used to make substantial donations to such charities as the American Himalayan Foundation (which benefits needy Sherpas) and the Access Fund (which works to preserve climbing areas). And I will continue to make such donations as earnings from the book mount.