Outside magazine, May 1997
By the time we asked contributing editor and lifelong climber Jon Krakauer to examine firsthand the circumstances that might lead to a disaster, things had only gotten worse. Swelling ranks of amateur climbers were paying ever fatter sums to be escorted up the peak, and some outfitters seemed to be all but guaranteeing the summit. Guide Rob Hall ran an ad boasting of a "100 percent success rate." "Hey, experience is overrated," another guide, Scott Fischer, told Krakauer while we were shopping around for a commercial expedition for him to join. "We've got the big E figured out, we've got it totally wired. These days, I'm telling you, we've built a yellow brick road to the summit."
If only that had been true. Instead, on May 10, 1996, after Krakauer and 23 others reached the top, dozens of climbers became trapped on the descent, pinned down by gale-force winds and triple-digit windchill. Eight lost their lives, including Hall and three others on Krakauer's six-person summit team. Another who died that day: Fischer. By the end of the month, 12 people on the mountain would perish, the highest single-season body count in Everest history.
Krakauer and many of the other survivors were left scarred and shaken. Nevertheless, Krakauer turned around and wrote, with real and awful authority, "Into Thin Air," a hypnotic, heartbreaking account of the tragedy published in Outside's September 1996 issue. No other article in the magazine's 20 years has prompted the reaction this piece has; many months later, we're still receiving letters from readers haunted by Krakauer's tale. It's a story that won't go away. Nor, given its chastening ramifications, should it. A fellow writer and friend of the magazine recently remarked that the episode put him in mind of another instance of nature slapping down humankind and our runaway hubris: the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic. Then he asked if anyone had learned anything this time around.
Krakauer has now expanded his report into a searing book, also titled Into Thin Air, to be published this month by Villard. With the grim anniversary of the tragedy approaching, editor Mark Bryant sat down with Krakauer in the Seattle home he shares with his wife, Linda Moore. Friends and colleagues for 15 years, Krakauer and Bryant assessed the damages, explored the practical and moral dimensions of risk, and talked about how Jon and his fellow survivors are faring in the aftermath.
MB: One of the most frequently asked questions to come our way these past months is how one justifies the pursuit of something that's arguably so supremely selfish. Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, Yasuko Namba, Scott Fischer, Andy Harris, and seven others were lost to their loved ones last May. Linda nearly lost you. And people ask, for what? Unlike dangerous but arguably selfless, even noble pursuits — like firefighting or relief work or space exploration — mountaineering, in the wake of the Everest deaths, strikes many as benefiting no one but the mountaineer himself. Especially when it comes across more like trophy hunting.
JK: I guess I don't try to justify climbing, or defend it, because I can't. I see climbing as a compulsion that at its best is no worse than many other compulsions — golf or stamp collecting or growing world-record pumpkins. And yet until Everest I probably never fully appreciated the emotional devastation it can wreak. Seeing the hurt it caused the families of good people — this has shaken me deeply, and I haven't fully come to terms with it yet. I started climbing when I was eight — that's 35 years ago — and it's been the driving force in my life for at least 24, 25 of those years. So when I got back from Everest, I couldn't help but think that maybe I'd devoted my life to something that isn't just selfish and vainglorious and pointless, but actually wrong.
There's no way to defend it, even to yourself, once you've been involved in something like this disaster. And yet I've continued to climb. I don't know what that says about me or the sport other than the potential power it has. What makes climbing great for me, strangely enough, is this life and death aspect. It sounds trite to say, I know, but climbing isn't just another game. It isn't just another sport. It's life itself. Which is what makes it so compelling and also what makes it so impossible to justify when things go bad.
JK: It's certainly nothing that stands up to sober-minded scrutiny. Before going to Nepal, I wasn't thinking, "If I climb Everest, my life will improve in such and such specific ways." It's not like that. You simply think that if you can succeed at something that huge, that seemingly impossible, surely it won't merely alter your life, it will transform it. As naive as that sounds, saying it out loud, I think it's a pretty common expectation.
MB: There are certainly harder climbs, any number of routes on any number of peaks that serious alpinists consider more worthy. But Everest, when all's said and done, is still Everest. And for those whom that mountain gets in its grip...
JK: Right. And yet Everest deserves more credit than it gets in some quarters. I came away with infinitely more respect for it — and not simply because it killed several people last May and nearly killed me. It's an amazing peak, more beautiful than I'd imagined. And the South Col route, which I'd always demeaned as the "yak route" up a mountain I'd called the "slag heap," is in fact an aesthetic and worthy climb. But even before you get there, well — I just can't stress enough how Everest warps people. Even Linda, who casts a jaundiced eye toward climbing.
MB: Having been a climber herself, Linda knows all too well...
JK: She does know all too well; she sees the complete absurdity of climbing. Yet even she remains in the thrall of Everest — she read too many National Geographic articles as a kid, is how she puts it. She's somehow starstruck by Everest: "Wow, you've climbed Everest." Despite the fact that she's as cynical as anyone about climbing, she acknowledges that Everest is something special, that it can't be assessed like other mountains. And if you don't understand Everest and appreciate its mystique, you're never going to understand this tragedy and why it's quite likely to be repeated.
MB: There's a wonderful passage in the autobiography of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who made the first ascent of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, about the many arguments he used to try to convince himself not to attempt the peak with a Canadian romantic named Earl Denman in 1947: that Denman had precious little experience, no money, no permission to enter Tibet for a climb of the North Face, and so on. But then he writes, "Any man in his right mind would have said no. But I couldn't say no. For in my heart I needed to go, and the pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth."
JK: Yeah, I love that quote. Among the reasons I love it is because it illustrates that while climbers sometimes tend to think of Sherpas as mainly being in it for the money, here was someone who'd been trying to get on a successful Everest team since 1933 and was as deeply "in its grip," as you say, as I was 50 years later. I'd had this secret desire to climb Everest that never left me from the time I was nine and Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, a friend of my father's, made it in '63. They were my childhood heroes, and Everest was always a big deal to me, though I buried the desire until Outside called. And as critical as I've been of some of the guides and clients in the magazine piece and in the book, on one level I identify with them very deeply. I had summit fever as bad as anyone, and I was there for reasons that, professional duties aside, were no less suspect than anyone else's. I wanted to climb it — that's why I was there. Sure, I thought there was an interesting, even important story to be told about what was happening to Everest. But I wouldn't have taken the writing assignment if I wasn't utterly motivated to get to that summit.
JK: Some of my teammates and members of other groups have taken me to task for saying that more than a few were woefully unprepared and unskilled — in the clients' own view they were very experienced. One teammate, for example, was reduced to a helpless, infantile state by his infirmities and needed extensive help to make it down to the South Col. And yet he doesn't seem to remember this; his view is that he was just fine, that he didn't need any help. While he's a good guy and was actually one of the stronger members of our group, I guess what I'm trying to say is that people's perceptions of their own abilities are amazingly far off the mark. The unreliability of memory among Everest survivors, clients and guides alike, is something that I find strange and fascinating and quite disturbing. While comparing multiple interviews that various subjects gave to me and other journalists, I discovered that the recollections of some of us have changed dramatically with the passage of time. Consciously or unconsciously, a number of people have revised or embellished the details of their stories in significant and occasionally preposterous ways. And — big surprise — the revisions invariably put the subject in a better light. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the kind of person who goes to Everest — the big ego and big personality — isn't inclined to self-criticism or self-analysis.
Let's not mince words: Everest doesn't attract a whole lot of well-balanced folks. The self-selection process tends to weed out the cautious and the sensible in favor of those who are single-minded and incredibly driven. Which is a big reason the mountain is so dangerous. The psychological circuitry of most Everest climbers makes it hard as hell for us to quit, even when it's obvious that we should. If you're willful enough to make it all the way to 27,000, 28,000 feet — well, let just say that the less willful and less stubborn already bailed and headed down long ago.
MB: You and others have certainly been critical of how Anatoli Boukreev, one of Scott Fischer's guides, performed some of his duties, though in your book you quote a great insight of his: "If client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide, this client should not be on Everest. Otherwise there can be big problems up high."
JK: I'm in total agreement with Anatoli when he warns that if you coddle clients down low, you're asking for trouble up high, and yes, I've been critical of what Anatoli did after he tagged the summit, and that he climbed without oxygen while working as a guide. His mistake, as I see it, is that after having coddled clients and gotten them high, as the current job description of an Everest guide demands, you then owe it to them to keep coddling them rather than just blasting down on your own. Nevertheless, Anatoli's warning here is right on the money, and people should listen to him.
MB: Shouldn't people also be rethinking the way other aspects of these commercial trips are conducted? Here we often have some people with little experience or skill, a guide-client relationship that can discourage that all-important sense of "team," and a rather sizable financial transaction that puts real pressure on the guides to see that those signing the checks get a crack at the summit.
JK: There's something about the recent commercialization of Everest that's shocking and very troubling. But maybe it shouldn't be. The sport of mountaineering, after all, was invented by wealthy Englishmen who hired burly local hill people to guide them up the Alps, do the grunt work, and keep them from harm. There's a long tradition of guided climbing, so who am I to say that it's bad or wrong, even on the world's tallest mountain? All I can say is that the commercial experience on Everest leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I'm reminded of something Alex Lowe said not long ago. Alex is arguably the best all-around climber in the world, has summited Everest twice, and has guided it three times. Alex remarked that he gets far more satisfaction from guiding the Grand Teton in the summers than he ever did guiding Everest. In the Tetons, he said, his clients came away both grateful for his help and jazzed about the mountains and climbing, whereas his Everest clients tended to come down pretending they weren't guided and putting on weird airs.
The way Everest is guided is very different from the way other mountains are guided, and it flies in the face of values I hold dear: self-reliance, taking responsibility for what you do, making your own decisions, trusting your judgment — the kind of judgment that comes only through paying your dues, through experience.
MB: And when such values are in short supply? What then?
JK: In our case, and I think this is true for many commercial ventures, we never became a team. Instead we were a bunch of individuals who liked each other to a certain degree and got along well enough, but we never had this feeling that we were all in it together. Part of it was that we didn't do enough of the actual work: Sherpas set up camp, Sherpas did the cooking. We didn't have to cooperate and work out who was going to haul this load or who was going to cook or do the dishes or chop the ice for water. Which contributed to the fact that we never coalesced as a team, which in turn contributed to the tragedy: We were all in it for ourselves when we should have been in it for each other. When I should have been there for others, I wasn't. I was a client and my teammates were clients, and we all counted on the guides to take care of anyone who got into trouble. But the guides couldn't, because they were dead or dying, and there weren't enough of them.
MB: People who read your Outside piece continue to say — constantly, it seems — that you've been altogether too hard on yourself about your own role in the events of May 10. And as readers of the book will discover, that intense self-reproach hasn't gone away. Where's the guilt coming from, and has it begun to subside at all?
JK: I can tell you this: I'm doing better than I have a right to. I mean, look at my role in the death of Andy Harris, the young New Zealand guide on our team. There is no way I should have ever headed down to camp and left him high on the mountain. I should have recognized that he was hypoxic and in trouble.
MB: You honestly think you abandoned him up there at the South Summit? That it wasn't a safe assumption that he was there doing a job? He was the guide and you were the client, a distinction that was drummed into everyone from the outset of the expedition. Plus there was the altitude: He wasn't thinking clearly, but you should have been? In a Himalayan storm?
JK: I know, intellectually, that there were reasons for what I did or didn't do, but here's what it comes down to: If I had simply been on Everest with six or seven friends instead of climbing as a client on a guided trip, I never would have descended to my tent and gone off to sleep without accounting for each of my partners. It's shameful and inexcusable, no matter what. And it's not just Andy. Yasuko died and Beck lost his hands, and this stuff eats at me, it plays over and over again in my head, and will, and should. I come down hard on other people in both the article and the book, so why should I let myself off easy? I think I've got some things to answer for.
MB: I was talking to one of the other survivors recently and it was obvious that he, too, was struggling. I mumbled something about time hopefully healing all wounds, and he said, "I guess it heals some wounds, but others it seems to open wider. And suddenly you discover that even bones, bones you never knew you had, are broken." And I felt such an ache for what this person must be dealing with. Are the other climbers able to move on, or are many still deep in the throes?
JK: Some seem to be doing quite well, actually — at least that's what they say — and I'm happy for them. Most amazing is Beck Weathers, who by all accounts is doing great, despite everything that's happened to him — losing his right arm to frostbite from the middle of his forearm down, losing the fingers on his left hand, losing his nose. But Beck is an incredible guy: The same qualities that enabled him to rise from the dead out on the South Col and save his own life have allowed him to deal with this better than one could expect, and I'm in awe of that.
But honestly, except for the work that needed to be done for the book, I've been in surprisingly little touch with the others. I'm reluctant to speak for anyone other than myself, and I may well be projecting here, but an awkwardness seems to have developed between many of us. If the trip had turned out well, I think we would, ironically enough, be in much closer contact: Wasn't that cool — we all climbed Everest together. Instead it feels tainted, and again I may be projecting, but it's as if we've retreated in shame.
MB: I gather you have, however, been in frequent touch with Andy Harris's parents in New Zealand and with his brother in upstate New York?
JK: I have. It's probably the closest bond I've established since this all ended.
MB: Why do you think that is?
JK: Partly because they've made the effort, partly because I feel somewhat responsible for Andy's death. Ron and Mary, his parents, have of course been devastated and are struggling to come to terms with things. I've opened up my research to them, and Ron's read everything about Everest he can find, both historical and contemporary, and wants to know every detail of what happened to Andy, though there's not a lot of detail to be had. And so we have things to share. They don't hold me responsible, and yet they understand why I feel as I do. Ron says, and I concur, that we now have this unusual bond.
MB: Back to the Everest survivors for a moment: From the time I first read the manuscript of your magazine story, I was struck by the shared culpability that so many must feel, at least to some small degree. Yes, there were some huge mistakes made, some critical ones, but there were also so many little things that built, imperceptibly, chillingly, one upon another.
JK: Believe me, I've been through every permutation: If I'd just done this, if Doug or Beck had done that, if Rob had done this. And I have to admit that not only do I feel guilt, but I've also done a lot of silent finger-pointing and blaming of others — and I'm not talking about the relatively measured criticisms I've voiced in print. I'm talking now about much harsher, darker judgments that I've kept largely to myself. Ultimately, however, I've come to realize that obsessing over the unacknowledged guilt of others does nothing to erase my own culpability. Besides, I suspect I'm not the only one who isn't sleeping particularly well at night.
MB: Last summer when I asked if writing the article was cathartic in any way, you said that events were still too fresh, emotions too raw. And in your introduction to the book you write, "What happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out. I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn't, of course." It hasn't? Not in the least?
JK: I wrote that as I was finishing the book in late November, and now, a few months and a long climbing trip to Antarctica later, I do think that the writing was cathartic in some way. When I went off to Antarctica for the months of December and January, I thought about Everest only a couple of times, which was very liberating and surprising. Only twice did I get the kind of ache that I'd felt almost without letup for the preceding six months. One time was on this grim bivouac, up high in subzero temperatures, extreme windchill, no shelter, and I remember lying there thinking about Rob and Andy and Doug, about Yasuko and Scott. I thought about how this would be a horrible way to die, that this is how they died. What were they thinking, what was Rob thinking after a night at 28,700 feet with no oxygen?
MB: Rob Hall was an enormously likable, talented person. He also made some tremendous mistakes, which you certainly haven't shied away from investigating. The difficult questions you've raised about Hall's actions, as well as the actions of others, have managed to upset quite a number of people, haven't they? How do you deal with that?
JK: Plenty of people have said to me, "Who are you to assess someone else's role or lack of experience or skill?" But I'm a working journalist, and I was there, and I was there to do a job — to tell what happened as best I could. I certainly feel bad that some people are hurt by my assessments, but somebody needed to step up and tell what went on up there. Jesus, people died — a lot of people died.
MB: And some people are going to say here you are, not only criticizing the living and the dead but profiting off them. We at the magazine have felt twinges of guilt over the fact that your Everest article not only was the most talked-about piece we've ever published, but gave us a best-selling issue besides. We were just doing our jobs and hoping some real good might come of the effort, and I know you feel the same way. But obviously you, too, can't be entirely comfortable when the question of profit comes up.
JK: No, I'm not. But I'm a writer — it's what I do to pay the bills, it's how I've made my living for more than 15 years now. I've given away a fair bit of the Everest money to charities like the American Himalayan Foundation, an outfit that benefits Sherpas, and I intend to give away more as royalties from the book come in, but the fact is, yeah, I'm profiting from what I've written, and I won't pretend that I'm not. One thing I should have seen coming, but didn't, is that because I was actually up on the mountain last May when everything went wrong, I've drawn a lot more criticism than other journalists — the swarm of print and broadcast reporters who covered the mess from sea level for the likes of Newsweek and Life and Men's Journal and the television networks. Ironically, a few of these journalists have castigated me — rather sanctimoniously, in some cases — at the same time that they appeared to be pocketing their own paychecks without a second thought.
MB: And Linda? How's she handled things? I ask, of course, all too aware that we're the ones often sending you on these little jaunts to mountains like the Eiger, Denali, Cerro Torre. In the book you're quite frank about how difficult going off to Everest was on your marriage. But after six months back at home you were off again to climb in Antarctica for a couple of months. That must not have been easy.
JK: Before we got married 16 years ago, I said I was going to quit climbing, and I think that contributed to Linda's decision to marry me. Then I started climbing again, and things between us were not good. But Linda's come to accept that climbing is an important part of who I am. What's disturbing to her now is this sense that things might be escalating, that first there's Everest and then there's Antarctica.
MB: Are you trying to restrain yourself, slow down at all?
JK: Apparently not, though in my mind, Antarctica was much less serious than Everest, and in fact it was. It may look scarier: It was more remote, and the climbing was much more technical. But it's the kind of climbing I know how to do, and Linda appreciates that, too. I had to go there because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb in Antarctica, and because I had to see whether climbing could still be satisfying or whether it had been ruined by Everest. And it wasn't. But this latest expedition wasn't easy on Linda. At Everest Base Camp the loved ones we left behind were a frequent topic of discussion. Everyone felt guilt, which generally manifested itself in feeble attempts at humor. We couldn't admit to each other how much our significant others were paying for our obsessions.
MB: Is there any advantage to the fact that Linda used to climb? Or as we discussed earlier, does she know too much?
JK: Way too much. Linda knows what it's like when things go wrong. She's torn. She understands the hold climbing has on me, and supports what I do, but at the same time she has this painfully acute awareness of what's at stake.
MB: Reading between the lines of what you've been saying, and because I've known you a long time, I'm guessing that despite everything that's happened, there's still something about mountaineering that remains life-affirming for you.
JK: If you'd said that three months ago, I think I would have said no. But now, maybe yes. There's something about it that is important to me — for some of us it's an important antidote to modern life. Pressed by, say, Ron or Mary Harris to defend this, I probably couldn't. But climbing, for me, does have this transcendental quality, this ability to transport you, to enforce humility, to cause you to lose yourself and simply live in the moment. What other people may get from attending midnight mass, I still get from climbing. These are bad clichës, I know, but they're clichës that nevertheless ring true for me.
I also think — and maybe this is my latent puritanical or Calvinist streak coming out — that there's something noble about stoicism and sacrifice and suffering for a goal. Everest turned out to be harder than I'd ever imagined. And my teammates, my fellow clients — no matter what others may say, I admire them for being that committed to something and for being able to just endure.
MB: This is the last thing: On May 13, three days after the Everest debacle — which would soon find its way onto the front page of the New York Times; onto numerous magazine covers; onto television, radio, online reports; and into books and movie deals — more than 600 people were killed and 34,000 injured when a tornado struck north-central Bangladesh, not so very far from your base camp. And yet coverage and talk of that catastrophe seemed almost nonexistent. Isn't it ironic — and sad, really — that the loss of 12 lives on Everest should resonate so much louder in this part of the world than the loss of 600? What is it about what happened on Everest that still apparently means so much, that keeps people glued to it? There have certainly been plenty of other mountaineering disasters over the years that were quickly forgotten, if they were ever noticed at all.
JK: I don't know why this tragedy has grabbed people with such force and won't let go. Part of it's the Everest mystique and part of it's the absurdity and even perversity of people spending this kind of money chasing this kind of goal, throwing prudence and common sense to the wind. But in the final analysis I really don't get it. I'm a victim and a beneficiary of it all at the same time. Everest has turned my life upside down. Nothing will ever be the same. Why did I end up climbing the mountain on that particular day, with those particular people? Why did I survive while others died? Why has this story become a source of fascination to so many people who ordinarily would have no interest in mountain climbing whatsoever?
I recently got a letter from Alexander Theroux, the writer, contrasting the act of climbing Everest with other climbing. He pointed out — correctly, I believe — that Everest seems to attract a different sort of person, someone not necessarily interested in climbing per se, but simply in climbing the highest mountain in the world. There's something about Everest that causes it to lodge especially hard in the public imagination. In Theroux's opinion, the compulsion to climb it is every bit as powerful and deeply felt as the age-old human compulsion to fly.
I guess maybe we should think of Everest not as a mountain, but as the geologic embodiment of myth. And when you try to climb a chunk of myth — as I discovered to my lasting regret — you shouldn't be too surprised when you wind up with a lot more than you bargained for.
Photographs by Andrew Eccles
Filed To: Snow Sports