“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.” – Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air (1997)

More than 10 years ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s memoir “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster“. The book documents his 1996 expedition to Mount Everest during which eight people died in a sudden blizzard.

Krakauer was there on assignment for Outside magazine to write about the commercialisation of Everest. His spot in Adventure Consultants, an expedition guiding company, was negotiated in exchange for advertising space in the magazine. If not for this, he’d have had to pay US$65,000 to join the expedition led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants.

I don’t recall much about the book now but I remember reading it intently as the tragedy unfolded some 8,000 metres about sea level.

It was horrifying to read about what transpired during the blizzard at the top of Mount Everest. It was also baffling to learn about how little experience some of the people had with climbing at such high altitudes.

In Into Thin Air, Krakauer noted that the profile of climbers attempting to ascend Mount Everest started to change after a 55-year-old millionaire businessman with limited climbing experience reached the summit with the help of a gifted young climbers. This gave rise to an increase in the number of amateur climbers with lots of money who arrived in Nepal with lofty dreams of reaching the top of Mount Everest.

What motivates such people to climb and reach the summits of the tallest mountains in the world? Should they be allowed to do so especially since their lack of experience, and possibly physical strength, may endanger themselves and others?

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I was reminded of Into Thin Air by a photo that I took in December 1998 at the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal.

I almost didn’t make it to the base camp, which is 4,130 metres above sea level. I had stomach cramps during the morning trek and had turned back to wait for my peers at the teahouse. On my way down, I found ‘relief’ behind a huge boulder and gleefully declared to the guide who was with me that I was feeling much better.

By the time I caught up with the group at the base camp, I was a little short of breath, partly due to the altitude and exertion, but also because of the impressive jagged mountain peaks looming over me.

What a majestic sight it was. And how tiny we seemed relative to these snowcapped mountains.

The past months of physical training – including countless jumping jacks, running up slopes and doing push-ups on the tarmac – were worth it. However, we wouldn’t have made it so far if it were not for the group of Sherpas who were with us throughout the 10-day trek and carried most of our food, camping equipment and personal belongings.

Would I ever attempt to climb Mount Everest? I doubt it. I’ve no interest in doing so. But I’d like to return to Nepal to go hiking or trekking again.

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11 replies on “Into Thin Air

  1. You might be interested in this well-written blog post:
    http://cszto.blogspot.ca/2014/05/shouldering-burden-sherpas-responsible.html

    I love looking at mountains and being in such areas but have no interest in hiking, climbing to summits where it’s so high that oxygen is thin, someone else has to carry my stuff, etc. I don’t even have any interest reading about mountain climbing expeditions nor watching films on that….. And I live near prime Canadian Rockies where it’s prime North America area for extreme mountain climbing, ice climbing, etc. (I live 120 km. southeast of the area).

    If Sherpas have to carry my stuff, then there’s something wrong: we are risking their lives for our own privilege of leisure mountaineering. After all, we aren’t mountaineering as a job.

    I’ve climbed my own Mount Everest in life….seriously. I don’t need to see someone else climb a mountain to be inspired.

    1. Thanks Jean for sharing this insightful article. I admire people for being able to overcome challenging situations (physical, mental) like mountaineering, if their motivations are right and it is by their own efforts. But not if they just want to have the bagging rights and can pay to get enough help (human labour) to “carry” them up to the summit.

      1. I just get abit annoyed when some travellers are just onto their travel bucket list. Like a score card or something. You know also that “travel” can be right in one’s own country. And Canada is huge enough that is enormous to learn or wandering about in ethnic areas…

  2. Ooooo! Nepal. I work for Travelzoo and have been researching so many deals on Nepal that I’m itching to go! But I don’t think I’ll have the stamina to trek in Nepal. =(

  3. Your photo of the Anapurna base camp reminds me of the snow-capped Peruvian Andes I loved as a child. Isn’t it truly awe-inspiring to stand in such a landscape, and to feel at once that you are on top of the world — but also insignificant? It’s an experience I wish more humans could have, because it might teach our species some humility and perspective.

    That said, I think it’s reckless and selfish of people who lack the conditioning or experience to attempt Everest (or any other dangerous climb), with the expectation that a sherpa or outfitter will bail them out if things get hairy. Even in “extreme sports” there should still be an element of personal responsibility for one’s own hide.

    Anyway … thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking post. I do hope you’ll be able to return to Nepal one day (and that you’ll blog about it!).

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