On February 21, 2011, we were hit by a record-setting unexpected snowfall. By the time I left work at 8 PM, there were at least seven inches of snow on the street leading to my house – certainly enough to render a Pittsburgh-grade hill impassable.
Since I couldn’t make it home, I retreated to the gas station at the foot of the hill and waited for the plows while sitting in my toasty car, listening to the news on the radio, and enjoying a gas-station-quality dinner. By 10:30 PM the plows still hadn’t arrived, so I decided to climb.
I was forced to improvise because I didn’t have my winter gear. I ended up wearing a towel, toting an umbrella, and crunching about in Mary Janes lined with plastic bags begged from the gas station. Half an hour later I was home, safe and sound and none the worse for wear, though slightly chilly and damp.
Uphill, in the snow, for half a mile. Hardcore.
This is the closest I have ever gotten or will ever get to mountain climbing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to read about mountain climbing – especially when things go horribly wrong (after all, I Enjoy Unhappy Books). One particular event that fascinates me is the 1996 Everest expedition in which eight climbers died.
If you’ve heard about this expedition at all, it’s probably because of the bestselling book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by journalist Jon Krakauer. His book provides a pretty decent beginner’s history of Everest and discusses the commercialization of the mountain and its impact on the environment and local people – which is exactly what his sponsor, Outside magazine, sent him to do.
There’s also a lot of information about climbing techniques, equipment, and the logistics behind an Everest expedition, so even though the action doesn’t really start until about two-thirds of the way through the book (when Krakauer finally sets foot on the summit of Everest) you’ve learned so much along the way that the whole story up to this point (and what comes next) makes sense.
Krakauer’s criticism of the guides and leaders of the competing expeditions on the mountain spurred the writing of The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt. Boukreev was an experienced guide for a rival expedition, judged harshly by Krakauer and others for descending from the summit of Everest before his clients and climbing the mountain without the use of supplemental oxygen (which many considered extremely irresponsible for a paid guide). He did some amazing rescue work though, going back out into a raging blizzard on Everest multiple times to search for both his clients and clients from other expeditions.
For a slightly more detached view of events, try Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, the National Geographic companion book to the IMAX movie listed below. While the book is primarily about the filming of the movie, there are two chapters devoted to the events on the summit. Since most of the IMAX crew was in lower camps at the time, their perspective on the tragedy is entirely different, though no less immediate than Krakauer’s or Boukreev’s.
Before returning to the story of their own expedition, the movie crew offers a detailed analysis of the factors that led to the disaster, from inexperience and poor communications (not all of the guides carried radios – more understandable in the mid-90s but astonishing today) to the lack of a fixed turn-around time. And if you learn nothing else from these guys, you’ll learn that they’re not afraid to cry. There was a lot of crying down at the bottom of the mountain.
If that’s still not enough, here are two more books that I’ve uncovered but haven’t read yet: Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, by Beck Weathers (who climbed with Jon Krakauer, and lost his nose to frostbite) and Climbing High : a Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy by Lene Gammelgaard (who climbed with Anatoli Boukreev and still has her original nose).
Digression: Yes, this post is rather morbid. But it’s also a wonderful example of why it’s good to compare primary sources. There’s your library lesson for the day.
Everest is the IMAX movie filmed at the time of the disaster. According to the cover, you’ll “witness the perils of skin-blistering cold, violent blizzards that drop the windchill to minus 100 degrees, and air so thin it numbs the mind.” I watched this one while nestled on the couch in a fleece blanket with a couple of purry cats. That kind of takes the edge off.
Everest: The Death Zone is a 1998 Nova special that documents the effects of cold and altitude on climbers and how it can really wreck a person’s decision-making abilities. It also uses the phrase “corpse-strewn” on the back of the box, so squeamish viewers should beware. (Also, I now regret doing a Google image search for “Everest corpses.” It was very educational, but… yeah. I won’t be giving you a link for that.)
Storm Over Everest, a 2007 episode of Frontline, is a collection of interviews that David Breashears (of the IMAX team) conducted with the climbers and Sherpas of the 1996 expeditions. The companion website has a clip from the show, and a really nifty interactive map/timeline thingy.
- Amy, who really should stop complaining about her chilly office