I enjoy reading accounts of personal disasters. It’s not like watching a train wreck or the results of an auto accident. It’s not about the sort of rubber-necking that turns an evening commute home from work into an odyssey of endless brake lights and bad commercial radio (how many times will they play “Wrecking Ball” before you get to your driveway?). It’s not like that at all.
The best accounts reveal the character of men and women in crisis. They allow me to marvel at the courage displayed in the face of a cruel universe all too ready to take unconscious advantage of one’s mistakes and hubris. You will find a perfect example of this when reading the mountaineering classic Into Thin Air: A Personal Account Of The Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. Every time I read this book I find myself at once chilled by the utter indifference of nature, and heartened by the force of will that allowed the protagonists of these events to survive.
A number of other titles also explore the thin line between exultation and disaster:
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by Arlene Blum. Never the province of men alone, Blum’s account of her mountaineering exploits will both harrow and inspire readers. Blum’s experience again lends proof to the idea that difficult circumstances reveal character rather than build it.
K2 : Life And Death On The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs. While Everest has claimed many lives, no mountain owns a body count higher than K2, the tallest peak in the Karakoram Range of northern Pakistan. A world-class climber, Viesturs ascended K2, and he uses his experience to explore the nature of mountaineering, the inner steel required to practice it, and the bonds of loyalty it forges among fellow climbers.
127 Hours : Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston. What would you do to save your life? What lengths would you go to? Aron Ralston answers this terrible question for himself in 127 Hours, a book every hiker and outdoor enthusiast ought to read.
As we wind through the winter months and spring approaches, a lot of folks will begin planning expeditions of their own. My own misadventures will remain considerably more humble than those detailed in the above books, but they spring from the same font of wanderlust and restlessness likely felt by Krakauer, Blum, Viesturs, and Ralston. The same force of will that drove Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to make the first documented ascent to the peak of Everest. While horror and pain define every disaster, the way we react to what comes in tragedy’s wake often lays bare the beauty of the human spirit.