A State of Nature

A Review of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Human projects fail because of a combination of unforeseen circumstances, misinterpreted information, vanity and self-deception. According to Jon Krakauer's account of the fatal Everest expeditions of 1996, mountaineering is no different than any other type of project. A May thunderstorm, a guide's unwillingness to turn a client back from the summit for the second time, another guide's hypoxia which led him to believe falsely that some oxygen cylinders were empty, were all contributing causes. The backdrop: the belief of the guides in their own infallibility, their clients' misplaced confidence, and the human vanity of taking people up Everest who are not highly experienced mountaineers.

Into Thin Air is a fascinating account of disaster that leaves you feeling highly uneasy. The reason is that Krakauer, a journalist, was a participant in the events. Some of the choices he describes were his own. Though he was a client, not a guide, and therefore passive and not at the center of the fatal decision-making, some of his own acts raise more moral implications than Krakauer faces.

Had this been a third party history of the events, the book would have been a gripping and insightful read without any of the uneasiness. Instead, because Krakauer was a participant, there is a certain element of "kill and tell": he is being highly compensated for recounting how he and his companions decided to leave people to die in the snow.

The holes in the author's moral armor show in his account of the suffering of two of the other clients, Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba. Weathers was a Texas man in his fifties, Namba a Japanese woman in her late forties. Though both were fit and had climbed mountains before, they were very inexperienced in dangerous, high altitude conditions. Both of them tired out when lost in the storm on the way down the mountain, when most of their guides were trapped above. And both were abandoned, not once but several times, by their remaining guide and fellow clients once the going got rough.

Krakauer, who seems to have been stronger and more experienced than most of the clients, got up to the summit and back to the base camp faster than they did and was thus in his tent when the worst of the storm hit. To his credit, he had offered to lead Weathers, who was having some trouble with his vision, back down the mountain, but Weathers declined, preferring to wait for Mike Groom, one of the guides, who was descending with Namba. Groom, Neal Beidleman, a guide from another party, Weathers, Namba and some others, ended up lost in the snow, only about a thousand horizontal, easily walkable feet from the camp but completely unable to find it. Krakauer, meanwhile, who says he was very ill, was asleep in a tent, and did not respond when one of the other clients proposed that they shine lights and bang pots to try to guide the lost party in.

Meanwhile, Namba, Weathers and the others were beginning to suffer from hypothermia. When the storm finally cleared, the two guides, four Sherpas and two clients walked twenty minutes to the camp, leaving behind Namba, Weathers, and two others two weak to walk. One able member of the party volunteered to stay behind.

When the eight arrived back at camp, only one member of the party, a guide, went out to search for the other five; Krakauer says that he and several other members of the group, still supine in their tents, were assumed to be too exhausted and were never asked. After several hours of misdirected efforts, the guide found the five. Meanwhile, Weathers had toppled out of sight, and the party assumed Namba was dead and left her behind.

The next morning, Stuart Hutchison, a client, organized a group of Sherpas to go look for the bodies of Weathers and Namba. They discovered that they were both alive, though frozen and near death. Hutchison asked the lead Sherpa for advice and was told that the two would certainly die. He advised Hutchison to leave them there and concentrate on saving the lives of the people below at the camp, who still had a lot of mountain to descend to safety. "It was a classic act of triage," writes Krakauer. Hutchison returned to camp, and three clients (including Krakauer) and a guide voted to confirm the death sentence.

Here is the pure irrationality of human behavior: Hutchison organizes a group to look for the bodies, finds living people, and leaves them there. Krakauer doesn't even attempt to explain this.

The wrongness of the choice is underlined by the fact that Beck Weathers came back to life and walked into camp by himself eight hours later. And then the party abandoned him again! He was bundled into sleeping bags, given hot water bottles---and left in a tent by himself. Everyone assumed he would die in the night, but no-one attempted to keep him alive by sharing the tent with him. In fact, the group started to leave in the morning without even checking on Weathers, and by Krakauer's account, he (bringing up the rear) looked into Weathers' tent to pay his last respects. And found him still alive, though the tent had come open, and his sleeping bags had come off. "He'd been screaming for help for two or three hours, but the storm had smothered his cries."

Krakauer never so much as raises the question why nobody spent the night looking after Weathers. Perhaps it was another "classic act of triage."

As it happens, Weathers survived, maimed by frostbite (he lost his right arm, left hand, and his nose). This remarkable man was able to walk down the mountain to a point where he could be evacuated by helicopter. In fact, he is the only surviving hero of a sorry expedition---the man who was abandoned not once but three times by his companions, and lived because he wanted to so badly.

Krakauer's attitude about all this is peculiar. He expresses regret a few times. When the group voted to leave Weathers and Namba in the snow, he says they couldn't look each other in the eye. He talks about the anger at him expressed by the families of some of the dead.

Krakauer reserves his one explicit apology for a misstatement he made in a magazine article he wrote soon after the disaster. He described how one of the guides passed him a few hundred feet over the camp, leaving him there, and then walked over the edge of a cliff. Later, after the article was published, he discovered that the bundled up individual he met near the camp was another of the clients, who survived. The guide had apparently died further up the mountain, trying to save another guide and client. Thus he had accused a man of cowardice who had actually died a hero.

It is profoundly distressing that Krakauer spends more time explaining an error of journalism than one of common humanity. I've given this a lot of thought since reading Into Thin Air and have a theory.

Before offering it, I should say that the Everest disaster is one of those situations that you can't fully understand if you haven't been in it. Any of us might have abandoned Weathers and Namba had we been in the same situation. Its hard to know.

Still, I wonder if it didn't have something to do with their being older and weaker. With Namba being a woman, and Japanese, and a little strange. With the contempt the strong feel for the weak on an outdoor expedition. Anyone who has ever gone on any kind of adventure trip and had trouble keeping up knows the feeling. There may have been a kind of self-involved yuppie arrogance: the going is tough and I'm the only one who matters. Let Weathers and Namba fend for themselves. If you can't stand the cold, stay off of the mountain.

When I researched Auschwitz, I encountered the same kind of survivor personality. I am the only one who matters. Let the weak die. There were many "classic acts of triage" among the victims in Auschwitz.

The other clients left Weathers and Namba in the snow because they didn't want to become responsible for them. They could have decided to bring them to camp and try to revive them. If this didn't work, they could still have left them behind in the tents when they descended the mountain. I guess its hard to commit an act of triage when you've already helped someone, easier to leave them in the snow where they've fallen in the first place.

When the remarkable Weathers showed up in camp, the others apparently treated him like he had the plague, giving him minimum amenities and then leaving him alone to die. The weak hold us back. I am for me.

Very early in the book, Krakauer offers a clue. He says the clients were not allowed to work together as a team. Unlike any mountaineering he had done before, the clients were never on a rope together, never depended on one another. The significance: they never learned to care for each other. In World War II, men didn't fight for country or for democracy: they fought for the other members of their squad. It would have been much harder to leave Namba in the snow if, earlier, she had secured a rope Krakauer climbed.

The clients were encouraged to be passive and depend entirely on the guides. When most of the guides died on the mountain, a Hobbesian state of nature ensued: the war of all against all. Krakauer has rewritten Lord of the Flies.

Without any conscious irony, Krakauer reserves the epitaph for his own expedition for his one page description of two Japanese climbers who attempted the mountain the same day from the other side. They passed several incapacitated members of an Indian group, leaving them to die without offering water, oxygen or any other kind of help. One of the Japanese later said, "Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality."

But maybe humans should renounce going places where they can't afford morality.