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Into Thin Air, Page 3

Jon Krakauer

  Once Everest was determined to be the highest summit on earth, it was only a matter of time before people decided that Everest needed to be climbed. After the American explorer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen led a Norwegian party to the South Pole in 1911, Everest—the so-called Third Pole—became the most coveted object in the realm of terrestrial exploration. Getting to the top, proclaimed Gunther O. Dyrenfurth, an influential alpinist and chronicler of early Himalayan mountaineering, was “a matter of universal human endeavor, a cause from which there is no withdrawal, whatever losses it may demand.”

  Those losses, as it turned out, would not be insignificant. Following Sikhdar’s discovery in 1852, it would require the lives of twenty-four men, the efforts of fifteen expeditions, and the passage of 101 years before the summit of Everest would finally be attained.

  Among mountaineers and other connoisseurs of geologic form, Everest is not regarded as a particularly comely peak. Its proportions are too chunky, too broad of beam, too crudely hewn. But what Everest lacks in architectural grace, it makes up for with sheer, overwhelming mass.

  Demarcating the Nepal-Tibet border, towering more than 12,000 feet above the valleys at its base, Everest looms as a three-sided pyramid of gleaming ice and dark, striated rock. The first eight expeditions to Everest were British, all of which attempted the mountain from the northern, Tibetan, side—not so much because it presented the most obvious weakness in the peak’s formidable defenses but rather because in 1921 the Tibetan government opened its long-closed borders to foreigners, while Nepal remained resolutely off limits.

  The first Everesters were obliged to trek 400 arduous miles from Darjeeling across the Tibetan plateau simply to reach the foot of the mountain. Their knowledge of the deadly effects of extreme altitude was scant, and their equipment was pathetically inadequate by modern standards. Yet in 1924 a member of the third British expedition, Edward Felix Norton, reached an elevation of 28,126 feet—just 900 feet below the summit—before being defeated by exhaustion and snow blindness. It was an astounding achievement that was probably not surpassed for twenty-eight years.

  I say “probably” because of what transpired four days after Norton’s summit assault. At first light on June 8, two other members of the 1924 British team, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine, departed the highest camp for the top.

  Mallory, whose name is inextricably linked to Everest, was the driving force behind the first three expeditions to the peak. While on a lantern-slide lecture tour of the United States, it was he who so notoriously quipped “Because it is there” when an irritating newspaperman demanded to know why he wanted to climb Everest. In 1924 Mallory was thirty-eight, a married schoolmaster with three young children. A product of upper-tier English society, he was also an aesthete and idealist with decidedly romantic sensibilities. His athletic grace, social charm, and striking physical beauty had made him a favorite of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury crowd. While tentbound high on Everest, Mallory and his companions would read aloud to one another from Hamlet and King Lear.

  As Mallory and Irvine struggled slowly toward the summit of Everest on June 8, 1924, mist billowed across the upper pyramid, preventing companions lower on the mountain from monitoring the two climbers’ progress. At 12:50 P.M., the clouds parted momentarily, and teammate Noel Odell caught a brief but clear glimpse of Mallory and Irvine high on the peak, approximately five hours behind schedule but “moving deliberately and expeditiously” toward the top.

  The two climbers failed to return to their tent that night, however, and neither Mallory nor Irvine was ever seen again. Whether one or both of them reached the summit before being swallowed by the mountain and into legend has been fiercely debated ever since. In 1999, the well-known American climber Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s body on a sloping ledge at 27,000 feet, where it had come to rest after an apparent fall seventy-five years earlier. Several intriguing artifacts were found with Mallory’s remains, but Anker’s astonishing discovery raised more questions than it answered. The balance of the evidence strongly suggested that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the top before they perished.

  In 1949, after centuries of inaccessibility, Nepal opened its borders to the outside world, and a year later the new Communist regime in China closed Tibet to foreigners. Those who would climb Everest therefore shifted their attention to the south side of the peak. In the spring of 1953 a large British team, organized with the righteous zeal and overpowering resources of a military campaign, became the third expedition to attempt Everest from Nepal. On May 28, following two and a half months of prodigious effort, a high camp was dug tenuously into the Southeast Ridge at 27,900 feet. Early the following morning Edmund Hillary, a rangy New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a highly skilled Sherpa mountaineer, set out for the top breathing bottled oxygen.

  By 9:00 A.M. they were at the South Summit, gazing across the dizzyingly narrow ridge that led to the summit proper. Another hour brought them to the foot of what Hillary described as “the most formidable-looking problem on the ridge—a rock step some forty feet high.… The rock itself, smooth and almost holdless, might have been an interesting Sunday afternoon problem to a group of expert climbers in the Lake District, but here it was a barrier beyond our feeble strength to overcome.”

  With Tenzing nervously paying out rope from below, Hillary wedged himself into a cleft between the rock buttress and a fin of vertical snow at its edge, then began to inch his way up what would thereafter be known as the Hillary Step. The climbing was strenuous and sketchy, but Hillary persisted until, as he would later write,

  I could finally reach over the top of the rock and drag myself out of the crack on to a wide ledge. For a few moments I lay regaining my breath and for the first time really felt the fierce determination that nothing now could stop us reaching the top. I took a firm stance on the ledge and signaled to Tenzing to come on up. As I heaved hard on the rope Tenzing wriggled his way up the crack and finally collapsed exhausted at the top like a giant fish when it has just been hauled from the sea after a terrible struggle.

  Fighting exhaustion, the two climbers continued up the undulating ridge above. Hillary wondered,

  rather dully, whether we would have enough strength left to get through. I cut around the back of another hump and saw that the ridge ahead dropped away and we could see far into Tibet. I looked up and there above us was a rounded snow cone. A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps, and Tensing [sic] and I were on top.

  And thus, shortly before noon on May 29, 1953, did Hillary and Tenzing become the first men to stand atop Mount Everest.

  Three days later, word of the ascent reached Queen Elizabeth on the eve of her coronation, and the Times of London broke the news on the morning of June 2 in its early edition. The dispatch had been filed from Everest via a coded radio message (to prevent competitors from scooping the Times) by a young correspondent named James Morris who, twenty years later, having earned considerable esteem as a writer, would famously change his gender to female and his Christian name to Jan. As Morris wrote four decades after the momentous climb in Coronation Everest: The First Ascent and the Scoop That Crowned the Queen,

  It is hard to imagine now the almost mystical delight with which the coincidence of the two happenings [the coronation and the Everest ascent] was greeted in Britain. Emerging at last from the austerity which had plagued them since the second world war, but at the same time facing the loss of their great empire and the inevitable decline of their power in the world, the British had half-convinced themselves that the accession of the young Queen was a token of a fresh start—a new Elizabethan age, as the newspapers like to call it. Coronation Day, June 2, 1953, was to be a day of symbolical hope and rejoicing, in which all the British patriotic loyalties would find a supreme moment of expression: and marvel of marvels, on that very day there arrived the news from distant places—from the frontiers of the old Empire, in fact—that a British team of moun
taineers … had reached the supreme remaining earthly objective of exploration and adventure, the top of the world.…

  The moment aroused a whole orchestra of rich emotions among the British—pride, patriotism, nostalgia for the lost past of the war and derring do, hope for a rejuvenated future.… People of a certain age remember vividly to this day the moment when, as they waited on a drizzly June morning for the Coronation procession to pass by in London, they heard the magical news that the summit of the world was, so to speak, theirs.

  Tenzing became a national hero throughout India, Nepal, and Tibet, each of which claimed him as one of their own. Knighted by the queen, Sir Edmund Hillary saw his image reproduced on postage stamps, comic strips, books, movies, magazine covers—over night, the hatchet-faced beekeeper from Auckland had been transformed into one of the most famous men on earth.

  Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest a month before I was conceived, so I didn’t share in the collective sense of pride and wonder that swept the world—an event that an older friend says was comparable, in its visceral impact, to the first manned landing on the moon. A decade later, however, a subsequent ascent of the mountain helped establish the trajectory of my life.

  On May 22, 1963, Tom Hornbein, a thirty-two-year-old doctor from Missouri, and Willi Unsoeld, thirty-six, a professor of theology from Oregon, reached the summit of Everest via the peak’s daunting West Ridge, previously unclimbed. By then the summit had already been achieved on four occasions, by eleven men, but the West Ridge was considerably more difficult than either of the two previously established routes: the South Col and Southeast Ridge or the North Col and Northeast Ridge. Hornbein’s and Unsoeld’s ascent was—and continues to be—deservedly hailed as one of the great feats in the annals of mountaineering.

  Late in the day on their summit push, the two Americans climbed a stratum of steep, crumbly rock—the infamous Yellow Band. Surmounting this cliff demanded tremendous strength and skill; nothing so technically challenging had ever been climbed at such extreme altitude. Once on top of the Yellow Band, Hornbein and Unsoeld doubted they could safely descend it. Their best hope for getting off the mountain alive, they concluded, was to go over the top and down the well-established Southeast Ridge route, an extremely audacious plan, given the late hour, the unknown terrain, and their rapidly diminishing supply of bottled oxygen.

  Hornbein and Unsoeld arrived on the summit at 6:15 P.M., just as the sun was setting, and were forced to spend the night in the open above 28,000 feet—at the time, the highest bivouac in history. It was a cold night, but mercifully without wind. Although Unsoeld’s toes froze and would later be amputated, both men survived to tell their tale.

  I was nine years old at the time and living in Corvallis, Oregon, where Unsoeld also made his home. He was a close friend of my father’s, and I sometimes played with the oldest Unsoeld children—Regon, who was a year older than me, and Devi, a year younger. A few months before Willi Unsoeld departed for Nepal, I reached the summit of my first mountain—an unspectacular 9,000-foot volcano in the Cascade Range that now sports a chair-lift to the top—in the company of my dad, Willi, and Regon. Not surprisingly, accounts of the 1963 epic on Everest resonated loud and long in my preadolescent imagination. While my friends idolized John Glenn, Sandy Koufax, and Johnny Unitas, my own heroes were Hornbein and Unsoeld.

  Secretly, I dreamed of ascending Everest myself one day; for more than a decade it remained a burning ambition. By the time I was in my early twenties climbing had become the focus of my existence to the exclusion of almost everything else. Achieving the summit of a mountain was tangible, immutable, concrete. The incumbent hazards lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life. I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end.

  And climbing provided a sense of community as well. To become a climber was to join a self-contained, rabidly idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large. The culture of ascent was characterized by intense competition and undiluted machismo, but for the most part, its constituents were concerned with impressing only one another. Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.

  In those years I lived to climb, existing on five or six thousand dollars a year, working as a carpenter and a commercial salmon fisherman just long enough to fund the next trip to the Bugaboos or Tetons or Alaska Range. But at some point in my midtwenties I abandoned my boyhood fantasy of climbing Everest. By then it had become fashionable among alpine cognoscenti to denigrate Everest as a “slag heap”—a peak lacking sufficient technical challenges or aesthetic appeal to be a worthy objective for a “serious” climber, which I desperately aspired to be. I began to look down my nose at the world’s highest mountain.

  Such snobbery was rooted in the fact that by the early 1980s, Everest’s easiest line—via South Col and the Southeast Ridge—had been climbed more than a hundred times. My cohorts and I referred to the Southeast Ridge as the “Yak Route.” Our contempt was only reinforced in 1985, when Dick Bass—a wealthy fifty-five-year-old Texan with limited climbing experience—was ushered to the top of Everest by an extraordinary young climber named David Breashears, an event that was accompanied by a blizzard of uncritical media attention.

  Previously, Everest had by and large been the province of elite mountaineers. In the words of Michael Kennedy, the editor of Climbing magazine, “To be invited on an Everest expedition was an honor earned only after you served a long apprenticeship on lower peaks, and to actually reach the summit elevated a climber to the upper firmament of mountaineering stardom.” Bass’s ascent changed all that. In bagging Everest, he became the first person to climb all of the Seven Summits,* a feat that brought him worldwide renown, spurred a swarm of other weekend climbers to follow in his guided boot-prints, and rudely pulled Everest into the postmodern era.

  “To aging Walter Mitty types like myself, Dick Bass was an inspiration,” Seaborn Beck Weathers explained in a thick East Texas twang during the trek to Everest Base Camp last April. A forty-nine-year-old Dallas pathologist, Beck was one of eight clients on Rob Hall’s 1996 guided expedition. “Bass showed that Everest was within the realm of possibility for regular guys. Assuming you’re reasonably fit and have some disposable income, I think the biggest obstacle is probably taking time off from your job and leaving your family for two months.”

  For a great many climbers, the record shows, stealing time away from the daily grind has not been an insurmountable obstacle, nor has the hefty outlay of cash. Over the past half decade, the traffic on all of the Seven Summits, but especially Everest, has multiplied at an astonishing rate. And to meet the demand, the number of commercial enterprises peddling guided ascents of the Seven Summits, especially Everest, has multiplied correspondingly. In the spring of 1996, thirty distinct expeditions were on the flanks of Everest, at least ten of them organized as money-making ventures.

  The government of Nepal recognized that the throngs flocking to Everest created serious problems in terms of safety, aesthetics, and impact to the environment. While grappling with the issue, Nepalese ministers came up with a solution that seemed to hold the dual promise of limiting the crowds while increasing the flow of hard currency into the impoverished national coffers: raise the fee for climbing permits. In 1991 the Ministry of Tourism charged $2,300 for a permit that allowed a team of any size to attempt Everest. In 1992 the fee was increased to $10,000 for a team of up to nine climbers, with another $1,200 to be paid for each additional climber.

  But climbers continued to swarm to Everest despite the higher fees. In the spring of 1993, on the fortieth anniversary of the first ascent, a record fifteen expeditions, comprising 294 climbers,
attempted to scale the peak from the Nepalese side. That autumn the ministry raised the permit fee yet again—to a staggering $50,000 for as many as five climbers, plus $10,000 for each additional climber, up to a maximum of seven. Additionally, the government decreed that no more than four expeditions would be allowed on the Nepalese flanks each season.

  What the Nepalese ministers didn’t take into consideration, however, was that China charged only $15,000 to allow a team of any size to climb the mountain from Tibet and placed no limit on the number of expeditions each season. The flood of Everesters therefore shifted from Nepal to Tibet, leaving hundreds of Sherpas out of work. The ensuing hue and cry persuaded Nepal, in the spring of 1996, to abruptly cancel the four-expedition limit. And while they were at it, the government ministers jacked up the permit fee once again—this time to $70,000 for up to seven climbers, plus another $10,000 for each additional climber. Judging from the fact that sixteen of the thirty expeditions on Everest last spring were climbing on the Nepalese side of the mountain, the high cost of obtaining a permit doesn’t seem to have been a significant deterrent.

  Even before the calamitous outcome of the 1996 premonsoon climbing season, the proliferation of commercial expeditions over the past decade was a touchy issue. Traditionalists were offended that the world’s highest summit was being sold to rich parvenus—some of whom, if denied the services of guides, would probably have difficulty making it to the top of a peak as modest as Mount Rainier. Everest, the purists sniffed, had been debased and profaned.

  Such critics also pointed out that, thanks to the commercialization of Everest, the once hallowed peak has now even been dragged into the swamp of American jurisprudence. Having paid princely sums to be escorted up Everest, some climbers have then sued their guides when the summit eluded them. “Occasionally you’ll get a client who thinks he’s bought a guaranteed ticket to the summit,” laments Peter Athans, a highly respected guide who’s made eleven trips to Everest and reached the top four times. “Some people don’t understand that an Everest expedition can’t be run like a Swiss train.”