Friday, January 23, 2009

Into Thin Air

I was extremely interested in reading Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air after I had previously read his popular book Into the Wild. I must admit: I did enjoy Into the Wild much more, but if you are really interested in climbing, adventure, the outdoors, and mountains, then you would really enjoy this book.

Into Thin Air is a true nonfiction piece that recounts Krakauer's 1996expedition of climbing up Mount Everest. He used his experience to report for Outside Magazine, but the quest was so intense that he eventually compiled everything into this one book.

The book recalls Krakauer's traumatic experience: His travel group was accosted with a horrendous storm that claimed the lives of eight of his fellow travelers, including two experienced guides with their own companies to assist travelers up Everest. These two guides were Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Krakauer was devastated by the losses and suffered survivor's guilt for much time after the expedition.

Krakauer traditionally starts off his books with the ending and then retracts back and tells of every detail that lead up to that tradic ending. In this case, he recalls the storm and all of the members who perished from the storm (and some that were left stranded) and then backs up to the climb itself.

He is very technical with his details. As with Into the Wild, he gives information on the history and background of Everest and factual details and statistics about climbing and Everest. Sometimes the information seems to come all at once in large amounts, but once he gets to the narrative, I enjoyed it much more.

And Krakauer is lucky to be alive. The rough statistic is that 1 in 4 climbers die who attempt to climb Everest. If the number is so high, why take the risk?

When I was reading about Krakauer's experiences, I couldn't believe what would possess someone to do these things. He would sleep in frozen temperatures in the middle of storms in a tent that could hardly stay up, some suffered frostbite, they had poor latrines, they were weak and fatigued from the high altitudes, they lost tons of weight from lack of eating and increase of exertion on the body, and they had to constantly deal with team members dying or becoming injured. Why experience that? Why risk it?

I know that some people are really into that rush and thrill, and I can see the appeal of climbing such a fierce mountain. It's a life accomplishment that one can be proud of. For me, I just can't understand it, but I guess that some people really are driven to do things like this.

The book did teach me an awful lot about mountain climbing. Not like I can go climb a mountain or anything now, but it offered some insight into what happens to the body when climbing. Near the top of the mountain, it is suggested to use an oxygen tank because of the high altitude. I also did not realize that the human body actually reacts to higher altitudes. You could develop various diseases and reactions from this high altitude:

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): fluid build up in the lungs

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise

These illnesses occur because the depth of respiration increases, pressure in pulmonary arteries increases, "forcing" blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing, the body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen, and the body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates
the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues. (From this website)

One of the members of Krakauer's crew, Beck Weathers, was left for dead but awakened in subzero temperatures. He ended up walking to a base camp to save himself, but he was left severely damaged. He got frostbite so bad that they had to amputate his right arm up to his elbow, all fingers on his left hand, and his nose. They had to reconstruct his face using skin and tissue from his ear and other locations.

Weathers could not climb Everest because he was suffering eye troubles from an earlier surgery. He was waiting for his guide, Rob Hall, to come down the mountain so they could all return. Hall never made it back down due to the storm, and Weathers was left in the middle of the horrible storm. He passed out with his hands and face exposed (which led to multiple amputations). Those who saw him afterward said that he felt like porcelain and they didn't expect him to survive. Weathers now still practices medicine and gives motivational speeches.

Otherwise, I can understand why Krakauer expereinced such grief after the experience. So many highs, so many lows. I can imagine how incredible that experience would be, but so many other tragic things happened right at the end of the trip. What an experience.

I do wish Krakaeur would be more creative with his titles. Into this, Into that... I also didn't know this was a made-for-TV movie with Shooter McGavin as Krakauer. Not too bad.

So, what do you think about climbing Everest or Into Thin Air?

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