Mountains, with their mystic allure, have always drawn mankind towards them. Whilst to most of us, mountains offer a scenic escape or a fleeting sense of adventure from a dreary city life, but to some others, they mean a deep yearning, an irresistible pull. For the later types i.e. the mountaineers, climbers, mountains signify a challenge that needs to be overcome with fortitude and perseverance. The snow-capped mountains of greater Himalayas with their precipitous terrain and capricious weather present a unique challenge to the Mountaineers. But Everest is a different world altogether. Ever since it was discovered by the British surveyors in the early 19th century during the great trigonometric survey of India, Everest with its white dazzling icy pinnacle and forbiddingly rugged terrain has drawn a great number of climbers, many of them highly experienced mountaineers. However, it’s notoriously unpredictable and harsh conditions have claimed lives of many climbers, inexperienced and seasoned alike, in the past.
‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer is a vivid eyewitness account of the Everest disaster of May 1996 in which he was one of the clients in Rob Hall’s expedition. Jon Krakauer, an American writer who became famous for his earlier published work ‘Into the Wild’ in 1996, was asked by Outlook magazine to join a guided Everest expedition in May 1996 on an assignment to write an article about mushrooming commercialisation of the mountain. The intent was not to climb the mountain but to report the activities from the base camp. However, this opportunity rekindled in him an old longing to summit Everest. Fortunately, the magazine agreed to sponsor his climbing and managed to secure a place for him in Rob Hall’s expedition. Rob Hall, a seasoned kiwi mountaineer who had pulled off an extraordinary feat of climbing seven summits in all seven islands under seven months in addition to summiting Everest, was leading the expedition under the guiding company Adventure consultants.
In a vivid recount of the events, as they unfold, starting from the day the expedition members board a chopper to Lukla, a small town in Khumbu area 9200 ft up in the Himalaya to the day leading up to the inevitable disaster, Jon’s breathtaking narrative masterfully weaves the history of the mountains and interesting accounts of some of major summiting attempts in the past with the personal narratives of the key members of the expedition. At the same time, he gives an insightful peek into the enterprise that runs the entire industry of commercial expeditions to Everest.
I was particularly drawn into Jon’s striking illustrations of the trail followed by the expedition and the detailing of geographical features en-route. The chapters are arranged as per the milestones covered on the route. The journey to Everest base camp starts from Lukla which is the last point up the mountains with an airstrip. Describing the scenic trek to Everest Base Camp while heading towards Phakding a small village in Khumbu region of Nepal, Jon notes:
From Lukla, the way to Everest led north through he crepuscular gorge of Dudh Koshi, an icy, boulder-choked river that churned with glacial runoff. We spent the first night of our trek in the hamlet of Phakding, a collection of a half a dozen homes and lodges crowded onto a shelf of ground on a slope above the river. The air took on a wintry sting as night fell, and in the morning, as I headed up the trail, a glaze of frost sparkled from Rhododendron leaves……..…….By noon, after we’d crossed a wobbly footbridge suspended high over the river- the fourth river crossing of the day- rivulets of sweat were dripping off my chin, and I peeled down to shorts and T-shirt. Beyond the bridge, the dirt path abandoned the banks of the Dudh Koshi and zigzagged up the steep canyon wall, ascending through the aromatic stands of pine. The spectacularly fluted ice pinnacles of Thamserku and Kusum Kanguru pierced the sky more than two vertical miles above. It was magnificent country, as topographically imposing as any landscape on earth, but it wasn’t wilderness and hadn’t been for hundred years.
From Phakding Rob’s arrives in Namche Bazar, the commercial hub of Sherpa community situated at 11300 ft above sea level. After 3 days of acclimatization, they resume the trek. On their way to base camp, Jon describes the experience :
Twenty minutes beyond the village I rounded a bend and arrived at a breathtaking overlook. Two thousand feet below, slicing a deep crease through the surrounding bedrock, the Dudh Koshi appeared as a crooked strand of silver glinting from shadows. Ten thousand feet above, the huge backlit spike of Ama Dablam hovered over the head of the valley like an apparition. And seven thousand feet higher still, dwarfing Ama Dablam, was the icy thrust of Everest itself, all but hidden behind Nuptse. As always seemed to the case, a horizontal plume of condensation streamed from the summit like frozen smoke, betraying the violence of the jet stream winds.
In the late 80s and 90s, the high-altitude guiding companies taking clients on commercial expeditions to Everest proliferated and thus began a massive influx of non-professionals overcrowding the mountains. These companies vied for clients – mostly wealthy and amateur climbers – promising them a life time experience of summiting the roof of the world in exchange for hefty fees. A vast majority of these expeditions use two routes to the summit – South Col route and NorthEast Ridge route (or north col). The South Col route – called by more seasoned climbers as ‘Yak route’ due to its technically undemanding approach – starts from the base camp at 17500 ft and have camps C1, C2, and C3 at progressively higher altitudes of 19500ft, 21000 ft and 23500 ft respectively. Rob Hall’s expedition chose South Col route. However, besides Adventure consultants, there were climbers from a dozen other rival expeditions along with their sherpas who were competing to summit Everest that year on the same route. Among them, Jon recounts, most notably the story of Scott Fischer – founder of ‘Mountain Madness’ – and of a unique bond that Rob and Scott shared between them.
Jon gives considerable credit in the book to the most indispensable members of these expeditions; the sherpas. Summiting in the treacherous Himalayas is unthinkable without the support of these sturdy load-bearers. Sherpas are a unique ethnic community who for many centuries have lived high up in the mountainous regions of Nepal. They are known for their extraordinary climbing prowess. The Sherpas, once dependent solely on the trading between India and Nepal, are now getting employed by the trekking agencies as guides or sirdars in good numbers with the growth of commercial high-altitude guiding. Often paid meagerly compared to the company’s guides, these Sherpas not only carry tons of load up and down the tortuous routes at very high altitudes many times during the day thus relieving the clients of their luggage but also fix the ropes along the most difficult terrain of the route so that clients do not face any difficulty while climbing.
As the expedition crosses various milestones along the route, the narrative gets more and more riveting. On 10th May 1996, a blizzard hits the Everest when the expedition is making the final ascent to the peak. Jon was already on his way back to camp four severely disoriented and hypoxiated but most of the other climbers became stranded on the slope and eventually, 12 of them couldn’t make it back to the camp due to worsening weather. Jon so vividly portrays the events and encounters in this endeavour that one could actually perceive the extreme climatic conditions at Khumbu glacier, visualize the terrifying crossovers on deep crevasses and towering ice seracs, feel the severe breathlessness and profound fatigue in the ‘death zone’, sense the euphoria upon summiting and be unsettled by the overwhelming apprehension of the eventual descent. Jon does a remarkable job in building a chilling narrative that details what transpired in those tragic moments of the most infamous casualties in the history of Everest. Highly recommended for those whose love reading adventure travelogues.
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