Thursday Thoughts, Everest, K2 and WTF?

mount-everest-413_1280This is going to be more rambling than thoughts. I just got off the elliptical after a bad night’s sleep.

So this weekend I read Into Thin Air again. Okay, I flipped through it. I’ve read the book like 5 times. After seeing the most recent movie on the ’96 tragedy on Everest, I had to read it again to check the accuracy. Then my mom got really sick and I started to read it to her. She was very intellectual before Alzheimer’s, and I just thought maybe just some information might be nice. . .anyway, I also read, a few weeks ago, Left For Dead  and After the Wind. (I’ve read The Climb too, years ago, but I can’t find it). This weekend I watched a video and then read sections of the books in tandem.

I still don’t get it.

After that, I looked into K2, the second highest mountain in the world. K2 is significantly more dangerous than Everest. It’s more remote, as well. And it’s had tragedies as well, the most significant that I found, 2008. So I watched video on that, and then I, naturally, bought a book–The Summit–and read it as well.


(picture borrowed from Shaghal)

I get it even less.

In case you don’t know, these two mountains are so high that when you get near the top you could die from lack of oxygen. If you were taken from sea level and somehow dropped at the top of these mountains with no conditioning, you would be dead within a few minutes. So to climb the mountains (or any of the 14 eight thousanders, which are the mountains over 8k meters) you have to acclimatize yourself by staying progressively higher and higher on the mountains, then coming back down to base camp. This makes sure you have the right amount of red blood cells or some such thing. Even with that most people need bottled oxygen, and even with that you can still suffer from HACE, HAPE and  Acute Mountain Sickness.

Why? Why do this?

If you don’t climb with oxygen and your body responds “normally” you are colder, more likely to get frostbite and your brain does funny things. People talk about summit fever, the fever that pushes you beyond your limits to get to the top of the mountain, but I wonder if you’re not using bottle oxygen how much of this is the inability at that altitude to make reasonable decisions. It’s my most basic conclusion about what “went wrong” on Everest in 1996. If either Rob Hall or Scott Fischer had stayed at camp 4, or even gone down to camp 3 and had better radio contact, I think a lot of people would not have died. I believe that Fischer, who was suffering from stomach difficulties, could have convinced Rob Hall to turn around when others could not. And vice-versa. But they didn’t do that.

Sigh. I don’t get it.

I mean, I get it intellectually. I listen to the reasons. I read the books. But one line that sticks out for me over and over again is when Jon Krakaeur in Into Thin Air mentions that he is at the same height in a plane as he would be on Everest. So. . .if you can get that view from a plane and be perfectly warm and drink wine all at the same time, why climb? It’s not just the view. And yet, that’s what some people say.

Beck Weathers, who lost large parts of his hands and his nose on Everest in ’96 says he’d been very depressed for a long time and didn’t know it. That’s why he liked climbing these mountainous mountains. And yeah, I can get that intellectually. But. . .you could do other things to combat depression even if you’re “john wayneing it.” Like run marathons.   Do the Tour de France. You know, things that, if you get hurt, you can get immediate medical attention and not freeze to death.

So, there’s something else. And I’m going to keep reading, I imagine, until I get sick of it or figure it out.

Anyway, before I go, here’s a few things I’ve concluded, from my nice comfortable chair on a warm morning, listening to the birds sing. 1) Krakauer put some blame on Mountain Madness guide Boukreev for the 96 tragedy. Boukreeve wrote (or had ghost written) a book that made Krakaeur into a coward. I’m going with the former. Boukreev climbed without oxygen. One of the reasons people claim this is a good idea is that if you run out of O2 you suffer less from the effects. I kinda get that. But it’s kind of like, “I’m going to sit in the sun and get a sunburn, which will turn to a tan so that if I get stuck in the sun, I won’t get a sunburn” reasoning. Maybe, instead, spend some time in the sun just tanning, and make sure you always have sunscreen. Or in this case, bottles of O2 on you instead of running down the mountain to recover and THEN you could help your clients???

As far as the cowardly thing: To expect someone who was on the expedition as a client to spend a lot of time worrying about other clients ignores what the term “client” means. I suspect if Krakaeur had known how terrible things would go, or really could go, would have saved some strength. But there he was on Everest with two of the best guides in the world and he expected, with every good reason, that they would keep people safe. When it came time to try and save people, he was literally too tired to move, as most were.

2) I’ve seen people blame Doug Hansen for Hall’s death, because Hansen had summit fever. Well Hansen almost dropped out of the climb several times during the course of the two months. Hall encouraged him, persuaded him even, high on the mountain, to continue. Hansen might have had summit fever in the end, but Hall was the one who pushed it. Hall did it out of kindness. I think he wanted Doug to reach the summit more than Doug did. He didn’t want his friend and client to “fail.”

3) The weather had a huge part to play. And in ’96 we didn’t have the forecasting abilities we have today.  Also, in ’96 I suspect the O2 systems were not as good, nor were radio communications.

4) Hall and Fischer were good guys. I mean, they seem, both of them, like really good people. They were good enough friends that they’d planned on climbing another mountain together after Everest. But the thing that made them such good climbers also contributed to their deaths: their ability to fight past physical suffering (especially in Fischer’s case, with the stomach problems) and their confidence in themselves. There is, actually, truly, such a thing as too much confidence.

So that’s today’s thoughts. I actually have more, but this is running long, so I’ll hold off on more thoughts for a later post. Also, I might have to make a character a high-altitude mountain climber. I think it’s the only way I’m going to ever truly understand. But not yet.

If you’re interested, on the Everest 96 tragedy:

Into Thin Air

After the Wind

The Climb

Left for Dead

K2, 2008

The Summit, How Triumph Turned to Tragedy on K2’s Deadliest Days

Also,  youtube video about ’96, which I cannot yet figure out how to put as a video on my page.

And K2, 2008




2 thoughts on “Thursday Thoughts, Everest, K2 and WTF?

  1. I had a high school friend die on K2. I can never look at the mountain without thinking about Chris. And my nephew and niece are planning to climb Everest, only to base camp I believe. And yes they tell me it’s “because it’s there” and that’s what they want to do.
    I’m with you, drinking wine and looking out the window from a plane! That works for me.


    1. Wow, Lesley. I am just reading this now. What made your friend want to climb K2? I’m never going to get that. Although I can see wanting to go to Everest base camp. Just to see the mountain in all it’s glory. And to see Khumbu Falls. I hope your niece and nephew bring back pictures!


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