This year my university picked Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best seller Into Thin Air as the common reading for first year students. Despite being an endurance athlete who likes mountains, I’ve never had any interest in mountain climbing. So two weeks ago I half-heartedly began reading about the infamous failed ascent of Everest in May,1996.
I enjoyed thinking about what it would be like to try to climb any 8,000 meter peak more than I expected, but I have no plans to scale Mount Rainier or any other mountain. I’m content scaling Tumwater Hill every now and then.
I dig when people have deep-seated passions which give their lives extra meaning. When they’re compelled to throw pottery, write novels, grow roses, brew beer, race bicycles, tie fly fishing knots, follow the Chicago Cubs, or climb over 29,000′ above sea level.
Krakauer’s fellow climbers caused me to reflect on human nature. One of the guides, an internationally renowned climber who survived only to die a year later atop another mountain once said, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”
This quote fascinated me because the feel you get from Into Thin Air is that for most everyone on the mountain it was most certainly about ambition to achieve. Ego, reputation, bragging rights upon returning, and avarice were all more evident than Zen-like notions of self discovery and improvement.
I didn’t understand the willingness of the climbers to attempt the ascent with people they knew next to nothing about. Even if one were to go by themself with the help of a world class guide and small group of Sherpas, it would be a life and death gambit, but add in inexperienced climbers in less than peak fitness, and the risks increased exponentially. Why enter into a co-dependent relationship with other people who left to their own devices would fare much, much worse on the mountain.
Similarly confusing was partnering with some character-challenged people who clearly prioritized their own individual success and survival above anyone else’s.
If you see the film, let me know if I should.