Well, the highest peak in the world has debuted on the big screen with the mega film Everest, and along with it, social media has been sparked to a frenzied banter of opinions and comments as if the terrible tragedy in 1996 occurred yesterday. It’s fairly remarkable in my mind how this mountain and specific event has impacted so many people, and deeply those that consider themselves to be “climbers”. It’s been 20 years since this tragedy occurred, and in that time, it’s been a constant barrage of hurt feelings, destroyed reputations, and incredibly harsh and varied opinions that make it seem we have a terribly difficult time letting the dead die. Even more interesting, because there isn’t anything that can be done about bringing those souls back to life, very little of the discussion revolves around how terrible that day really was, but concentrates on perpetuating the finger pointing and business of making it perfectly clear how terrible some of the survivors were and what “ass holes” they are today.
For example, I was surfing face book this morning, and a story that was published in the New York Post came up for about the 10th time in as many days: “Socialite vilified after Everest catastrophe breaks silence.”
This article is about how famed Jon Krakauer wrote his account in a book Into Thin Air, and completely threw Sandy Hill under the bus, something that has haunted her for 20 years. The book is the greatest selling adventure book of all time and a national best seller, and the point of controversy starting literally from the day at Everest base camp as a reporter for Outside Magazine, Krakauer wrote it. The book makes a definitive stand, in his opinion, on rights and wrongs and points this gun at not only Sandy but also legendary mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev. Without getting into the details, what I can tell you is that knowing both Sandy (and having known) Anatoli, there are most definitely two sides to the story, the difference being, Sandy and Anatoli didn’t have a national best seller to tell their side of the story. So let’s move ahead 20 years. The movie in the theaters today does a bit of damage control for those less spoken, and while the producer claims he did not intend for the movie to vilify or spread light on the controversy, it appears that without knowing it, that’s what it has done. Hence the break of silence from Sandy in the article has become a bit of a pulpit for vindication, and with it, more hurt feelings in the other direction; Krakauer is not happy at all with how he is portrayed in the film.
I know many people who were there on Everest that terrible day, and I assure you, when I refer to hurt feelings and destroyed reputations, that is not an exaggeration. In 1997 at base camp on Broad Peak, I spent days listening to Anatoli describe how badly his reputation was hurt. I saw the man literally cry over the situation. I’ve seen Sandy shake her head in disgust over the topic. And today, I’ve seen the video of and read the comments from Jon Krakauer and beyond crying all the way to the bank, the guy has been hurt. This pain is relative to these people as human beings. It’s real, and it’s terrible! No one I know that was actually there in 1996 has come away from that with normal grieving from tragic death experience, but all have had to endure the microscope of society and opinions that have flowed vehemently from the media, social media, each other, and on and on…….for 20 years!
The thing about mountaineering is that it appears to be a “sport” played between the foul lines of a base camp and a summit. The truth of all these expeditions is often lost in how we relay the stories when we get back home. Because there are no definitive rules, and because what happens between the lines of a base camp and a summit are so varied, there really is no bench mark to relate to. This opens the door to bringing ourselves up at the expense of bringing other people down. It happens all the time in this game, and I’d be lying if in my 25 year career, I didn’t fall victim to this. There is no clock to compare to in mountaineering. There is no scorecard. There is no definitive box score or record book where standings are kept. So what we have is an environment where we often compare ourselves to what others are doing, and with few exceptions, this results in diminishing others accomplishments in an effort to make our own more substantial. I’ve read that “Krakauer is a total ass hole”, “ the commercial guides are responsible for all the deaths on Everest”, and on and on. But one stands out as the ultimate. One prominent and extremely successful climber suggested, “….my only hope is that the Nepalese close the mountain to all commercial guide companies…..and give the mountain back to “climbers””. What you end up with is a seriously hyped sense of reality and elitism controlled by nothing other than what we want elitism to be. Because there is nothing preventing it, we define it to fit our personal needs. Even where true elitism is present, it happens as evidenced in Messner’s latest book where he refers to commercial clients on Everest as “kindergartners being served hot chocolate….”
I won’t suggest that there are not inherent issues in mountaineering today, but that’s not my point here and that’s an entirely different subject despite the fact that it is what drives many of the opinions I am referring to. My point is, the tragedy of 1996 has been a microscope for an aspect of climbing that is not new, and for me, is a source to change the way I approach the subject. The reality is, Krakauer had strong opinions no different than a lot of climbers, but they didn’t have a national best seller as a blow horn to propagate those opinions . I seriously doubt that Krakaur realized he was going to write a best seller, and while he was most definitely venting, I doubt he intended to put on the hurt that he did for some people. So we need to learn the lesson. Fact is, he did hurt people, and regardless of the pulpit we throw our opinions from, in this game, none of us are free from the same type of opinions he had at the time he wrote Into Thin Air. The face book posts I have read lately prove this loud and clear. While it is impossible to prevent people from having opinions, it should be clear that possibly keeping them to ourselves is a better course of action, or at a minimum, a bit of evaluation of the subject. Regardless of the truth, what is really to be gained? In mountaineering, it’s so ambiguous that the truth is tough to find, and throwing out an opinion more than likely is only going to hurt someone. While this has been part of the game thus far, I think ultimately the best course of action is just to shut up and climb. Mistakes will continue to be made, people will die, and while analysis of those mistakes is important to prevent problems down the road, there is a fine line between discussion and finger pointing. In that discussion, there needs to be a bit more thought, a bit more self-evaluation, and a lot more acceptance of the reality that no one tries to make mistakes. When the guns come out, just remember, the target of mistake you are aiming at in these situations has more often than not already been hit. Especially when there are related deaths, we don’t need adversity of opinions pointing out our faults. We need support, understanding, and respect to let the dead die, and help each other move ahead in what is probably the most difficult times we as humans can experience.