Climbing the magic mountain. Into Thin Air. Jon Krakauer. 1997
Time is the summer of 1996, when several groups of climbers attempt to get to the summit of Mount Everest. The Himalayan Mountain is the geographic space where the story is set, an extreme and lunar place, which has always been able to attract adventures. Once it was asked to George Mallory, one of the first man to try, “what is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” he answers “Because it’s there” implying that the Everest’s climbing may have something to do with the obstacles we met along our way: trying to reach its summit is not about conquering the mountain, but ourselves. The mountain is indeed a physical place, but it is also an imaginative scenery, loaded with the projections of those who have come close to the idea of reaching its top.
Mount Everest, also known both as “mother of universe” and as “god of sky”, is the highest mountain on earth, hence the queen of the Seven Summits – the highest mountains for each continent. The first attempts to reach the summit dates back to the 1920s. During the expedition of 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine probably manage to get to the top but they get lost on their way down or maybe even before.
The first people to reach the summit and come back are the Neo Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on 29th May 1953, followed by others notably in 1975 Junko Tabei the first woman and in 1978 Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler the first to climb without the use of supplemental oxygen. Over the last years the number of people attempting to climb Everest has grown so that it became almost a tourist destination.
In fact, when the adventure magazine Outside asks to the journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer to join the expedition organised by the famous guide Rober Hall to write about the commercialisation of the mountain, Everest base camp is packed – at least five guiding agencies with their respective clients preparing to reach the summit on the same day. The crowding and an unexpected tempest are the causes of the tragedy occurring on that day: 10th May 1996. That early afternoon, after a preparation of many days, some mountaineers reach the summit, but because of the tempest eight of them are not able to find their way back to the base camp.
Into thin Air is the tale of their stories told by Krakauer’s vivid style which is able to highlight the complexities and motivations of radical behaviours – as he did splendidly in Into the Wild.
The tale of the preparation and the climbing of the quest make us wonder about the reasons why people have taken this decision. The audacity of this choice is to be paramount in order to balance not only to the physical fatigue of such an adventure, but also the awareness of the psychological effort needed to face what is commonly referred to as the “death zone” namely that area above 7000 metres where there is not enough oxygen for humans to breath so the cells of the body start to die.
“Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace.”
The story of Everest climbing offers an occasion to try reading radical behaviours as a research for consistency between acquired categories of experience and innate explorative tensions: a return to a state of grace where individuals may discover the natural dimension of the explorative endeavour that had been progressively rationalised and almost forgotten. Why climbing Everest? Because it’s there, it has always been there and it will always be there to represent something extraordinary: an experience of laic asceticism pursuing spiritual goals through an attitude for adventure, defying the ordinary, coping with the impossible to reach something precious fuelled by that the inconsistent, irrational and overwhelming substance dreams are made of.
Reading this book is a great and strange experience: it’s like getting through a story and thinking this is insane but what if… ?