Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Heights of Madness

By Daddy X

I know we’re not doing our “What I’m Reading” topic, but a book I recently read may just fill the bill in exploring a type of madness.

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

What do we need for basic human sustenance? Food, water and oxygen. But what among them is most immediately important?

A human being in decent shape with a modest amount of fat reserves can live a month or more without food. Not nearly as long without liquids. Depending on the climate, from a few days to perhaps a week. But denied oxygen, we’d live for only a matter of minutes.

People of the Himalayas and Andes have evolved larger lung capacities and specialized blood structures, different from those living at sea level, enabling mountain dwellers to thrive at extreme heights. Evolutionary scholars say that the Sherpa of Tibet have acquired these physical qualities within the last 3,000 years. Quite quick for quantifiable evolutionary development.

I need to say something here about the Sherpa guides. Suffice to say that these loyal men are worth far more than their rather insubstantial pay. They earn about one-fifth of the western expedition guides. Sherpas stock the oxygen canisters, haul food, supplies and equipment, set up ladders tied into the mountain at the highest elevations, allowing the paying climbers to go nearly burden-free. Did I mention they melt snow along the way? On the mountain, snow is the only source of clean water. Each climber needs two gallons a day. That's twenty gallons for a group of ten climbers. Every day.

Most climbers use supplementary oxygen to provide what’s needed to keep their heads relatively straight at over 24,000 feet. Much of the general public doesn’t realize that when a person accustomed to living at or near sea level travels above a certain height, mental and physical faculties simply wear out. Extended time spent at those oxygen-deficient extremes will eventually take its toll.  

There’s a catch-22 involved. It takes weeks to climb Everest. Most of that time is spent acclimating one’s body to thin air, staying at five camps located at increasingly high elevations. People actually climb the mountain several times in the acclimatization process. They advance to a camp, stay for a day or two, retreat to a lower camp to revive their oxygen-depleted selves, then advance again. For every advance there are an equal number of retreats.

 Often, as we see in Krakauer’s first person account, the way back down is as, or more, hazardous than the climb against gravity, considering that gravity isn’t as manageable going down. The slightest misstep can lead to loss of control. There are 3,000-foot vertical drops on Everest. One can slide from Nepal into Tibet or China with one wrong step.

Bodies litter the slopes of Everest. At over 29,000 feet, the summit lies at about the cruising height of most commercial airliners. It’s simply too energy-demanding to haul dead weight down a mountain when the would-be rescuer may already be approaching their own physical limits, even in the best of circumstances. Helicopters can’t get enough lift in the insubstantial atmosphere to be efficient over 18,000 feet. Rescues from Everest and other, almost equally high, peaks are a land affair, period. People in dire circumstances often choose to stay on the mountain and die, knowing anyone so generous as to attempt a rescue would likely expire as well.

Problem is that the more time people from sea level spend at higher elevations the more pronounced the cumulative effect on their bodies, including the brain. In other words, one must not climb too fast, but fast enough so the cumulative effect doesn’t work against them before they finally complete their task. Minutes count. The results of prolonged oxygen deprivation are the dimming of our personal planning processes that ordinarily do a fairly good job of getting us through the day. 

Into Thin Air tells the story of two commercial outfitters that succeed in reaching the summit of Mt. Everest on May 10, 1996. However, through a series of unfortunate errors, miscalculations and simple human frailty when operating at such altitudes, nineteen people were caught in a powerful unpredicted blizzard on the way down, many of them at the end of their personal oxygen supply. Five died, including the leaders of the two major expeditions.

Agreed, these are tough, determined people. They set out on these endeavors fully expecting to experience altitude sickness and accompanying diminished capacity, frostbite, lung and circulatory damage. They can’t sleep for days on end. They freely acknowledge the possibility of losing a body part. The body doesn’t heal when circulation is affected so drastically. But the brain is possibly the most affected organ. The very brain we depend on day-to day to keep us from doing something stupid.

Krakauer is himself a mountaineer. You may know him as author of “Into the Wild”. He paints a complex picture of the fabled Everest with all the verve and enthusiasm of the adventurer he is. By far, the biggest role is played by the mountain itself.


  1. I'm often fascinated by these kinds of tales, even the fictional ones. The true ones, though, hit really hard. My three triggers with stories of death by adventure (or misadventure) seem to be outer space tragedies, sinking of ships, and extreme mountaineering. I think in all cases it's a variation on a couple of points: an extreme isolation from others, and an effort to venture in places we're not physically equipped to go (without a massive amount of technology and protection).
    Without checking the dates, I'd also venture the book you've read is the story that was also told in the recent movie "Everest".

    1. Yes-- same expedition. I'll have to look for that on Netflix. If you like that type of adventure story, one of the best I've read is "Lost City of the Incas" by Hiram Bingham Jr." It tells of the search and finding of Machu Picchu.

    2. Another wonderful adventure story you may be familiar with is your country's tale of Cooper's Creek. What a study in hubris and irony.

  2. I've heard a lot about this book but haven't read it. However, i've read "Into the Wild," which seems to illustrate a similar form of madness, limited to one character, driven to test himself all alone in the Alaskan wilderness, but without adequate knowledge or supplies.

    1. Thanks Sacchi.

      I'll probably read that, now that I see what a super job Krakauer did with this.

  3. I have to say, to even attempt that seems insane. I cannot begin to identify with someone who would feel this "accomplishment" is important.

    But then, they'd probably think me a dull-witted coward who cannot appreciate the grandeur of their ambitions.

    1. I'm with you, Lisabet. I'll take my kicks at sea level, thank you.

  4. I can somewhat understand when Mallory (who died trying, as I recall) said he wanted to climb it "Because it's there," the implication being "there and not yet climbed by anyone." Madness, yes, but the lure of being the first was powerful. Now, though, when so many people have "conquered" the mountain, with so much better equipment than Mallory or Hillary had, it seems the height of madness to risk so much just to join the "also-climbed" club.

    1. It's still quite an accomplishment; if one has any reservations about their survival abilities, climbing Everest should settle it once and for all. Now there are climbers who say that using supplemental oxygen is cheating.


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