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'Death From the Sky'

Jon Krakauer tasted the thrill of reaching Mt. Everest's peak. But he's tormented by guilt for surviving those killed in a storm.

June 05, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everest seems to have poisoned many lives.

--From the book "Into Thin Air"

*

At this moment, the airline has lost his luggage. The climactic slide for tonight's public slide show was left in Texas. He is at the end of a grueling, 32-city book tour, and this is his last interview.

The real turmoil, though, has been longer in the making. And Jon Krakauer still hasn't had time for proper reflection on the indelible changes in his life after a single disastrous encounter with Mt. Everest.

So he can only express what it feels like now: A paradox that mountaineers around the world already know well. In May 1996, putting at risk everything he cherished, Krakauer struggled to the summit of the world's highest mountain. Now his splendid book about the climb, "Into Thin Air" (Villard), has risen to the bestseller lists.

"Damn it, these are things you dream about. So why can't I enjoy it?" he asks rhetorically.

Answer: Because while Krakauer was up there, a sudden storm engulfed the great mountain and nine people died. In his own party, five got to the top. All perished except for Krakauer. His closest friend on the team died. The lead guide on his trip died, pinned down in a blizzard at 28,700 feet; his last words were to his wife via satellite phone: "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."

Says Krakauer, "I can't enjoy it because I think, yeah, I lived. . . . And I was party to those deaths. Survivor's guilt. It was something I never had insight into before. It's a real gumbo of emotions."

The world of high-altitude mountaineering has always divided people into those who understood the whys and those who could not. But now, even those who understand find themselves rethinking the purpose and practices of one of humankind's riskiest endeavors. And thanks in large part to Krakauer's writing and public speaking, many thousands of armchair adventurers have also joined in the debate.

What has changed on Everest is not the desire for conquest, but the definition of who should take on the challenge. For a long time, it was a world reserved for experts. A long alpine apprenticeship proceeded a climber's invite to join a Himalayan expedition.

That changed in the mid-1980s, when two 50-ish American businessmen, Dick Bass and Frank Wells, set out to do what had never been done: climb Everest and the highest peaks on the six other continents.

In their book, "Seven Summits" (Warner Books, 1986), the two conceded they had "so little climbing experience they could hardly be ranked amateur." Forget apprenticeship, the two wealthy men would employ guides to lead the way.

"Before that, mountaineering still felt like a club--a small, idealistic subculture with a rigid set of ethics. . . . It wasn't like skiing or windsurfing, it was a calling," says Krakauer, who spent his early years following that calling.

By the 1990s, all sorts of what Krakauer calls "Walter Mitty guys" were enticed to try Everest behind guides. Costs ran to $65,000 apiece. The highest peak in the world was now in the grasp of more ordinary mortals.

"It's warped, it's sick. But there's still something noble in it. That old 'reaching for the stars' crap," Krakauer says.

In 1996, Outside magazine sent Krakauer along on one such guided expedition to inquire about the trend. Although experienced, Krakauer considered himself one of these Walter Mitty guys--growing up in Oregon where his father was friends with one of the most celebrated Everest climbers of all, Willi Unsoeld.

So, naturally, Krakauer was drawn to the club, the calling of climbers. His specialty became technical climbing, in which rocks and ice were the challenge more than merely altitude. He made some notable ascents but had never taken on one of the Himalayas' big peaks. He did, however, daydream of himself on that sublime wedge of windblown ice at 29,028 feet on the border between Nepal and China.

In a recent review for The Times, I described "Into Thin Air" as a classic. Krakauer captured not only the breathless drama and agonizing banality of mountaineering, but its abundant paradoxes. Now, in his West Hollywood hotel suite, he raises another paradox--perhaps the one at the heart of his troubled mood:

The conflicting roles he played as journalist and climber, of climber and client, when things went bad.

In other words, Krakauer became the very story he set out to observe: How money and guides have changed the ethic of mountaineering.

He went to Everest as a writer and client. By his own admission, "I didn't belong on Everest." But once there, the old instincts took hold and he reverted to climber.

He would get a story, sure, but what he really wanted was the summit. Mountaineering, after all, was what got him started as a writer. His first stories were commissioned by climbing magazines. Climbing had always been of a higher order. "I will risk my life for a climb. I wouldn't risk my life for a story."

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