As promised, I read "Into Thin Air" after I finished "Into the Wild". Again, not a topic I am terribly interested in but Krakauer writes so well, I was glued to the pages.
I hadn't really given much thought to climbing Everest before reading this book. I had heard bits and pieces about it--the thing that stuck most firmly in my mind was that the slopes of Everest are littered with dead bodies. When I began the book it was interesting but my resounding opinion was "What a bunch of dummies!" Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why go through the pain and torture and possible death solely for the satisfaction of standing at the top? At the point in the book when Krakauer himself reaches the top (I think it's called the summit?) my perspective was only reinforced. Not only do people spend very little time at the top of Everest but when they get there, they are so exhausted and loopy from lack of oxygen there's no emotion to celebrate. All that's left is the difficult and dangerous task of getting back down.
It was during the section in which Krakauer is making his dissent that something clicked for me. This book was written after an Everest quest gone very bad--many people died. Krakauer, to his credit, spends a generous amount of time reliving the dissent--the time when many mistakes were made--and analyzing his role in his friends' deaths.
He describes walking by people who were, in retrospect, clearly in distress and he didn't take notice. He describes a state of mind in which you walk by dead bodies and it barely registers, much less alarms you. He paints a picture of disorientation and utter selfishness. All he wanted to do was get to his tent and pass out. When others claimed they were okay, he felt relieved they didn't need his help and he kept on going. Meanwhile, the reality was that many people on that mountain were out of their minds with altitude sickness and really did need his help. He was describing what it felt like to be extremely oxygen deprived.
Believe it or not, his descriptions explained a lot for me. There was a time when I could go 4 or 5 days without a shower--it didn't bother me one bit. There were days , usually many in a row, when I was completely numb. I had no feelings and I imagine if I walked by a dead body my reaction would have been equally numb. There was a time when all I could think of was me and how I would get to the next place to rest. There was a time when the world was the least of my concerns--I feel sure I walked by plenty of people who needed my help but I couldn't see it. I was oxygen deprived too.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons climbing Everest is meaningful to people--you walk up and down that mountain with death right next to you. You can't breathe or think properly for weeks, maybe months. Perhaps, through that, a person can have one foot on the other side and still come back--just like I did when I got my transplants. Perhaps, Everest teaches them what it means to be alive.
Or, maybe they're just a bunch of dummies. I dunno.