by Satyajit Sarna | January 20, 2011
They call it the Death Zone. At 26,000 feet above sea level, everything changes. There are no plants or animals; the world is composed of snow, ice, rock, and cold air - a negation of organic existence. At even very high altitudes, human beings can acclimatise, with time and rest. In the Death Zone, with preparation, you can merely postpone the breakdown of your body. You can’t eat, can’t sleep, and can’t think straight; tying bootlaces takes intense concentration. You hallucinate and ignore obvious dangers. Your internal organs grind slowly to a halt. If you are not fit enough or luck is not with you, your lungs will fill up with blood, or, in the alternative, your brain will fill with cerebral fluid. At any rate, every minute you stay past that altitude is a constant battle against the laws of thermodynamics – the universe wants to turn you into ice, and in time, it will win.
So, why would any half sane person want to go there?
“Because it’s there”, said George Mallory, before his fatal attempt on Mount Everest in 1924. For almost a century, people have been repeating that three-word mantra and flinging themselves into logically unsustainable ventures. They throw themselves off cliffs, dive to the bottom of the ocean, and run a thousand miles against time, whatever the risks, because they can. What does that say about human evolution? That our fittest and most competitive want to constantly skirt the edge of suicide, like indecisive lemmings?
"In the Death Zone, with preparation, you can merely postpone the breakdown of your body."
Image above and on article thumbnail is from ilkerender's photostream on Flickr.
At the far end of all desperate, unnecessary, and dangerous ventures is ascending into the Death Zone. For precisely that reason, the altitude of 26,240 feet - or 8,000 metres - has attained a special fetish value. There are fourteen mountains in the world that high, and all are in the Himalayas or in theKarakoram, forming a glittering impenetrable wall around the subcontinent. They have names like K2and Nanga Parbat, names covered with blood and glory. Climbers from the world over spent the twentieth century hammering pitons into the rock faces of the Makalu and dying of exhaustion trying to get up the Gasherbrum massif. And even though some of them are harder climbs technically, above all of them, both literally and figuratively, towers Mount Everest.
Into Thin Air is the story of an ascent of Everest by a journalist and amateur climber, travelling with an expedition led by the charismatic Kiwi guide Rob Hall. Since the late 1980s, guiding climbers up mountains they could not have otherwise climbed has mushroomed into a big business, and Everestremains the biggest draw. Slowly, the path to the Base Camp widened and the number of discarded oxygen canisters on the South Col grew. More and more amateurs were being pushed uphill by organised teams of guides and Sherpas. Suddenly, the only requirement to summit was being reasonably fit and having pots of money. Hall reassures the author at one point, “A few of the blokes who’ve summitted with me were nearly as pathetic as you”, but even that gruff bonhomie cannot entirely erase the challenge of making sure that clients who have never climbed on ice survive. Over time, the delicate decision-making process of determining how far to push against hostile conditions and tight timelines began to be influenced by the hunger of paying customers to get what they came for - the top of the world. Sooner or later, something was bound to go wrong.
On May 10, 1996, it did. As Rob Hall’s team and three others all jostled to summit Everest on a clear day, wispy innocuous clouds were building below them. As they began their descent, a sudden storm closed upon them and everything went to hell. Suddenly, all the factors that on another day would have been forgotten spiralled into an irresolvable crisis. On another day it would not have mattered that one of the strongest Sherpa climbers was carrying a socialite and her satellite phone for a substantial distance, that the leader of one expedition was suffering from migraines due to a condition he had been refusing to treat, or that the gauge on one particular oxygen rig had frozen solid and was misreporting full cylinders as empty. But on May 10, 1996, everything that could go wrong did, and eight climbers died onEverest’s upper slopes. Rob Hall survived heroically for two days at 29,000 feet, without oxygen, but never left the South Summit.
"Remember, the wind that blows snow off Everest in all the photographs is the jetstream; Everest is so high that its tip is actually in the stratosphere."
Image above is from craa22uk's photostream on Flickr.
Image (but not the remainder of this work) shared under:
Krakauer’s book is a minutely detailed story of this doomed expedition as well as a post-mortem of what went wrong. “Wisdom comes easily after the fact”, Krakauer rues, and he points to a number of avoidable factors. The overcrowding of expeditions and the delays at critical points like the Hillary Stepcould have been foreseen and prevented, or a higher guide-to-client ratio could have been maintained by regulation. On the other hand, the Sherpas, who believe that Everest is the goddess Sagarmatha, knew that something bad was going to happen from the moment unmarried couples started “sauce making” at the Base Camp.
At the base of Into Thin Air is a Foucauldian lesson about illusion and power. Simply, people forget that they need to respect mountains. Remember, the wind that blows snow off Everest in all the photographs is the jetstream; Everest is so high that its tip is actually in the stratosphere. The technology that putsEverest within the reach of a common climber is bottled oxygen. There is a school of thought, most famously espoused by Reinhold Messner, the greatest climber in the world, that bottled oxygen is cheating. Without oxygen, only the most gifted of athletes, “blessed with rare physiological attributes, could, after a lengthy period of acclimatisation” climb an eight-thousander. Reinhold Messner himself climbed all fourteen without oxygen. Karakauer also forwards the suggestion that only gasless climbing should be permitted and oxygen should be kept for medical emergencies. Deprived of a technology that creates an illusion of capability, climbers would be kept from danger by their own natural limitations.
A stark anti-ethics, governed by physiology, operates at the peaks of high mountains. As hypoxia takes hold, fewer and fewer coherent thoughts remain, until the only surviving stimulus is the drive to the top. The most chilling part of Into Thin Air is its description of climbers eager to get to the top passing by those who are dying of exhaustion and exposure in their lust to summit. The same determination that can push a person up through the Death Zone will also allow them to watch someone die and not move a finger. There is an icy wasteland at the heart of man that is revealed by the wasteland without, and I hope I never see it.
In the Death Zone, since there is no microbial action, all corpses are instantly mummified by the cold, like sacrifices to the spirit of adventure. In 1999, that fact helped solve the mystery of what happened to George Leigh. Just like his mountain, it appears that George Leigh Mallory is still there.