"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 August 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Go Tell It on the Mountain


[Photo of Jon Krakauer, alpinist and author. Here, he sits by his collection of readables.]

Moses was the first to bring a

book down out of the mountains,

and he's been on the bestseller

list ever since.


Now Jon Krakauer has updated the

performance, bringing down his

own stone tablets from the

heights of Mt. Everest. Into Thin

Air has been in the rarefied air

of the Top Ten for some time

now, suggesting that American

readers are themselves going a

little hypoxic over the good

book. In spite of the histrionic

punch of Krakauer's work, the

brisk sales of such a niche

title can easily be explained.

People read a bestseller for a

simple reason: because it is



[A photo of Mt. Everest reflected on a pair of sunglasses.]

Of course, the paradox of

climbing literature is that so

few people can actually write

and climb competently enough to

avoid getting themselves killed.

After all, it's not the fall

that kills you. It's your

editor. On the contrary,

Krakauer has managed to write

one hell of a cliffhanger about

last summer's ill-fated season

on Everest, the mountain that

killed nine people in less than

300 pages. Anecdotal reports

suggest that readers simply

can't put the book down, even

after they've reached the

climax. Fortunately there's been

a high rate of success in

talking them down.


More compelling than the tragedy,

though, has been the avalanche

of finger-pointing that has

accrued since the whole

misadventure went down. Krakauer

is the golden calf who has been

by turns vilified and canonized,

a phenomenon he set in motion

himself by insisting on

assigning blame even as he

repeats ad nauseam his own mea

culpas. He seems to revel (or

wallow, if there's a difference)

in the juvenile truism that when

you point at the culprit, there

are three fingers pointing back

at you. While his book adheres

to genre tradition by tactfully

blaming tragedy on generalized

human error, not even the

heat-seeking Krakauer has the

cojones to just say it out loud:

Mountains don't kill people.

Mountains kill stupid people.

But what really abrades his

gaitors is that the mountain spares

some who are certifiable cretins.


[Close up of Mr. Krakauer, with his trademark beard.]

It isn't really Krakauer's fault

that a bunch of folks bought the

farm at the top of the world,

and he happened to be there to

see it. And if he feels badly

about it, we're relatively

certain that his stinging

conscience is rapidly

acclimatizing in the rich

atmosphere at the top of The New

York Times bestseller list. The

speed with which he managed to

get his book out gives the

unfortunate appearance that he

cashed in on the misfortune of

others; we'll take his word for

it that he simply couldn't stop

himself. Now that Eiger Dreams

is back in print, along with Into

The Wild, he's on a lecture

circuit that makes the Exodus

look like a walk around the

block. Krakauer's stock is

undoubtedly the highest point on

the planet.


[Photo of what looks like an oil-filter-changing tool, actually a tool of survival for climbers of Mt. Everest. It is a very good-looking tool.]

With obligatory nods to weather

and altitude, his true nemesis

was Sandra Hill Pittman, the

Manhattan socialite who gave the

whole enterprise an air of faux

newsworthiness to begin with.

After duly noting the class

distinctions between himself as

hard-hatted mountaineering

frat-bro vs. august

debutante, our man on the scene

takes particular relish in

noting that Pittman indelicately

begged for her life and was

drugged and dragged up the hill

like a reluctant schnauzer on

the end of a Sherpa's leash. As

much as we enjoy the sound of

egos deflating, a case of

PowerBars couldn't give us the

strength to sit through another


social-climber metaphor.


[Close picture of Mr. Ling, Himalayan climber, in his natural habitat.]

Lest we be distracted by

Krakauer's pathetic

class-pandering, the true tragic

flaw of the Everest climbing

community is the outrageous

racism that was firmly planted

at the peak when Edmund Hillary

first rode someone's (Tenzing

Norgay's) shoulders to the top

back in 1953. Into Thin Air

makes it painfully clear that

very little has changed in the

cryogenic stasis of the

Himalaya, where no one seems to

have heard the news that the sun

set on the Union Jack a long

time ago. The Sherpas are

categorically condescended to,

Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese

climbers scarcely warrant the

mention of a name, and anyone

who isn't a WASP had better be

serving the tea and setting the



[Photograph of one of the tallest peaks on Earth. It's actually any snowcapped mountaintop, but it sounds more dramatic if you exaggerate. And it's probably no exaggeration. If I had the time to go and check, it would probably turn out to be the top of Mt. Everest for all I know.]

With so many dead and maimed

after last year's debacle, the

only real winner was Outside.

Owing to the Santa Fe, New

Mexico, magazine's arrangements

with Krakauer's guide, who

commanded prices as vertiginous

as US$65,000 a head, the author

was essentially sent on a

junket, underwritten by

thousands of dollars worth of

free advertising. Since the

guide (and benefactor) was

himself counted among the

fatalities, we have a sneaking

suspicion that Outside gets to

keep both the story and the ad

pages. Which means a 200-pound

conflict of interest never made

it in from the cold.


But that's just nitpicking. The

overwhelming irony, of course, is

that Krakauer's book has brought

trophy mountaineering into

offices and townhomes where the

Stairmaster is as high as anyone

gets. We're guessing Into Thin

Air, like any reputable warning

against trying this at home that

gets thousands of idiots trying

this at home, will have a brace

of neophytes trekking out of

Katmandu come next climbing



Another trend in extreme sports,

to be sure. But nothing a little

overexposure can't kill.

courtesy of E.L. Skinner

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