If you embark on a ‘do or die’ adventure in the high country or an extreme mountain trek, plain luck may become the secret defense weapon you need the most. Unfortunately, that element may just trump the greatest preparation plans in the books, or months of pre-climbing rituals.
This was just one of the themes stressed by fellow Coloradoan and mountain climber Jon Krakauer, author of many acclaimed best-sellers, including “Into Thin Air,”” Into the Wild,” “Under the Banner of Heaven” and more recently, “Missoula,” during a rare detailed talk in the area last week.
Krakauer, in fact, has practically become an iconic cult figure in literary and journalism circles, attracting crowds that rival those of Hunter S. Thompson in the 1970s and 1980s. His non-fiction books have almost captured a new journalistic genre that combines certain elements advocated by gonzo and participatory journalists like Thompson with more acclaimed literary figures. The final result is captivating real-life stories that deal with themes and subjects that are heavily debated today: outdoor survival adventures, religious extremism, the wars in Iran and Iraq and a bombardment of sexual assaults and rapes on college campuses in the United States.
Last week, “An Evening with Jon Krakauer” sponsored by Colorado College, attracted hundreds of fans of all ages in a complete capacity crowd at Armstrong Hall. It was refreshing to see this much attention for probably one of the most prolific writers from our state, when too many times western scribes are ignored by the national media. I have been a strong fan of Krakauer, especially after his “Into the Wild” book.
But despite all his successes, Krakauer admits that plain luck is something that probably saved his life in his personal adventures in climbing Mount Everest with a group of so-called experts during a disastrous storm chronicled in “Into Thin Air” (and part of the main focus of the recent movie “Everest”), resulting in the death of eight people; and even the crazy climbs Krakauer did in Alaska, which he compared with the tragic exploits of Christopher McCandless, the tragic hero of “Into the Wild.”
“I did a lot of stupid things,” admitted Krakauer, who surprisingly doesn’t mind making fun of himself and his books.
The Colorado author, who lives in Boulder, was referring to foolish adventures he did in climbing glaciers in Alaska, partially as an escape mechanism from family problems he was experiencing as young man. But due to an amazing amount of luck, Krakauer survived, but the tragic hero of his “Into the Wild” book, Christopher McCandless, didn’t make it.
Of course, “Into the Wild” and the subsequent movie, directed by Sean Penn, are still heavily debated, with some referring to McCandless as a romantic Jack Kerouac-like character, while others view him as an absolute narcissistic idiot. For those unfamiliar with the real-life story, McCandless, who came from an affluent family, gave away all of his possessions and $25,0000 in savings to pursue a doomed adventure in a wilderness area north of Mt. McKinley, shortly after graduating from an elite college. He ended up dying from a poisonous plant seed he consumed.
“Chris McCandless was a tortured soul,” said Krakauer. “He did what he had to too get by and almost pulled it off.”
The exploits of the “Into the Wild” hero or tragic figure still generates much debate among outdoor buffs, search and rescue folks and especially Alaskans, who absolutely cringe at any reference to McCandless as a romantic hero.
Several months ago, I found myself engaged in a lively debate with a group of Alaskan residents, who were traveling in the area, over the exploits of McCandless and the subsequent movie by Sean Penn at the Historic Ute Inn in Woodland Park. Thank God, restaurant owners Murph and Karen Murphy came to my rescue, as this was quite a rowdy crowd. Otherwise, I might have had my lungs ripped out and donated to a caribou herd.
These rather colorful Alaskan travelers lived fairly close to where McCandless died and where McCandless hung out in an abandoned bus for an extended period. The Alaskan travelers referred to his death as nothing more than a suicide taken way out of proportion by both Krakauer and Penn. More than anything, they were absolutely outraged by Penn’s movie, which really put the book on the non-fiction national map. In fact, they claim the site of McCandless’ death and the abandoned bus has turned into a pilgrimage by many hippies from across the country on an annual basis.
Krakauer, though, even now says he gets more mail from this story than just about anything else. He admits he receives plenty of comments from nay-says who contend, ‘what an idiot,’ while many others maintain, ‘I wish I did something like that when I was his age.’
The Commercialization of Everest
However, it was the “Into Thin Air” saga that really cemented the Krakauer legend. And even here, luck played a big role in the writer’s survival. He descended down Everest earlier than some of the other climbers due to a lack of oxygen kits. He was absolutely devastated that his friend Andy Harris died, while trying to assist guide Rob Hall, who was an internationally-recognized mountain adventure guide at the time. Krakauer was right next to Harris during much of the descent, and it was somewhat of a stroke of luck, that determined that the writer head down to the base camp, while Harris attempt to assist Hall.
Originally, Krakauer, thought this book would curb the commercialization of climbing Everest, led by guides and adventure companies that guaranteed hearty outdoor folks they could ascend the great mountain for a $60,000-plus fee. Many of these people weren’t expert climbers by any stretch of the imagination.
“That just seemed like a bad idea,” admitted Krakauer, in describing these commercial jaunts of Everest, led by professional companies and adventure consultants.
But in reality, his book and a television movie and continued publicity over this particular disaster, has led to a boom in Everest climbs.
He jokingly said that a climbing guide operator he knew was furious with Krakauer, when the book was published. But the guide later changed his mind, noting, “Your book was the greatest thing for my business.”
For years, this story was often touted by Coloradan outdoor experts as an example of what not to do, when embarking on extreme adventures. It displayed the problems in relying too much on guides and so-called experts and not preparing properly, along with not carrying enough oxygen.
With our obsession with the outdoors,” Into Thin Air” has become a mini-bible for our high altitude abode that features its share of lost hikers and misguided mountain treks. Many popular locals and expert outdoors folks have perished from what is often no fault of their own. At the same time, this book has sparked more outdoor-related training classes and rescue exercises.
But for the popular Colorado writer, he still is haunted by this Everest episode and has encountered his share of post-traumatic stress disorder attacks from this adventure. He refuses to ever climb Everest again and discourages people to try this mountain, saying there are many more rewarding great adventure treks with better views. Krakauer’s favorite hiking and climbing jaunts are in Alaska.
As a result of some of his books, Krakauer admits he is quite cynical about his books changing lives or the policies of certain groups of people. .
However, that scenario may change with his newest book “Missoula,” dealing with the sexual assault and acquaintance rape epidemic occurring on college campuses. In this particular story, the attacks were perpetuated by a small group of football players at the University of Montana. But the pro-football culture in the area enabled them to get away with these horrendous crimes.
He says, though, more women are speaking out and he is encouraged by the awareness of this epidemic that the book has generated.
Krakauer, also admits is a compulsive-obsessive personality like many of the characters in his books, including the ones that die. He absolutely hates the writing process, sometimes re-crafting sentences 100 times, but loves researching topics for future books
But regardless of these details,, I highly recommend any of his books. My two favorites are” Into the Wild” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” However, whatever you do, don’t argue with Alaskans about the exploits of Christopher Johnson McCandless in “Into the Wild” and the Hollywood artistry of Sean Penn. You will definitely lose that fight.