Why does Jon Krakauer dislike Anatoli Boukreev so much?

Ken writes: I suppose this post will be a little opaque to people who haven’t treated themselves to ‘Into Thin Air’ and ‘The Climb’ (or any of the pages and pages available online related to this issue), …but I am going to say what I think is the source of the antagonism between John Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev. For my part I didn’t really feel that ‘Into Thin Air’ portrayed Boukreev (B) in such a bad light, but we know that B was sufficiently hurt to want to set the record straight. We also know, from the appendices to ‘The Climb’ in which some of these arguments are detailed that Krakauer (K) pretty adamantly stuck to his account in the face of attempts to correct him. So what’s the story? I think that K feels that even if he’s wrong about particular matters of detail, still his account gets to the heart of the matter, that is, that it reflects a basic truth of the extent of B’s culpability. K accepts his own part in the tragedy. He agonises over the part he played in misreporting what happened to Andy Harris, and about his inability to help the other climbers in his party after he had made it down to the South Col. But from K’s perspective, B was insufficiently remorseful. He didn’t accept that the outcome might have been better if he had acted differently.

So what is the case against B? K doesn’t make the point that B didn’t take Beck Weathers down off the mountain, but that showed a real lack of initiative. This is something that emerges not in ‘Into Thin Air’ but in ‘The Climb.’ B met Beck on the way down, and saw that he needed to be taken down, but he thought he saw another guide, and so left it to them to take him down. Beck was already snow blind and in a bad way and had already spent 8 hours alone. If B was going down, he should have taken Beck with him. One of the things that emerges from both accounts is how differently things might have turned out if the climbers had had a little more time. After B had descended to the South Col, Neal Beidleman was guiding the ‘Mountain Madness’ climbers down and he ‘picked up’ Mike Groom with Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba on the way. But because it was a big group, we’re told, and because he was having to hold on to Yasuko Namba (while Mike guided Beck), he wasn’t able to lead the group from the front and with no clear leader people walked in the direction that seemed right to them. When they reached the bottom of the fixed ropes above camp four they could still just see the lights of the camp, but then it got dark and without a leader to follow they ended up walking away from the camp and nearly off a cliff. If B had been present guiding the group down with Beidleman and Groom, they would have been able to move a bit faster, and they would have been able to stay on course for the camp. That would have saved Namba’s life.

B argued it had always been Scott Fischer’s plan that B would descend quickly to be ready at camp 4 in case anything should go wrong. But surely it is OK to change the plan to deal with the particular conditions. On the day of the ascent, B going down met Scott Fischer coming up, and K makes a lot of B apparently telling Fischer that he was going down (as opposed to Fischer sending B down). But whether there was a plan or not, B should have told Fischer not to carry on up but should have gone back up himself to round up the Mountain Madness clients with Beidleman instead of descending. Whatever the plan was, he should have used his initiative and judged that Scott Fischer was in no state to proceed to the summit.

In summary: The problem with B, is that he had a preconceived notion of what being a guide demanded; a notion he rigidly conformed to as a guide on the 1996 expedition, but one he willingly gave up when guiding an Indonesian team to the summit the next year (Then, three clients attempted the summit and were inidividually managed by three guides). He didn’t change his conception of where his job ended in light of the events on the mountain and as a result, and Scott Fischer and Neal Beidleman ended up taking up the slack between them. It killed Scott. The case against B then is that he was a jobsworth to a cupable degree.

But, having said all that, I think it’s not so hard to understand why B had the attitudes he did. His command of English at the time was really pretty weak, and it is tiring to interact with people in your second language, and particular to discuss important decisions like who should be responsible for what part of the expedition. It’s really much simpler then just to stick to the plan. And, really, the main factors contributing to the disaster on Everest in 1996 were the lack of radios among all the guides, but most seriously, Rob Hall’s decision not to turn climbers back from the attempt at the summit when the agreed deadline past.

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On reading about mountains

Dot writes: Recently we seem to have spent rather a lot of time reading about people having terrifying experiences in high, icy places. Some time ago a friend bought us Joe Simpson’s excellent account of his almost fatal accident on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, Touching the Void.  We’d bought a couple of other books on mountaineering topics from time to time, but shortly after the new year we had something of a craze and spent a couple of weeks reading, talking and net-surfing about mountains, especially about Everest. We read or re-read books giving rival versions of the disastrous 1996 Everest expeditions, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and Anatoly Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt’s The Climb. We (actually I think this was more my thing than Ken’s) revisited a glossily illustrated account of the finding in 1999 of the body of George Mallory, who disappeared with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine high on Everest in 1924, and I bought and read a biography of Mallory. We bought another of Joe Simpson’s books, read Wilfred Noyce’s account of the successful 1953 Everest expedition, and, on another tack, queasily perused Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes (that’s the one about the rugby team who crashed when flying over the Andes and survived for several months by eating the bodies of their dead companions).

We’re fascinated by these books, by the mysteries and controversies attached to Everest, by the extremes of the human spirit that are reached at extreme altitudes and in extremities of desperation and danger, but I do wonder why we enjoy them so much. (I guess I didn’t really enjoy the Nando Parrado one. I admired his courage but his experience was so unalloyedly miserable.) When I bought Ghosts of Everest it was partly because my eye was caught by the big colour photos of Mallory’s corpse (which Joe Simpson, for one, finds deeply offensive – see his comments in The Beckoning Silence, pp. 117-20). Mallory looks like a smashed marble kouros lying there on the mountain, white and perfect apart from the broken leg and the buried head, but it’s still a corpse. In the shop I flicked through and past those pictures: to the same extent and with the same impulse that I wanted to look at them I knew I didn’t want to be seen looking at them. So is mountaineering literature just creepy death porn for me? Well, I hope not, and I don’t think so. People need to think about death – and about courage and fear and what humanity can stand – and this is one way of doing it, but there’s certainly a lot more to mountaineering literature than that. (Like I said, I won’t be re-reading Miracle in the Andes.) 

I can identify three main strands in why I like mountaineering literature. One is because I like mountains. Ken and I have no particular desire to seek precarious toe-holds in vertical walls of ice, and nor do we much fancy frostbite, but we’ve slogged our way up a few Munroes and we know the allure of high places on the modest scale appropriate to us. There are few experiences more emotionally satisfying and draining than getting to the top of a big, hard hill; and there is a deep, deep delight in getting away from roads and houses and walking somewhere the earth’s bones stick out. The second reason has to do with that emotional satisfaction of getting to the top. I like mountaineering literature, and climbing hills, for the same reason I like detective stories: for the plot. It’s grandly predictable but compelling every time. The third reason is the people and the way, as you read more mountaineering books, you start to see the same characters cropping up. And I think Joe Simpson epitomizes a certain sort of British masculinity, especially now he’s bought a cottage in Ireland.