Stranded In The Southland

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

_Into Thin Air_ vs. _Into The Wild_

I picked up Jon Krakour's Into Thin Air at the library the other day. It turned out to be an amazing book, really well written and full of insightful details. My friend David had been after me to read it for years, but I so hated Krakour's Into the Wild that I couldn't bring myself to give it a shot. I'm kicking myself now.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild was difficult for me to read because it was a story of such a useless death. It is all about a young student from Emory University, where I went to grad school. The place was very pleasant, but the undergraduates there just didn't have a grasp of the real world, or how wonderfully posh they had it compared to state schools.

This particular student was very concerned with poverty and starvation, and eventually gave away his possessions (cool!) and spent several years wandering around the country, living out of his car or in fairly primitive surroundings. After a few years of this, he decided to really rough it, and headed up to Alaska to live in the wilderness.

This is where things get stupid. First of all, he wanted to head out with no backups. He took small-caliber gun with him, and some very basic supplies. He didn't seem to bother to learn how to live off the land beforehand. I got the impression that he really wanted to see what it would be like to have to depend on himself, and to learn as he went along.

He got up there, and headed about 15 miles off of the last dirt road. He finally took up residence in an abandoned school bus (not what I'd call roughens it, but there it is) and eventually died of starvation. He was within a day's walk of help, surrounded by the bounties of nature, and was just too ignorant to survive. Krakour (and my buddy David) admires this, but it just seems like stupidity to me.

Into Thin Air

In marked contrast, I found Into Thin Air, Krakour's story of a disaster on Everest, to be infinitly more sympathetic. Krakour was actually there, and had known most of the main characters for years. The story was much more immediate, and it was at least a bit more clear about why folks were taking risks, and what they'd done to mitigate those risks.

I have no desire to climb Everest myself -- it sounds like awful suffering, with a pretty good chance of losing some extremities, if not your life. But I can understand why other folks would sacrifice everything to summit the tallest mountain in the world.

I'm rather less sympathetic to the rich folks who want to buy their way to the top, but Krakour makes it clear that no matter how much money you have, you still have to suffer to make it to the top. People don't use bottled air until they get to 23,000 feet, and at that point, your brain and body are shutting down from lack of oxygen. You lose your appetite and waste away. You can't think straight.

Still, there are plenty of safeguards, and lots of planning that goes into this. The guides are incredably experienced, althoughthis didn't keep three of them from dying on the face of the mountain. At least this isn't a silly way to throw away your life.

Krakour does a great job of introducing the folks on the mountain, and with maybe one exception, it is easy to admire these folks for being tough enough to get this far. He does paint a somewhat less sympathetic picture of one particular rich moron, who doesn't seem to see the ways in which her casual assumption of privilege endangers the other folks on the mountain.

It's a marvelous book, and an incredable story in any case. You should definitely check it out!

Thunder Mountain

I slept in too late to catch an HPS snowshoe out in the desert (I went to hear Paul Westerberg, and didn't get in 'til 1AM), so I decided to just go up into San Antonio Canyon and bag a peak. I'd hoped to go up Ice House Canyon to pick up Ontario Peak or Cucamonga Peak, but when I got to the trailhead, I found warning signs about an avalanche just a couple miles up the trail. A couple of passing hikers confirmed that it was there, and mostly impassable, and that the Chapman trail was looking ugly, too.

At this point, I fell back to going up from Manker Flats via the fire road to Baldy Notch. It wasn't nearly as pretty or as fun, but at least I had a good hope of not being killed by an avalanche. :-) Unfortunately, I wasn't alone in this decision -- the trail was busier than I'd ever seen it. A bunch of folks were postholing their way up without snowshoes, but watching them was enough to convince me that snowshoes were a good investment.

Once I made it up to the Notch, I decided that I really needed to nail a peak, since I'd already come so far. I wound up crossing the bunny slope at the ski area, clambering up a fairly steep, snow-covered slope, and strolling up a fire road to Thunder Mountain. From the map, I'd figured that the fire road would be a pleasant way up.

It was -- unfortunately, it was nicely groomed and covered with skiers. Most of them were pretty cool, some of them were very friendly ("No kidding, you just climbed up all that way!?"), and a couple of 'em gave me a hard time ("Hike up the fire road!" Of course, I was on the fire road, so I don't know what that was about).

The toughest part was watching all those folks ski around -- skiing is much more fun than snowshoeing. I mean, snowshoeing would be okay if I was out in the boonies, breaking fresh snow and seeing nobody at all, but there in close proximity to more amusing snow sports, I felt keenly that I'd made the wrong choice in equipment. :-)

All in all, though, it was a fun day. My legs ached, my feet were wet (so much for the waterproof boots!), and I was pretty dang tired. I had half-heartedly wondered if I could scam a ride back down the hill, but the ski patrol verified that there were way too many rules against that. (The ski patrol guys were especially friendly, actually.)

Next time I head up there, I'm definitely strapping on skis! I coulda just ridden the lift up to peak number 17.

Woo hoo. Just eight more to go to get to 25!