Saturday, April 20, 2013

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I have some incredibly vivid and improbably dreams.  And, for the most part, I can remember them at later dates.  One night, I dreamt that as a work-place bonding activity, my office had decided to climb Mount Everest.  This task was made easier by the fact that Mount Everest was in Ottawa that week.  So, I rolled up to the ski chalet at the base of the mountain in jeans, runners, and with a can of Coke, heard what the task for the day would be, looked up at the summit, and said “let’s do this thing” before setting out to what seemed to be a leisurely afternoon stroll.  In the seconds after I woke up, and before all my synapses were properly firing, I thought to myself – “I could totally climb Mount Everest.”  The morning news then came on the radio and I forgot all about my dream, only to remember it fondly (as a sign of my tenacity and self-delusion) at various times in the future.

I think part of my problem that morning was that I had no clue what actually went into an Everest summit expedition.  In reality, I knew (and know) I couldn’t do it, but I had always assumed it was as simple as getting the right gear together, rolling up on that sucker, and getting to the top.  My latest read Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, dissuaded me of all these myths, and laid out what really goes into being able to stand on the roof of the world.

In 1996, Krakauer’s magazine editor approached him about participating in a guided tour that was to get him up and down Mount Everest using tried and true methods, and at the direction of the experienced guide Rob Hall.  Krakauer, a long-time climber, was intrigued and accepted the assignment.  Arriving in Nepal in Spring of 1996, Krakauer vividly describes the process of getting to Base Camp at the foot of the Mountain, as well as the acclimatization process that has to occur before climbers can tackle the task.  Moreover, Krakauer’s account of his experiences details the history of climbing Everest, the dynamics of the other expeditions that were making the attempt, as well as his own activities in, and impressions of, preparing for the climb.  On the morning of May 10th, Krakauer reached the summit, snapped a few pictures and, after less than five minutes, headed back down.  His short visit to the short probably saved his life; Spring 1996 was, to that point, one of the deadliest climbing seasons in Everest’s history.  As Krakauer was getting into the high-camp below the summit, a monsoon-like storm was buffeting the mountain; multiple climbers, slower that Krakauer, were still behind him on the summit and, in the end, many didn’t come down.

Krakauer is not at all shy about putting the results of his disastrous expedition at the beginning of his account; of his 11-person expedition, only six survived.  There is a laundry list of reasons that Krakauer presents for why May 10th, 1996 happened the way it did; from inter-fighting between expedition leaders, to the individual choices of the climbers, to the larger practices of Everest climbing, Krakauer describes a perfect storm of conditions that set up the situation to end as it did; however, all the human-error pieces could have been minimized had it not been for the actual storm that hit the mountain that evening - with winds described as being the same as a standing behind a jet-turbine and wind-chills (below 100 degrees – I’m assuming Fahrenheit, given the author’s nationality and audience), even those who had successfully ascended and descended the summit that day were luck to survive, to say nothing of the handful of climbers who were caught out without shelter and supplies that night.

The reality of climbing Everest is this: it’s a near impossible feat, and yet many mechanisms are now in place making people think it can be done with relative ease and safety.  The first dynamic is that it’s been done before – since the practice began, the summit has been reached almost consistently each climbing season.   Success makes it seem possible.  Second, the regional economy has changed to make Everest the main employer for the location populations; Sherpas who are genetically predisposed to operate efficiently and successfully at high altitude, and who have a cultural mind-set to assist climbing expeditions, are now doing the majority of the work in getting climbers to the summit (being a ‘Sherpa’ has become a cliché in our vocabulary for a reason – it implies carrying large loads and doing grunt work for someone coming behind you.  This is exactly the role of the Sherpa people on Everest.  Krakauer describes a solo expedition that year on the mountain; of course, he’s referring to the one western climber, but not his 18 Sherpas.)  

The value of the Sherpas to operate at high altitude, while still taken advantage of, is no longer as crucial as it used to be, as the first dynamic in the system was the advent of climbing with tanked oxygen, meaning that those who arrive from lower altitudes are able to acclimatize quickly to make summit pushes.  (We don’t think of it, but if you consider the level of oxygen in the air at sea-level as being like split pea soup, you can consider the presence of oxygen at the summit to be close to a broth, and not a consume, more of a mangy pot of rock soup.)

When you add up the role that previous successes of had, with the help provided by Sherpas, and the introduction of bottled oxygen, it leads directly to the fourth dynamic that led to the disaster in 1996, and this is the proliferation of commercial, or guided, expeditions to the summit.  Many experienced climbers will offer (for sums ranging form $10k to $65k in 1996) clients the chance to tag along with them, with promises of, if not getting to the top, getting closer that they would otherwise in a safe fashion.  Consequently, this has created a dangerous dynamic on the slopes of Everest; clients in these tours, some times with limited climbing experiences, are sent to one of the most dangerous and remote places on earth and asked to engage in some of the most physically and mentally draining activities humans have every conceived of as ‘recreational.’

These are generalities.  In May of 1996, these general conditions led Jon Krakauer to the slopes of Everest to write a magazine article for Outside magazine about the commercialization of Everest.  But, as a climber, he was also out to get to the summit.  The specific failure of the 1996 Spring season were this; Krakauer’s guide, Rob Hall, while experienced in guiding clients up and down the Mountain, had invited Krakauer along at a reduced fee in order to generate publicity for his guiding business; of his seven clients, only two or three had sufficient climbing experiences for the task ahead; on the Mountain that season were several other expeditions who did not join in the communal sense of helping each other out; and finally, the most damaging dynamic was the individual personalities of the guides, the clients and the Sherpas.  Anyone who has interacted with any humanity at all knows that some people can be jerks, others are just oblivious, and others still are just incapable of admitting they can’t do what they set out to do.  Take this miasma of personalities, add altitude sickness and summit-fever, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  And yet, all the deaths of the Mountain probably could have been avoided (after all, these conditions were no different from conditions in years past), but the storm that came in around 4pm on the afternoon of May 10th took away all margins for error.  In the end, several guides, clients and Sherpas each died.

What was so amazing to me about Krakauer’s book was the dynamic way he unflinchingly told his story – he wasn’t out to sugar coat anything, not even his own mistakes and complicity (in fact, he thinks his own presence as a journalist contributed to the disaster, as Hall couldn’t afford the bad publicity, and I think I agree with him).  Krakauer’s story-telling style though is what is so engaging – he provide the perfect amount of detail about his own experiences, the historical aspects of climbing, the Everest culture, and the other expeditions on the Mountain that Spring; it’s an interesting blend of history, self-reflection, and gossip that I enjoyed reading greatly.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  A quote on the cover says this book “ranks among the great adventure books of all time”: I thought this was an oversell at the time, but now I fully agree.  While I would advocate for everyone to read this book, I advocate for no-one to climb Mount Everest.  After the first person took a video camera up there to capture what it looks like, there’s been no need for humanity to go back.  Can we please all agree that we’ll cross this one off humanity’s collective bucket list?  Doing so will probably save a lot of lives in the future.  Regardless, I can’t say it enough or in strong enough terms – read this book!

Love and Louis XIV, by Antonia Fraser

I recently decided that I’m not doing enough to keep up with my professional training; that is, being a historian.  My bookshelves are littered with non-fiction works of all kinds – popular histories, biographies, and groundbreakers.  But they normally get passed over in favour of the more easily digestible fictions.  However, I’m going to try and change that.  That’s what lead me to my latest read, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, by Antonia Fraser.

I’ve read a few biographies by Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette), and for a while there, I was inspired to buy up a lot of biographies based on how much I enjoyed reading hers.  But Fraser as an author stands in a class of her own – she’s able to take some potentially dry materials and craft them into a dynamic telling of a handful of lives. 

Love and Louis XIV, as the name suggests, it about Louis XIV of France, and details his personal life.  Fraser begins with the filial love Louis had for his mother, Queen Anne, and details how strong it was and the lasting impact it would have on his career as a king.  Fraser then moves on to describe those early throws of first love that Louis experienced with a bevy of ladies at Court; his marriage to Marie-Therese of Spain; his friendship with his sister-in-law, Henriette-Anne; his first love affair with Henriette-Anne’s lady, Louise; his far more passionate affair with his long-term mistress, and mother of many of his children, Athénaïs; and finally his morganic marriage to Mme de Maintenon, with whom he spent his declining years.  Peppered throughout the tales of these luminaries in Louis’ life is the occasional ‘one-night stand’ and platonic friendship with a lady at court.

Fraser’s account does not limit itself to just the love life of the King; rather, she provides a surrounding (and truncated) version of French and world affairs at the times in question.  While some of it is germane to the discussion of Louis’ love-life, I found much of it to be unrelated, and thought this was a major flaw in the account; if I wanted a break-down of French politics, I wouldn’t have picked up a book with a title that implied it would examine the King’s personal life.  While I admit that much of a King’s personal life is tied up with national and international politics, I found this information infringed too much and too often on the parts of the book which the title had led me to expect.

Regardless, Fraser’s account is engaging, interesting, and occasionally humorous.  Fraser presents the foibles and going-ons of the French Court in an academic manner, but doesn’t shy from pointing out hypocrisies and weaknesses in her subjects.  I found this humanized those she wrote about, and added an interesting layer to the tale.

The book is well laid-out, and helpful to amateurs of French history.  Included in the front section of the book is a complex family tree (complicated by the frequency with which the royal family intermarried, and the number of dynastic Christian names dolled out to babies), a summary of the principal players, and a time-line of Louis’ reign (which, I think, makes the passages in the text about the politics even more redundant to Fraser’s purposes).

Regardless of the flaws, I found this to be a fascinating read.  So, final verdict?  I would recommend this book (and any of Fraser’s biographies) to anyone looking to learn more about the Sun King’s Court and private life.  Fraser’s wit and abilities are on display with this book, and I enjoyed the read immensely.  

Queen of Shadows, by Edith Felber

As I’ve said in the past, finding British historical fiction these days that isn’t about the Tudors can be a challenge.  That’s why, when I picked up Queen of Shadows, by Edith Felber, I was looking forward to the telling of the story of King Edward II’s era.

Now, as a British historian, I have the line of succession (inadvertently) memorized from Henry VIII through the first handful of Georges, but ask me about the Edwards and earlier Henrys, and I’m almost at a complete loss.  Consequently, I knew little about Edward II, and what I did know was half-remembered folklore that I didn’t know related to him.  So this read was something of an education for me.

Of course, how much of historical fiction can a reader assume is true?  In Queen of Shadows, Felber portrays Edward as a cavalier homosexual who, while a good father, was more interested in being with his lovers than his wife.  Isabella, his queen is depicted as vulnerable, yet also as having an iron will, and something of a nag.  As Felber acknowledges herself, she’s created dynamic personalities for these historical figures whom she’s turned into her characters.

The plot of Queen of Shadows revolves around Gwenith, a descendent of Welsh nobles.  Edward is the king under whom Wales was joined to England, and it was a bloody experience for the Welsh.  Raised on tales of the king’s barbarity, Gwenith is sent to Court in hopes of destroying the King.  However, assigned to the Queen’s household, Gwenith becomes very close with Isabelle and becomes completely devoted to her; as such, she’s in the unenviable position of setting out to hurt Isabelle’s husband, which would only hurt Isabelle.  However, Gwenith’s goal is caught up in the larger political happenings at Court, and her story merges into being that of an observer of high-politics.

This leads me to the major complaint I had about this book.  The tile, Queen of Shadows, is accompanied by the subtitle “A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II” on the front of the book.  However, Felber sets up Gwenith to be the main character of her book.  The title of ‘queen of shadows’ still applies to her, as her motives are not all that that seem.  While Felber does pass the narrative voice around her characters, the first 2/3 of the book seem to cast Gwenith as her main character, and the last 1/3 Isabella.  All this is very confusing, and very unsatisfying.  I was expecting a book about Isabella, then became interested in Gwenith’s tale, then had to switch back to Isabella.  

So, final verdict?  Menh.  This book is ho-hum.  I was expecting good things from it, but in the end it just didn’t deliver.  While the characters were interesting and dynamically presented, the plot was interesting, and the writing style readable, I just found this book to be mediocre; I won’t be seeking out more of Felber’s works.  If, however, you’re a devoted fan of historical fiction, then I can see you enjoying this book – and if you do, please feel free to point out what I missed!