Friday, January 11, 2008

Top of the World

As you have probably heard, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to successfully summit Mt. Everest, had passed away. Anyone care to make a wager on who the subject of next week's Economist obituary is going to be? You can read some remembrances of the man here and here,. I never really gave Hillary or Everest much thought until a couple months ago, when I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is a first person account of a 1996 Mt. Everest expedition that went horribly wrong and resulted in the deaths of eight of the climbers. The story really got to me in a way that few stories ever have. I'm still not really sure why. It's easy to get drawn into any well-written story, but there's more to it than just that. It also changed my perception of Mt. Everest. Before reading the book, I was of the opinion that while Hillary's ascent of the mountain was an incredible feat, nowadays, anyone with enough money and time on their hands could hire enough Sherpas and guides to get them to the top and back down again. While it's true that people who probably have no business climbing Everest are able to reach the top with the help of the guides and outfitters who lead expeditions to the top each year, they are still putting their lives at risk with every step they take at high altitude and as the book clearly illustrates, only a few things have to go wrong before a "leisurely" hike to the summit becomes a disaster. I'd say that the book has convinced me that climbing Mt. Everest isn't worth the risk, but I never really had any desire to climb it or any other stupendously tall mountain before reading it. Still, I can't help but admire the people like Hillary who threw caution to the wind and climbed to the top of the world.

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