Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Fascination of Everest


     I grew up not far from the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of drives into the mountains for summer picnics, complete with a watermelon chilled in a mountain stream. More than once I made the hike to the Observation Tower on Clingmans Dome. While steep, the climb isn’t precipitous, and you certainly don’t feel that you’re going to tumble into a precipice.
     My sons are both skiiers and snowboarders, and one fall my oldest son Steve took me to the top of the Camelback ski area here in Northestern Pennsylvania. While in many ways the Poconos remind me of the Smokies, they are not true mountains, they are high hills. Standing at the top of Camelback and looking down the trail to the bottom of the hill, a drop of nearly a thousand feet, confirmed skiing would never be possible for me. I had a mild attack of vertigo. I do better standing at the bottom of mountains looking up and being awed by their grandeur.
     I’ve done that twice in my lifetime with the taller, more rugged Western mountains: once in Breckenridge, Colorado and once in the Cascades in Washington State. Beautiful, awe-inspiring mountains. So it should come as no surprise that Mt. Everest has always held a certain fascination for me.
     When Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air was first released I bought a copy and read it with fascination and growing horror. I found the book, overall, very sad. I won’t dwell on the obvious about how the energy and money expended on these climbing expeditions could be put to so much better use; people attempt the climb because it’s what they want to do.
     In 1996, what began as an adventure with climbers full of high hopes became an increasingly horrific nightmare, and Krakauer says at some point: “I wish I had never gone to Everest.” But I found the book so riveting and so well-written I re-read it. I think I read it a total of four times.
     So of course when the film Everest was recently released, I had to watch it. The deadly mountain still fascinates a lot of us, no matter how unforgiving she is. I saw the movie yesterday and appreciated it. How can you enjoy the story of people whose dreams … however foolish they might seem to some … are so brutally smashed?
     The photography was stunning, and one of the things I liked best was seeing the great shots of places I had read about in Krakauer’s book and in other articles and books I’ve read over the years about the Himalayas. I was glad I had read the book because it was easy for me to keep track of the myriad characters whose story this is; I imagine without that prep some audience members may become confused, especially because most of the guys are bearded and everybody is wearing winter climbing attire. The scenes of the storm were extremely well done.
     I didn’t find the movie scary. I found the movie sad. And again the question came to mind: why do people risk their lives to climb this mountain? Once again, the effects of the extreme high altitude and the compromised reasoning ability were painfully apparent. It seems it is impossible to think logically at 29,000 feet. Deaths could have been avoided, and might have been avoided, if that were not the case.
     The star of the film is Everest, and she is glorious. I was glad I saw those great pictures of this wonder of nature. And still, people trek to Nepal and Tibet, and still attempt to conquer the mountain. And probably the answer to “why” is the same as Mallory’s was all those years ago:
    Because it is there.