The Krakauer Syndrome

Must there always be blame when a climber dies on a mountain?

I was more than a little upset by something I read on a climbing website recently. This had been the intention of the article, but I was annoyed for different reasons than the author had intended. It all started when a comment arrived in Spanish to a previous post on my blog. Although I don’t speak Spanish, an automated translation service was enough to reveal that it was an abusive comment aimed at Robert Anderson, one of the people mentioned in my post, and my expedition leader on Cho Oyu last year. A Google search led me to the article in question on the website of The Alpinist magazine.

Makalu, scene of a tragedy last month
Makalu, scene of a tragedy last month

It concerned the tragic death of an experienced Swiss climber on Makalu in Nepal last month, and appeared to point the finger of blame for the tragedy at Robert Anderson. I read it a few times, and each time I digested a little bit more, my disappointment rose. There was so many things wrong with the article and a related one on the website ExplorersWeb that it was hard to know which bit I felt most strongly about, but eventually I was able to put my thoughts together into something coherent. I won’t go into a critique of it here, but you can read my response in the comments of the Alpinist article.

Before I go on I would like to say that my thoughts are very much with the friends and family of Joelle Brupbacher, a climber I had not heard of until a few days ago, but whose climbing record (Makalu was to be her fifth successful ascent of an 8000 metre peak) puts her forever among the elite of women mountaineers. This post is in no way aimed at her, her friends, family or supporters, who I hope are able to put aside the controversy and remember her for her remarkable achievements.

I’ve now come to understand what it was I found most offensive about the article, something I’m calling The Krakauer Syndrome, in honour of the climber and journalist Jon Krakauer, whose book Into Thin Air is perhaps the best known example of it among the mountaineering community. I could just as easily call it, perhaps a little more harshly, the Daily Mail Syndrome, in honour of the British tabloid newspaper whose style of writing is calculated to incite hatred born of ignorance, principally racist, among its impressionable readership.

Everest (left), scene of tragedy in 1996
Everest (left), scene of tragedy in 1996

For anyone who has not read it, Into Thin Air is an account of the 1996 Everest tragedy, when a number of climbers from two commercial teams, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, died during a single summit attempt, including the leaders of both teams, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. While storm clouds gathered over Everest’s summit ridge both teams continued onwards to the summit long after the time they had originally set as their latest turnaround time. Ever since it was first published and Krakauer unaccountably pointed the finger of blame at one of the guides on the Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev, who spent hours in the storm saving the lives of climbers on the South Col, it has ignited furious debate among the mountaineering community.

As one of the climbers who both reached the summit and returned safely that day, you might expect Krakauer’s book to be the most accurate account of the tragedy. While this may or may not be true (and everybody with an opinion should read Boukreev’s book The Climb for the counter-argument) there are good reasons why his account shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth. By his own admission Krakauer had imperfect recollection that day, the most notable example being when he mistook Martin Adams, a climber on the Mountain Madness team who returned safely, for Andy Harris, a guide on the Adventure Consultants team who went missing in the storm. This is no reflection on Krakauer’s memory, and is a common effect for climbers who are pushing themselves through the limits of exhaustion.

Gasherbrum II, my first experience of gossip and rumour at base camp
Gasherbrum II, my first experience of gossip and rumour at base camp

When I made my first attempt on an 8000 metre peak in 2009, Gasherbrum II in Pakistan, I was amazed at the amount of gossip and rumour that circulated on the mountain. So many contradictory stories did the rounds that it was impossible to figure out which were true, and which were simply garbled messages passed from climber to climber until the truth became lost in the wind. It was such an eye-opener for me that I even called my expedition diary Thieves, Liars and Mountaineers. While this description was principally a reference to false summit claims, it also embraced the tittle tattle that was circulated day after day without any regard for establishing the facts. Allied to this was a high degree of one-upmanship and a willingness to snipe and point blame at other climbers.

While this can be considered harmless in many cases, it most definitely is not when a death occurs and emotions become highly charged. The overwhelming urge to point the finger of blame, while understandable, can at times be unfair and unnecessary. While many inexperienced climbers can be found on big mountains these days, and different climbers have different perceptions of what is an acceptable risk, every one of them is capable of making his or her own decision to turn around. For a journalist sitting at a desk on the other side of the world, with the power at his fingertips to incite hatred if he chooses, the temptation to blame tragedy on other climbers on the mountain should be resisted, as it can become offensive and harmful to everyone concerned.

Mountaineering is an activity that originates in an appreciation of the natural world. There is no hatred here, merely a love of the great outdoors. While journalists and bloggers will try to twist it, it is up to all of us who absorb what is written to ensure we don’t behave like Daily Mail readers and allow ourselves to hate and blame.

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8 thoughts on “The Krakauer Syndrome

  • September 20, 2015 at 4:34 pm
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    This is an old post so I doubt to see any response. But am curious. Is there a grain of truth in that article? Did he really deny someone from reaching this woman with oxygen tank? Why? You never said whether this was the truth or false. You climb mountains. You could possibly fall sick. While getting help from fellow climbers who are themselves tired may be asking too much, will you be fine with someone denying someone else a chance at life when it comes at no risk of their own? I just want to understand this better.

  • September 21, 2015 at 8:09 am
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    I don’t remember all the details of this particular incident – as you say, this post is several years old – but in answer to your question it sounds like you’re starting with a false assumption. Contrary to there being no risk, many rescues at extreme altitude on 8000m peaks carry a very great risk to rescuers. In these situations, if more lives are to be endangered carrying out a rescue, it’s necessary to weigh the risk against the likelihood of a rescue being successful.

  • September 21, 2015 at 12:26 pm
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    No I agree there one hundred percent. Perhaps I should have phrased it better. I read the report of the accident. Someone had been willing to take oxygen up there and they were denied. My question was – if a person wants to try and save someone while risking their life, should they be denied? It didn’t seem like Robert was in any danger here. Any which ways, what happens at such altitude can never be compared to how we deal with life in the mainland. Thanks for replying. And I love reading your diaries and your blogs 🙂 Really inspired.

  • September 21, 2015 at 12:43 pm
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    He has a responsibility to his Sherpas not to put their lives in danger for something he considered to be a lost cause. If I remember rightly this was someone who had cerebral edema and it would have taken two days to climb up to them. Easy to criticise when sitting somewhere safe and secure, but rescues at very high altitude are not as straightforward as some people assume. Helicopters can’t get to that altitude, and unless a person is capable of walking it is very difficult, if not impossible, to help them down.

  • September 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm
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    I wasn’t criticizing. I said right from the get go that I was confused. I also followed it up with a sentence on how things function differently on the mountains and they should. I am sure your guide and friend made the right call. I just wanted to know if you did double check the events. Again. I wasn’t accusing nor am I criticizing. I travel a lot but I rarely ever put my life in danger. As a marathoner, I know what it’s like to be passionate but I don’t put my life on line for passion. I don’t know anything. What you guys do will always be incredible. I have followed your blog for a long time without ever commenting. You only knew of my existence about a day ago, I have read your words for over a year now. I just asked a question. I am truly sorry if it came across the wrong way. Am not criticizing. I am no one to do such a thing 🙂 Good luck with your future travels though.

  • September 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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    Don’t worry. I wasn’t offended.

  • September 22, 2015 at 5:34 am
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    I read The Alpinist article carefully. It doesn’t blame anyone for the climber’s death; it merely quotes Ramos from his blog, which appeared to be one of few sources of information regarding the incident at that time.

  • September 24, 2015 at 9:09 pm
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    I think you are being unfair to Krakauer. He most definitely did not place the blame on Boukreev, although he did question some of the decisions and actions Boukreev made on that day. I was surprised to later learn there was any controversy and especially the overblown controversy, that Krakauer went into this out to destroy Boukreev. While reading the book, I thought that what Krakauer was doing was pointing out all the “what ifs” and how things could have gone differently. I also thought he left it to the reader to lay blame if they so desired, and I decided that besides the storm, those who bear the most responsibility were Hall and Fischer. If only they had stuck to their schedule and forced everyone to turn around by 1 or 2, most would have either been back at camp IV or very near it at the height of the storm.

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