The Same Thin Air as You
Photo by Martin Jernberg
I was still in high school when the news of the deadliest season in Mt. Everest’s history hit the airwaves. One of the “lucky” survivors, Jon Krakauer, wrote a book about his experiences on that fateful day in May 1996 when nine climbers lost their lives in a brutal storm that trapped them at the top of the world. Mr. Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air went on to sell millions of copies and spawned a documentary and a well-received movie starring Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal.
I was one of those people who watched both films with a mix of terrifying wonder and somber reverence for those who have lost their lives in pursuit of a goal that balances somewhere between magic and madness. I had read several articles about the disaster, and the people lost and impacted by it, but I never got around to reading the book itself. When it became my turn to select the next book for the book club I belong to, I decided to choose Into Thin Air.
As it would turn out, I came away more unsettled by the book than I expected, not because of the tragic loss of human life, but because of the similarities between what is happening at 29,028ft (“roughly the cruising altitude of an Airbus jetliner”), and to the rest of us on planet earth.
On the surface, Mr. Krakauer’s personal account is the story of an extraordinary group of adventurers who challenged Mother Nature and paid the ultimate price. However, the unspoken tragedy of Mt. Everest seeped through every page and left me with a series of overshadowing questions: what does it say about humanity’s future when one of the most majestic, isolated places on the planet is a trash heap? Does the drive to explore countermand our obligation to protect our natural sites for the next generation?
The ongoing crisis facing our planet continues to generate news reports, corporate pledges, and public protests, but if Everest is any indication—much more is needed if we will survive this crisis. It is time to step outside of our comfort zone and ask ourselves what we are willing to do to save lives. Over the last several months, I have heard a lot about “COVID-fatigue.” In short, people are overwhelmed and tired of vigilance and self-restraint. I worry that this same condition could occur in our daily struggle to leave our planet better than the previous generation gave it to us.
While most of us will never climb Mt. Everest, deepening our understanding and expanding our efforts to overcome the waste and exploitation of the world around us is an adventure that will benefit everyone. Please do not tire out! Like our efforts to combat the pandemic, the war we wage against environmental atrocities will significantly benefit us today, tomorrow, and forever.
The ecological tragedy of Everest does not have to be our fate. We do not have to breathe the same thin air as those who seek out the challenge of a lifetime. We can choose to flourish and to transcend the examples of those who came before us—we can reject plastics, conserve water, recycle, and take a million other tiny steps that breathe life into us and our planet.