Tuesday, June 03, 2008

#37 - High Crimes

If anyone's familiar with my reading habits, you know that I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But it seems the nonfiction that always grabs my interest are nightmare stories about Mount Everest. I read Into Thin Air in about 20 minutes, and my curiosity of the people who willingly put themselves through the grueling, punishing task on purpose always gets the best of me. I only wish my interview with Peter Hillary was still live on the National Geographic Canada web site so I could link to it -- we talked for two hours and it was, to date, the best interview I have ever done.

Annnywaaay. High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. Michael Kodas's book has a point to prove, and it's quite compelling: How is it that crimes that take place at 8,000 metres are not considered so, when they'd be heavily punished back at sea level? Unskilled guides passing themselves off as "experts" leading unsuspecting tourists up a mountain to perish is doing damage to the very serious sport of mountaineering. It's ruining Everest. As is greed, human selfishness and the age-old challenge of tackling all of the biggest peaks in the world. His tale centres on two specific stories: the crumbling of his own expedition from ego, theft and a whole host of other problems; and the death of a doctor, left behind by a man who had a reputation for being not only a liar but one utterly unqualified to be a guide.

How can you just leave someone behind when he's your responsibility in the first place? When does summiting become so all-consuming (for its material benefits) when it costs the life of someone who trusted you to take them up and then back down? It's an impossible question. It's easy to know your own moral code, your values, until you're thousands of metres in the air, deprived of oxygen and the weather turns. But there's a difference between malicious intent and an accident, the feeling of getting yourself in over your head. Even experienced climbers get into trouble, but that's the point that Kodas, and many writers like him consistently make, Everest has become so commercial that people think they can just buy their way to the top.

On more than one page, I was utterly horrified by what I'd just read. Greed, mayhem, even murder in a place where people are supposed to be in awe of the sheer power of the Earth itself. And even while Kodas's writing tends to the sensational (it's very headliney, if that makes any sense), it's an easy book to read. Perfect for a plane ride to Paris, I'd say.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The ARC I got from work on my tiny plane tray.

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