Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chro: Jan 10, 2008

Hey doc, wanna talk about something?

D: Like what? [Looks at me and smiles.]

Well, that's a welcome change - a smile. You're kind of warming up to me these days.

D: Really? If you think so, may be it is because you're starting to make some sense. My kid is a taking a better interest in grammar, after I showed him your write-up.

Hmm. I hate flattery.

D: Oh, that's news. But I'm not flattering you. My kid really liked it.

No. I'm not talking about a kid's fascination. I'm talking about types of flattery that are unwarranted.

D: Why so? It's always a good thing to hear something nice, once in a while at least.

Couple of years back, I used to get it sometimes. But some of them always made me uneasy. You know I could tell between real appreciation and the spurious kind?

D: Nooo. How can you tell?

Well, it's like this. The real appreciation is dropped in to a conversation - it may have been planned - but you're enamored by it. Mostly, there is a hint of hesitance and apology attached to it. The subversive one is shot like an arrow - it sticks out like a sore thumb - one that is pushed against your neck making it difficult for you to breathe.

D: Well, that's hard to tell.

Well, I could always tell. At least, before I came here.

D: What??? Ok, thanks for not flattering me about my treatment.

C'mon, I haven't lost that skill completely. I believed you about the grammar bit, because you brought the kid into the picture - and also because you have nothing to gain from me.

D: What has gain anything to do with it?

It has everything. I learned it the hard way. I tell you what - next time you totally flinch at something flattering - to the extend that you honestly think you do not deserve the praise, remember the sound of a knife that's being sharpened. It's getting ready for you.

D: Well, I'm honestly tempted to dismiss your thoughts as being whimsical or flimsy, but I would resist the temptation to do so, considering the fact that I respect, for whatever it is worth, your thought process, from which sometimes good ideas originate. So...

Ha - some rehearsed self-restraint spee[cut short]ch

D: That said, with each and every passing second and comment, you are pushing the higher levels of my tolerance, so much so that the idea of doing an irrevocable and irreparable damage to my sense of self-restraint sounds ever more appealing. So relax. [Walks away]

[Mutters] Why do I always break bubbles?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Anatoli Boukreev RIP, aka, The Climb

Just finished reading "The Climb" by Anatoli Boukreev (Toli for short), one of the multitude of books that came out to feed the public frenzy following what was the worst year for Everest climbing ever since our Sherpa and Sir. Hillary first stood atop the 8.8k monster.

1996 was the year. As many as 12 dead, including two expedition leaders, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, veterans of Himalayan commercial climbing. For the uninitiated, commercial climbing is, for the lack of a better word, commercial - not usually for the hardcore mountaineers, but some sort of packaged deal where you pay top dollar (at the higher end in 1996, this was $65,000) for taking a shot at adding the tallest mountain to your resume, which otherwise is most likely to be filled by, well, corporate achievements.

The Climb was written as a response to "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer was part of Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants team, and was able to successfully complete his Everest attempt on the day things went wrong. Into Thin Air reached NY Times bestseller lists, and is arguably one of the best mountaineering books. So much so that the book detailing the K2 disaster of 2006 dubbed itself "K2's Into Thin Air". Into Thin Air is a breezy read, it has its action, its heroes, villains, wannabees, and also-rans. You cannot put the book down, even if you do not have the faintest idea of mountaineering. In the end, you feel disturbed but satisfied, like you would feel after reading a good novel - a few ambitions met, a few people dead, a few hopes unmade, and a villain left standing to the boot. And that villain was Toli. Born in Kazakhstan, Anatoli Boukreev was an established mountaineer who climbed multiple 8k mountains multiple times - mostly without oxygen, and has guided/saved a few men in his life time. Something didn't seem right. And that's when I was determined to read the book Toli co-authored (ghost-written, if you ask Reinhold Messner) with Weston DeWalt in response to Into Thin Air.

The Climb disappointed me in comparison to Into Thin Air. The Climb read like a patchy journal. But as you get into the later chapters, you get an idea of what possibly transpired in the high camps on that fateful night when high winds swept the lives out of climbers. It nowhere matches Krakeur's journalistic narrative brilliance, but it has an element of truth in it. It is unapologetic too, about Anatoli's possible disdain for climbing clients who expect to be pampered. The book goes overboard in defending Toli and rebuking Jon. I think it was not needed. Those who care will read on, and once you read, you get an idea.

The fact is this. On May 10, 1996, there were too many people and teams trying to summit Mt. Everest. After reaching the summit (without supplemental oxygen, as usual) early in the day, Anatoli climbed down ahead of some of his clients to the high camp (Camp IV) before the winds broke lose. There were people in his team and other teams up there on the mountain, slowly trying to work their way back to Camp IV. Anatoli rested in Camp IV, the highest camp on Everest, drinking tea, and the works (like lying down). And then, one of the most disastrous storms in Everest climbing ever decided that time's up.

Whatever anyone else might say, Toli went up again - not once, not twice,  not thrice - when no self-respecting Sherpa would, in the night, in the middle of a storm (when you cannot find your ass with your hand - and that is, assuming you feel, at that altitude, that you have an ass.) to look for people.

His clients, Tim, Sandy, and Fox were lost in the storm above 8,000 m. Above 8,000 m, your blood runs thick as sludge, because of the overabundance of red blood cells, trying to suck out oxygen which is as low as 1/3rd of the sea level concentration. As one documentary put it, the death zone above 8,000 m is the altitude where "the human body begins to shut down".  His clients were lost, unable to find their way back to the tents in the stormy darkness, and out of oxygen. Anatoli managed to find them and guide them all (they would have been dead definitely otherwise), by giving oxygen (for which he had to beg around tents), hot tea (carried in a thermos), and his strong hand to the relative safety of the camp. All his clients are alive today to tell the tale.

Scott Fischer, Toli's expedition leader, was lost higher up in the mountain, though. As was another expedition leader, Rob Hall, who had earlier in the evening, radioed his pregnant wife in New Zealand, saying that all would be well. That was the last anyone heard of Hall.

Anatoli was not able to save two climbers in the vicinity - Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers - both from  Rob Hall's team. Yasuko and Beck were thought of, that night, as dead. One of them would die. Some say, most of this would never have happened had Anatoli stayed back with his clients on top before the storm broke. Yes - things could have been different had he stayed back, thank you. Hindsight is the most idiotic wisdom in such tragic situations. Some say he acted in self-interest. Some say he acted out of guilt for sipping hot tea in high camp, while his clients were struggling down the mountain. Some blame him for not using oxygen himself. The Climb gives answers as to why Toli acted the way he did.

Toli went up again the next evening to help his mentor Scott Fischer, but Scott was totally beyond rescue, and he had to sound the retreat. Five days later, "in one final act of defiance", Toli climbed Mt. Lhotse (8,516m) alone and without oxygen, setting a 17 hour record.

At extremely high altitudes, when you cannot even move a limb without considerable effort, you cannot afford to think of the reactions and verdicts of arm-chair mountaineers. As far as I think, Boukreev did his job. Which is what he told a store owner who was all over him later - "It was my job." It was his job. But, if what I read is any indication, Toli was disturbed till the very end he could not rescue Yasuko, the diminutive Japanese woman, who was left for dead at a spot barely 2 meters away from where he picked up his clients. He was told she was gone, and rued it till the end, because another person he was told was gone came back to the camp the next evening – Beck Weathers – with very little of him intact.  Anatoli tried to make some amends the next year. While climbing Everest in 1997 with an Indonesian team, he went to the spot where he had left Yasuko and found her body covered in snow. He removed the little things (which he passed on to her widower) from her pack and covered up her body with rocks to keep it from scavengers.

To borrow the words of one of my colleagues [She must have written this piece in a totally different frame of mind, but it so well fits in here.],
as you went
if you had only lent
to the one left behind
a fraction of your strength

The man the climbs could not defeat lies buried underneath snow and ice at around 5,700 meters on the Annapurna - thanks to an avalanche on 25th December, (of all days!) 1997. The last anyone saw of him was Simone Moro, who was climbing ahead of him. Moro heard the avalanche break lose and shouted to Anatoli and Sobolev who were coming up. "Moro said that Anatoli caught his eye, and in a calm, quick maneuver, began to sidestep up the sloping walls of the gully in which he and Sobolev had been climbing."

Nothing else could have possibly defeated him, and as I read the last pages, I still cannot get over the feeling of Toli rising like a ghost over another eight thousander to save someone from peril.
Rest In Peace Toli. We understand. Thank you for the book. Truth sometimes reads less interesting than imagination.