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Every climber that went into the 1996 Everest expedition, which turned out to be a disaster that ended with a freak storm killing eight climbers, knew that trying to climb Everest would be like playing a giant game of Russian roulette. Some were lucky and met their ends suddenly, while some kept fighting until they simply couldn’t fight anymore. Then there were the few that willingly sacrificed their lives in order to give others a fighting chance, and those of other climbing groups who refused to help others in favor of their own personal safety.
It was stories like those, and the one of Krakauer himself, that posed the question of morality, and can teach us a great deal about how the human spirit reacts to the horrors of mortality. In his novel Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer presents two instances where morality plays a key role, where one focuses on his role as a survivor and reporter, and the other on the summit and the two stories of opposite interpretations of morality.
One angle of morality in the story focuses on Krakauer himself and his role as a survivor and reporter. He was one of the survivors of the most disastrous Everest expedition in history, and his moral dilemma as a reporter was the choice of using his platform to tell the story. When Krakauer was finally able to safely look back on the previous days, he was overwhelmed by emotion, which is shown when he wrote, “… I cried for my lost companions, I cried because I was grateful to be alive, I cried because I felt terrible for having survived while others had died” (Krakauer 279).
In this quote it’s shown that when the complete impact of the tragedy hit Krakauer for the first time, he experienced and was overwhelmed by relief, grief, and guilt. He felt guilty for having the privilege of surviving, which made the decision for him on whether or not he should write the book even harder.
The decision of writing the book and having to possibly comment on the judgement of those who were no longer there to defend themselves, thus possibly angering grieving family members in the process, was already an extremely difficult one. But the guilt of surviving while others didn’t made the moral dilemma of writing the book that much harder for him. Krakauer’s internal moral struggle pit his responsibility as a reporter to tell stories against the chance of damaging the dignity and reputation of those who weren’t able to tell their stories, which was amplified by his guilt of being a survivor.
Morality also becomes an important theme on the summit. On one hand, you had many of the climbers in Krakauer’s account perform acts of courage, compassion, and heroism in the face of increasingly desperate and dangerous conditions. One most memorably being Rob Hall, whose act of compassion and loyalty was responsible for his death. After Cotter had tried to get Hall to come down without Hansen, he confessed, ‘I know I sound like the bastard for telling Rob to abandon his client, but by then it was obvious that leaving Doug was his only choice.’ (Krakauer 241). No matter how hard Cotter tried to convince Hall to leave Hansen for dead, Hall refused. On a mountain filled with people numbed to the realities of death, Hall was willing to put his life and mission at significant risk in order to give his friend a fighting chance.
Now on the other hand, you have the side story of the Japanese climbers, who refused to help the dying climbers from Ladakh and decided to continue to the summit. Although it’s not directly related to any of the main characters in Into Thin Air, it still serves as a powerful contrast to the story of Krakauer’s team. In an interview two of the Japanese climbers explained, “We didn’t know them. No, we didn’t give them any water. We didn’t talk to them. They had severe high-altitude sickness. They looked as if they were dangerous…. We were too tired to help.
Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality’ (Krakauer 253). This quote shows how perceptions of moral behavior can change in certain extreme circumstances. The conditions on the summit forced many characters to make difficult decisions, and the Japanese climbers, faced with the same moral decision as Krakauer’s group, chose the more “unfavorable” option. While most would consider it a selfish decision, Krakauer used it to show that on Everest, normal calculations of what is right and wrong just didn’t necessarily apply. The Japanese climbers ultimately reached the summit, and most importantly, survived, while some of the heroes from Krakauer’s team lost their own lives in often failed attempts to rescue others. By comparing these two stories, they show how sometimes the moral choice can lead to more death than the selfish choice. Knowing that, these stories beg the question: which is actually the ‘right’ choice?
Jon Krakauer, in his novel Into Thin Air, presents two instances where morality plays a key role, where one focuses on his role as a survivor and reporter, and the other on the summit and the two stories of opposite interpretations of morality. Krakauer felt guilty that he was one of the survivors of the Everest expedition, which made his already morally difficult choice to write the bool even harder. The moral dilemma of choosing to help others or help yourself in extreme conditions is shown in both the stories of Hall and the Japanese climbers.
Hall decided to stay with Hansen to try and give him a fighting chance, which ultimately resulted in both their deaths. When the Japanese climbers were presented with the same choice, they chose to not help the dying climbers from Ladakh and to continue to the summit, and the Japanese climbers ended up reaching the summit and surviving. Some people might look at Krakauer’s decision to tell his story, Hall’s decision to stay with Hansen, or the Japanese climbers’ decision to continue to the summit and criticize them on their choice. Some would like to think that if they were in the same position they would make better decisions, but when you’re above 25,000 feet and any decision you make could possibly get you killed, it’s nearly impossible to always make the “right” choice.
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