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Chapter two shifts away from Krakauer and covers the history of Everest and famous expeditions. It begins in the year 1852, in Dehra Dun, India—the time and place the myth of Everest was born. It was in this year that India's surveyor general first calculated the height of Everest and realized that it was the tallest mountain in the world. Nine years after the height of Everest was first determined (and, based only on trigonometry, in 1852 it was calculated to within twenty-six meters of its actual height), Sir Andrew Waugh, India's surveyor general, named the peak Mount Everest, after the previous surveyor general, Sir George Everest.
Krakauer points out that almost immediately upon realizing that Everest was the tallest peak in them world, people wanted to climb it. Everest was called the "Third Pole," and became "the most coveted object in the realm of terrestrial exploration (15). T hat desire came and continues to come at great cost—twenty-four men died in the fifteen missions and 101 years that elapsed between the discovery of its height and the successful summit of Everest.
The next section details the summit attempts. The first eight are British. Krakauer describes the mountain's position in both Nepal and Tibet, and how summit attempts were dictated largely by which country's border was open and which side of the mountain climbers could access.
Famous climber George Leigh Mallory prompted the first three summit attempts. When asked why he wanted to climb the mountain, he said: "Because it is there." Mallory and his climbing partner were seen near the summit of the mountain, but never returne d to their tent. No one knows for sure if they were the first people to reach the summit of Everest.
Nepal, whose borders were previously closed, opened in 1949, granting access to the south side of the mountain. It was this side that was successful climbed and summated. Sir Edmund Hillary, after whom the Hillary Step was named, reached the top on Ma y 29, 1953. Hillary was subsequently knighted, and his image appeared on postage stamps and magazines; he was a world famous hero.
Krakauer then integrates the history of Everest into his own upbringing. He wasn't yet born when Hillary achieved his feat, but Krakauer talks of another famous climb by two men—Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld. These men reached the summit at dawn, a nd had to spend the night there. Although they suffered frostbite, they survived. Krakauer was nine when these two men reached the top of the world, and he explains that while friends of his idolized baseball players and other sports stars, he idolized th ese men. When Krakauer was only nine, he began dreaming of climbing Everest.
In his twenties, Krakauer lived to climb mountains, aspiring to be a serious climber. Thoughts of Everest ebbed, though, because among mountain climbing "snobs," Everest is actually thought to be less technically demanding than other mountains. When Dic k Bass, a millionaire from Texas, paid to be guided to the top, Krakauer's lack of interest in Everest was solidified.
Ironically, Dick Bass began the business that Krakauer was hired to research and report upon. Krakauer describes the booming commercialism now associated with Everest. Nepal and Tibet, both poor countries, rely upon guide services up the mountain for nati onal income. Now, it can cost upwards of $70,000 to be guided up the mountain. When Outside Magazine hired Krakauer to do the story, he was not to actually attempt the summit. However, he decided that remaining at Base Camp for a period of two mont hs would be agonizing, and he began training to climb to the top. To his surprise, the magazine subsidized the climb.
Just as chapter one situates the reader within Krakauer's experience, chapter two situates the reader within the history of Everest. Krakauer covers the history of the mountain from its discovery, the first successful summit to his own opportunity to clim b in this chapter. Even though the history doesn't directly tie into the expedition and the experiences Krakauer has, the chapter's historical documentation helps build the myth of Everest. Mallory's remark that he wanted to climb Everest "because it is t here" reveals something about human nature that Krakauer points to repeatedly—the human will to conquer. No one had a particular desire to climb Everest before it was determined to be the tallest peak in the world. "Once Everest was determined to be the highest summit on earth, it was only a matter of time before people decided that Everest needed to be climbed
[g]etting to the top, proclaimed Gunther O. Dyrenfurth, an influential alpinist and chronicler of early Himalayan mountaineering, was ' a matter of universal human endeavor, a cause from which there is no withdrawal, whatever losses it may demand.'" Everest achieved a mythological status, and people reacted in such a way that demonstrates their desire to touch that myth, or even become a part of it. Throughout the book, when the reader might think to himself, "why on earth do these climbers keep going?" the answer lies in that myth, and in the unchecked desire it evokes in climbers.
The acclaim the first climbers of Everest received only reinforces the myth. These people were immediately heroes, just like explorers discovering new countries. These men became like deities, having touched sky closer to heaven than anyone else on earth. Climbing Everest then held even greater appeal, replete with personal acclaim, fame and unimaginable status. Krakauer felt this draw as much as anyone could have, although initially it was the draw of climbing mountains in general, not simply Everest: "B y the time I was in my early twenties, climbing had become the focus of my existence to the exclusion of almost everything else. Achieving the summit of a mountain was tangible, immutable, concrete. The incumbent hazards lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life" (23). When Krakauer received the assignment, this feeling came back with a vengeance. He points out that he was no longer young, no longer in prime condition, and had much more to lose—a wif e, a career, happiness and stability in Seattle. The desire to climb is almost inexplicable.
The commercialism of Everest implies that people have learned how to climb the mountain more safely than they used to. It also means that, over time, people have developed hubris in that achievement. Not only do people believe they can climb the highest m ountain, but they believe they can turn a profit by doing so. Monetary gains are an entirely new sort of recognition, and demonstrate danger born out of arrogance. Everest was first successfully summated less than fifty years ago. Now, climbers who lack t he skill and experience necessary to climb the mountain alone can hire someone to help them get there. Krakauer introduces the idea of commercialism on Everest toward the end of the chapter, and lets it dangle in a foreboding manner, coupling it with gris ly statistics: "Everest had killed more than 130 people since
1921—approximately one death for every four climbers who'd reached the summit—and
many of those who died had been far stronger and possessed vastly more high-altitude ex perience than I" (30–31). Krakauer unites two concepts here, at the end: the sheer deadliness of the mountain and the fact that many commercial climbers aren't qualified to be on the mountain. At the end of chapter two it seems obvious that at some point in the expedition, Krakauer will come face to face with disaster.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Into Thin Air!