By Susan Bleiberg
We’re not all that big on sea level here in Delaware; our highest point is 445 feet above and our lowest point is 0. Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell, what with all these chickens clucking around our ankles, but we really are one heck of a low state. Low and flat. I’m a little funny about heights so I’m particularly grateful to live here. You can’t, after all, fall off flat.
I think, maybe, because I live in a fall-free state, I have a real interest in mountains and people who fall off them. My email friend Donovan, for example, is headed for Tanzania. And, get this, he’s going to climb Kilimanjaro. He’s a very well travelled and sophisticated guy and he calls it “Kili.” So now I do, too, but I don’t think it’s making me noticeably more sophisticated. But still, I do love a good tumbling off a mountain tale and read anything and everything about mountains and missteps I can get my hands on.
Jon Krakauer’s book is my absolute favorite. Into Thin Air is his account of the May 1996 climbing expedition on Mt. Everest. Everest is 29,028 feet above sea level which is, if my math is right, 63 times higher than the highest part of Delaware.
However all that reading about climbing and summiting left me wondering about the accuracy of climbers’ accounts of their trip. Many of the climbers are alone by the time they’re close to the top. They say they summited, planted their country’s flag and took a couple of pictures before heading home. But, did they really? How can the rest of us be dead bolt certain that s(he) really reached the top?
In the old days we could pretty much rely on the climbers’ word because originally only seasoned and well trained men attempted Everest. Now, any damfool with $29,500 can join an expedition. It’s those people whose word I think is a little iffy. Think of yourself, for example. You’re probably as honest as most people. How about if you had anted up close to thirty thousand clams to climb 29,028 feet, came within just feet of the summit, and were just too exhausted to continue. What would you do? It happens, by the way, all the time. Krakauer talks about climbers coming within yards of the top when the weather suddenly turns really nasty and they must obey the leaders command to descend. Immediately. No questions asked.
Here’s my thinking. First of all, if I coughed up thirty thousand dollars I’d be forced to spend the entire rest of my life in a run down shack, existing on sandwiches made of Wonder bread, cheap mayo and liverwurst made of the lips of innocent pigs. Put another way, I don’t have thirty thousand bucks to blow on a climbing expedition. But, if I did, you can bet the ranch that I’d be all over that summit like white on rice. I’d plant flags from every country, take a gazillion pictures of myself and drink a celebratory glass of Manischevitz blackberry on the rocks (ha ha)
But, wait. What if the treacherous gale winds started, or I really had to pee, or I was too exhausted and oxygen deprived to continue all the way to the tippy top?
Well, what I’d do is descend and when I got to base camp, and people asked if I made it to the summit, I’d lie like a rug. I’d say it was glorious and a transformative time for me and that I planted flags and took pictures and everything. Who’s to know? You can’t tell me that anyone can see the difference between a picture taken at 29,028 feet and one taken at, say, 29,027 feet.
I wrote to Krakauer about this but he never answered. Well, you know me. I’m a newshound; I keep digging â€˜til I get the story. So I wrote to a guy who wrote a book disclaiming what Krakauer reported in Into Thin Air and he didn’t answer either. Then I wrote to a guy who wrote a book disclaiming what the guy who disclaimed Krakauer had to say and he didn’t answer either. I also called anything in the Yellow pages remotely connected with mountain climbing: mountain gear, sports gear, all weather stuff. And they wouldn’t answer my question either.
Well, my friends, I think there’s something going on here and they don’t want me to know because they heard what a crack investigative reporter I am. But, whatever the truth is, I’ll keep searching. I am, after all, at the pinnacle of my writing career. Oooo, I hope I don’t fall off it.
Reprinted with permission of the Lake Chapala Review, Jalisco, Mexico and the author, Susan Bleiberg