Return to Thin Air — Without Jon Krakauer?

Outside Sends Jon Krakauer Into Thin Air.jpgI'm an Outside magazine junkie and, I hate to admit, an even worse Everest junkie, so I was excited to see that the September issue is titled "The Everest Disaster: Ten Years Later." This was going to be good — what did Jon Krakauer, author of the original Outside story "Into Thin Air," later expanded into a mega-bestselling book, have to say about the explosion of climbers on the mountain in the years since?

Nothing, it turns out. There isn't a paragraph in the entire issue by Krakauer. There isn't an interview with Krakauer. No mention in the editor's note about Krakauer's absence. Did they think we wouldn't notice?

Don't get me wrong, Krakauer is all over this issue — as a target, that is. Even the editor who assigned him the original story, Brad Wetzler, takes a wee swipe at him, referring to him as "brooding" and saying that Krakauer "needed occasional coaxing" to do the article. Wetzler's piece describes how it feels to be the editor who assigned the story about Everest, which I supposed was Outside's concession to readers who want to know the magazine's position on, to use Wetzler's words, "whether [Outside's] presence on the mountain had created the environment in which the disaster played out" since the teams might have been "motivated by a desire to show each other up in the magazine." But I don't really want to know how Krakauer's editor feels about it. I want to know how Krakauer feels about it.

Jon Krakauer's frank reporting upset a lot of the players involved, and it seems like the September issue gives quite a few of them the opportunity to get even. Sandy Hill (formerly Pittman) gets her licks in with the most tit-for-tat stealth. A bit of background: in "Into Thin Air" Krakauer recorded the unflattering things other climbers said about Hill, a New York socialite of some notoriety who was at the time attempting to complete her quest for the Seven Summits. He also gave some background on her reputation in New York, quoting the Wall Street Journal as saying she "was known in certain elevated circles more as a social climber than mountain climber." But I thought he gave a balanced account of her, especially given what he had to work with.

A few pages later in the book a member of Hill's team falls gravely ill, and Krakauer mentions that the Sherpas thought they knew the reason: one of the women on the team had angered Everest — Sagarmatha, goddess of the sky — for striking up a relationship with a member of an expedition attempting Lhotse and having sex with him on the sacred mountain. Krakauer describes the Sherpas laughing and pointing fingers while the couple went at it in the woman's tent. In the next paragraph he quotes Sandy Hill mentioning this superstition on her Web site in 1994, and at the time I concluded that we readers were supposed to make the connection that the woman in question was Hill.

This guess was proven correct in the wake of the disaster when other sources named her and young(er), world-renowned snowboarder Stephen Koch (who was later featured in a 2003 Outside profile accompanied by a juicy photo of him standing, bare-assed in all his glory, in front of a waterfall in Teton National Forest).

So it's no mystery why Sandy Hill would make the following proclamation in her first-personer in the Everest package: "It seems to me that most people have figured out that most of what was reported in 1996 was prejudiced, sensationalist, and overblown — thrilling fiction at best — but not journalism." She continues: "There was really only one writer who made scapegoats and pointed fingers and placed blame. That's the writer who got the most airplay. I don't really know him personally. I only met him briefly a couple of times. Most people think that because of the way so much of that year was portrayed, there was some intimate knowledge or something. That's just not so."

Sandy Hill isn't the only climber who uses Outside's Everest issue to get the last word on Krakauer. Dr. Stuart Hutchinson describes himself as being "mortified" upon hearing how he was portrayed and is said to claim that "Krakauer's characterization of him as a novice climber...led to some odd encounters" which he goes on to describe. I hunted through "Into Thin Air" but I couldn't find a single citation in which Krakauer characterized Hutchinson's climbing resumé, positively or negatively. I don't know how Hutchinson can take issue with Krakauer's objective observation that Hutchinson brought mountaineering boots to Everest that he had never worn, along with new crampons that turned out not to fit the new boots.

Since Krakauer is still listed as an Editor at Large of Outside, why was this score-settling permitted? I spoke to Editor Christopher Keyes, who said, "There were a lot of people hurt by the magazine story, both because some things were exposed and because of the way they were portrayed, so we thought it was more than appropriate to let people like Sandy Hill speak about the events in a forum that they didn't get the first time around."

As to Krakauer's non-participation in the issue, Keyes said: "Jon has several times, both to Outside and to the general public, expressed his desire not to speak about Everest 1996 anymore. I don't want to speak too much for him, but I think he feels he's said all that he has to say about it. I had been in contact with him and we wanted to include him if there was going to be something relevant, but if we wanted to go forward with this package we kind of knew it was going to be without the cooperation of Jon."

So why not say so somewhere in the issue? Said Keyes: "It didn't seem relevant to me to call out the fact that Jon wasn't interested in rehashing the past."

As for Brad Wetzler's piece on assigning Krakauer the story, Keyes offered a response which seems to explain both the Wetzler piece and Krakauer's absence. "Sometimes we underestimate the level that the reader wants to know what's going on behind the scenes of the magazine," he said. "I thought Wetzler's story was an opportunity to show what goes through the mind of an editor when you're celebrating what's going to be the biggest story of your life but at the same time there's the fact that it's a huge tragedy in the world, and it's about resolving those different feelings."

Keyes didn't feel it necessary to censor Wetzler's description of Krakauer. "That's the writer and that's his interpretation and that's his working relationship with Jon," Keyes said.

I would have liked to have heard Krakauer respond to the references to him and his reporting, but Outside doesn't give out its writers' contact information. Moreover, Krakauer has had to be surpassingly careful about revealing his whereabouts after receiving death threats in the wake of the publication of his book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, about Mormon fundamentalism.

Absent a comment from Krakauer, we're left to enjoy the many genuine delights of the issue, which include a heartbreaking interview with Jan Arnold, the widow of guide Rob Hall, who perished in the '96 storm and who named his unborn daughter during a final phone call patched through to New Zealand when Hall was caught high on the mountain with no possibility of rescue. That's the sublime; the ridiculous is just as absorbing. Sandy Hill's defense of her notorious base-camp cappuccino maker is worth the cover price all by itself, with or without a word from Jon Krakauer.