Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains. Jon Krakauer. Lyons & Burford, New York, 1990. 186 pages. $17.95.
The sport of mountaineering, Jon Krakauer writes in his introduction, “is wrapped in tales of audacity and disaster, that make other sports out to be trivial games by comparison; as an idea, climbing strikes that chord in the public imagination most often associated with sharks and killer bees.” His idea in Eiger Dreams is to “prune away some of this overgrown mystique—to let in a little light.” He states quite clearly that his intention is not to address the question of why we climb head-on: “I circle the issue continually,” he explains, “… but at no point do I jump right in the cage and wrestle with the beast directly, mano a mano.”
Eiger Dreams is a collection of eleven previously published articles, mostly from Outside and Smithsonian, written over a nine-year period from 1982 through 1989. Nine of the stories and profiles concern mountaineering directly, while three are involved peripherally: Arizona canyoneering, Talkeetna bush pilots ferrying climbers to “Kahiltna International,” and a discussion of the discovery and triangulation of the great peaks of the Himalaya, including the controversy that arose during the first attempts to determine the height of K2 utilizing satellite technology.
Krakauer tells great stories. I do not subscribe to Outside or Smithsonian, and so luckily was able to read all the stories for the first time. He writes in a journalistic, humorously anecdotal style that is energetic and well-paced, often with good description of the many absurdities of mountaineering. Take “Eiger Dreams,” for which the book is named. Krakauer and his partner, Marc Twight, are climbing the Eiger Nordwand in October, essentially soloing the first 2000 feet of the heavily ice-covered route. To save weight, Twight decided to bring his Walkman instead of a sleeping bag, figuring that listening to the Dead Kennedys would be sufficient to keep him warm at night! At any rate, the pair survives, having retreated from the base of the Second Ice Field when prospects of success looked bleak.
In “Club Denali” we learn that the Park Service requires every expedition to have a name (for record-keeping purposes, they say) and so when Krakauer arrives at Kahiltna International to solo the West Buttress, we are introduced to a few of his companions in misery: lads forming such groups as “The Walking Heads,” “Dick Danger and the Throbbing Members,” and a group of Alaskans called “5150”, the state police code for “people of unsound mind.” The story of the successes and failures of the various groups is hilarious.
The story, “Chamonix,” vibrates with equally intense absurdities. Here Krakauer captures the exotic nature of this Capitate Mondiale du Ski et Alpinisme, which Marc Twight whimsically translates as “Death Sport Capital of the World” owing to the enormous number of climbers and Parapente enthusiasts crashing among the Aiguilles every year.
Three chapters are particularly soulful. In “Gill,” a profile of the great boulderer, Krakauer does indeed get “into the cage” to present John Gill’s voluminous, remarkable insights into this highly specific type of climbing.
“On Being Tentbound” is another gem. “The average mountain tent has scarcely more elbow room than a phone booth,” Krakauer writes, “with less floor space than a queen-size bed. When forced into such inescapable intimacy, nerves fray easily, and the pettiest irritation [such as] knuckle-cracking, nose-picking, snoring and violating a tentmate’s sovereign space with the soggy foot of a sleeping bag can sow the seeds of violence.” Just as the subject seems to be exhausted, the author provides new revelations and anecdotes on being in a storm-bound tent.
“The Devil’s Thumb” is the final story and is quite compelling; the author, freed at last from the constraints of writing for a magazine audience, focuses with considerable introspection on his own desires and fears concerning mountaineering. The tale, written expressly for Eiger Dreams (though excerpted a few months earlier in “Climbing”), describes Krakauer’s solo attempts (one eventually proved successful) to climb a new route on this monolithic formation located on Alaska’s remote Stikine Icecap. He’s really in the cage this time, wrestling with his obsession: he is high up on the north face when his axes begin to strike rock. “The frost feathers holding me up, it became apparent, were maybe five inches thick and had the structural integrity of stale combread. Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air, and I was balanced atop a house of cards. Waves of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to vibrate.” He began his retreat, of course— perhaps to consider later, while tentbound on the Stikine, that swimming with sharks might be less intimidating after all. The considerable light that Krakauer has let in to define mountaineering shows also that the activity continues to be “wrapped in tales of audacity and disaster.”