OK, so lately I've re-read Into Thin Air (a bunch of people get trapped and die on Everest), Into the Wild (a kid gets trapped in the Alaskan bush and dies) and Deep Survival (a bunch of people get trapped in a bunch of different situations -- most die). I'm beginning to suspect I may have a ghoulish streak.
Personally, I blame Reader's Digest. My parents used to get their wee magazine when I was a kid, and I would grab it first and squirrel it away until I could read the story about "Man Falls into River from Life Raft, Nearly Dies, Finds God, Survives" or the one where "Woman is in Exploding Airplane, Falls Thousands of Feet, Nearly Dies, Lands in Remote Desert/Jungle/Mountain, Finds God, Survives" or even "Boy Goes Hiking with Family, Gets Lost Finding Place to Pee, Falls from Cliff, Nearly Dies, Finds Dog and God, Survives." Reader's Digest taught me to be ghoulish. It's not my fault.
I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but the stuff I do read (for fun) can pretty much be separated into two camps: (1) survival or lack thereof stories and (2) when a good brain goes bad. Give me a story of someone high on a mountain in a snowstorm with no food, no water, only Panama shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of Converse tennis shoes and incipient frostbite nipping at his nose, and I'll happily curl up on my couch with some popcorn, root beer and a blanket. Tell me about a stroke victim who only eats from the right half of his plate to the middle in a perfectly straight line, and I'm into that book like a survivor into a sleeping bag. Synesthesia, echolalia, hemisphere neglect: bring it on!
So for the last few weeks on the Discover channel (10 pm Tuesdays), they've been showing a group of guys trying to shuffle their way up Everest. Some of the same people tried to make it up last year. They're being guided by a man named Russell Brice -- an experienced mountaineer and guide. Russell, who I believe is from New Zealand, is that odd mixture of ex-Brit Empire polite and restrained and This Is Everest, So Get Your Shit Together old-fashioned tyrant.
Last year, one guy on his team who actually seems a bit of a jackass refused to come down even though he was running too late and too low on oxygen to summit and make it down safely. Russell kept up this running commentary on the radio: "Time to come down now, please turn around, think about coming down, perhaps you ought to consider that whole coming-down-and-not-dying option," blah blah blah. I kept shouting at the TV for him to stop being so polite, for crap's sake. The guy's seriously hypoxic and not able to make rational decisions (his decision-making even when fully oxygenated seems a bit limited, actually) -- it's time to talk to him like a parent to a child. "Turn your ass around and get down here. Now." At one point, Russell even points out the dead guy just to the right of the obstinant climber. Right there. Just to your right. Frozen to the rock and left up there forever or until an avalanche brings him down. Seriously, how much more persuading do you need? Finally, after an hour or more of arguing, the guy turns around and lives to try again in '07. I won't know if he was successful until next Tuesday, dammit!
I can't stand horror movies with all the gore and grossness, and frankly last week's episode of Everest, where there's a dead body at Camp 4, loosely covered with a sleeping pad and his own backpack, was pushing even my limits pretty hard. But I'm fascinated by people who can force themselves to do these things despite all reason, despite the fact that the human body is entirely wrong for this place. Frostbite, HAPE, heart attacks, hypoxia, the fact that your brain cells are exploding like tiny little firecrackers inside your head for every minute you spend above 26,000 feet -- what compels someone to keep going in such a hostile environment? Seriously, people, we have survival instincts for a reason. Your brain cells are dying. You don't replace those, you know. You come off Everest stupider than you were when you got there. You could stay warm at home and binge on alcohol if headaches, nausea and near-death experiences are that important to you.
Anyway, I guess I'm glad people are willing to struggle to hang on to a thin thread of life 120 feet under the surface of the ocean or 29,000 feet above it, and then write about it later so I can be entertained from the comfort of my couch. Human beings have gotten rather arrogant about their ability to survive, forgetting that that survival has a lot more to do with access to things like heat, drinking water and couches with comfy afghans than with our own cleverness or resourcefulness. Maybe that's why I like to read about people who really do test the limits in hostile places: if humans win, then hooray, look how smart and crafty you are (and, by extension, me). If nature wins, then hooray, look how powerful nature is and how it'll triumph even over our concrete, our toxic fumes, our pesticides and smog long after we're gone.
Or maybe I'm just ghoulish. Yeah, that's probably it.