Thursday, January 31, 2013

Coming of Age

For me, an intriguing part of The Devil's Thumb was how Krakauer set himself up to be disappointed with intense physical and emotional buildup, while reflecting back on his journey much later with minimal fanfare or notice of lasting impact. It reminded me of a bildungsroman that doesn't quite get there; there isn't the dramatic personality change or life goal visualized that Krakauer so desperately wants to experience in the first half of the story. He begins muttering to himself, "Late one evening I was mulling all this over on a bar stool at Tom's, picking unhappily at my existential scabs, when an idea came to me, a scheme for righting what was wrong in my life." (Krakauer 6) Immediately, he thinks of this expedition as one that should be life-transforming. It seems to me that is what adventure should not be. An adventure is a journey that takes one out of their comfort zone.  But eventually one has to return to monotony and face their everyday life. A quest like this should begin with the end in mind that it was only temporary.
Krakauer definitely shows the trappings of youth with his hasty decision making and wasting of resources. I liked how in class we talked about patience, and patience is the one thing he learns. He plays with the idea of hubris; the people in Boulder think that he was, "grossly overestimating my abilities as a climber, I'd never be able to hack a month completely by myself, I would fall into a crevasse and die." (Krakauer 7) However, I find it arguable that the only way he is able to push himself through his expedition is because of his youth.  He has the overconfidence, hasty decision-making, and lack of patience to reach the summit. He has little familial obligations to tie him down, and his youthful exuberance prevents him from being dismayed.

A friend back at home once described to me the way that he feels about going camping or hiking or on any sort of adventure. He told me that when he's home, he gets caught up in his life and the world around him, and that he really only feels "sober" when he makes a trip into the woods. This is a guy who experiments a lot with substances, so when he used the word "sober" it felt pretty literal for his situation. Of course he is not always intoxicated, but I think I understand what he meant when he said this. For him, going and becoming part of the natural world is something of a healing process.

I can see a parallel between the insight of my friend and the story recounted in "The Devil's Thumb." I don't mean to assume that Krakauer was experiencing problems using or misusing substances. Krakauer does make references to spending time at "Tom's Tavern" (4), as well as his friends telling him that he was "smoking too much pot" (7), but more than physical substance use I think that Krakauer felt a desire to go on an adventure to heal what he saw as the problems in his life. He tells the audience that he recently graduated college with little distinction and little skill, and he had experienced a messy end to his long relationship. It seems to me that Krakauer is using his adventure to the Devil's Thumb as something of a sobering up process. Although ultimately he returns to his previous job, I imagine that having an adventure that completely distracted him from him problems could have sobered him up a little bit and made him more capable of dealing with his own life.

Adventure's End

I think the worst part of an adventure is the final leg of the journey. I define 'adventure' loosely here; it can be as simple as a walk in the Glen or as extreme as a polar expedition. My interpretation of 'adventure,' at least in this instance, is one that provides an escape from daily life and is truly freeing. Mingled with every escape is the thrill of the unknown, the refreshment of solitude, the delight of freedom, and the invigoration of a release from society. I think one of the biggest struggles in an adventure is its final stretch, that moment when you're almost back to 'reality' (reality meaning daily life, because I am not saying that adventures aren't real). The hardest part is when you begin to switch out of whatever emotions your adventure inspired: peacefulness, fear, comfort, despair, exhilaration, desire, spontaneity, recklessness. Letting go of the consuming nature of an adventure requires an acceptance of the inevitable return to day-to-day life. My least favorite part of excursions is when those consuming thoughts begin to shift back to schedules, meetings, and seemingly insignificant concerns. The end of Krakauer's journey reflects this same tone. There's something downright depressing about ending an adventure. Even if one's goals for the trip are accomplished, there can always be that sense of longing to be back in nature. 
There's an interesting dichotomy between the fulfillment that accompanies completing an adventure and the sense of emptiness once it is over. There's the "euphoria, the overwhelming sense of release" (25) that accompanied Krakauer's return from the ice, but there's also the "unexpected melancholy" (25) that loomed close behind. For Krakauer, climbing the Devil's Thumb didn't prove to be the "glorious transformation" (26) that he was expecting; in this sense he was let down. However, even though Krakauer didn't accomplish what he initially sought, he did learn patience, common sense about nature's limits, and, retrospectively, he realized he gained maturity. So, even though adventures, however incredible, can have an accompanying sense of emptiness or loss, they are worthwhile. Besides the in-the-moment benefits and exhilarations, adventures renew perspectives. Adventuring, whether alone like Krakauer or with a companion like Stempf, requires definite self-awareness, independence, and self-reliance. Once an adventure ends, these qualities still remain, even if there are struggles of readjustment. Escapes can be planned or unintentional, and the realities of an escape and the knowledge gained from one can be surprising. 

Lessons from the Devil's Thumb

The thing that really struck me about Krakauer's text when I first read it, and still strikes me know, is that he seemed to really believe that climbing the Devil's Thumb would change the material realities of his life. He quits his job, and sets off for Alaska to change his life, but I was left wondering how he thought this would work. Though he was critical of the Alaskans who "asked how much money there was in climbing a mountain" (7), he seemed to be asking the same question, though perhaps subconsciously. After the climb, he is forced back to his life in Boulder, without money, recognition, or personal validation. As a result of the twelve-year perspective, we learn that Krakauer gains not only patience for the Devil's Thumb, but also, an understanding that climbing is not only about glamor and admiration, but also hard work and sacrifice, both on and off the mountain.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why Climb?

            Krakauer’s narrative presents a variety of motivations for his Devil’s Thumb expedition. While reasoning in part derived from “a scheme for righting what was wrong” in his life (6), Krakauer’s reference to John Menlove Edwards perhaps suggests a drive from his neurological hard-wiring.  Dr. Edwards, a writer, psychiatrist, and British climber, spoke of climbing as a “psycho-neurotic tendency” used to assuage inner disturbance (6). Edwards’s prose expresses his mind’s search for “reality intensely” (7); such writing reaffirmed Krakauer’s desire to flee to Alaska. While Krakauer acknowledges Edwards as only one of many inspirations, Edwards’s rather extreme ideas seem to gain validity the more I consider their implications. I do not feel Edward’s assertion suggests that all climbers are mentally disturbed, persay, but a vast array of known explorers, dead and alive, indeed express a sort of inner turmoil or mental discontent. A trip to the mountain, many believe, will assuage these feelings.
            Take Christopher McCandless. In Into the Wild, Krakauer openly empathizes with McCandless’s struggles and qualms with the workings of society. I view McCandless as a bit more of an extremist, however, for Krakauer’s writing fails to express a comparable distaste for capitalism and rejection of material desires. However, both youths sought out Alaska as a refuge and potentially life-changing experience. Both encountered life-threatening circumstances, many by their own accord. I am apprehensive to call either reckless or ill-prepared, but getting high and setting your tent on fire seems pretty careless, especially in such a dangerous environment. For McCandless, his refusal to pack sufficient provisions and his complete reliance on the land with limited knowledge proved fatal.
            Contemplating the intense personalities of both men, I obviously have to question: Why do I climb? I would hope to not qualify my hobby as “psycho-neurotic”, for no significant inner turmoil or unrest exists (to my knowledge). I would like to derive reasoning beyond my appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of nature and fondness of physical activity. So then what? What deeper motivation do I possess? To be honest, I don’t know. To say one “enjoys” a particular activity without viable explanation seems relatively empty and meaningless. Perhaps the emotion that accompanies enjoyment, similarly unarticulated, validates the underlying incentive.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Childhood Dreams

What interested me most about Krakauer's short story about his ascent of The Devil's Thumb was its emphasis on childhood dreams.  As Krakauer portrays it, his decision to climb the mountain could be seen as the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  He explicitly addresses that aspect of the climb, stating, "Although my plan to climb the Devil's Thumb wasn't fully hatched until the spring of 1977, the mountain had been lurking in the recesses of my mind for about 15 years - since April 12, 1962, to be exact.  The occasion was my eight birthday" (11).  After receiving his father's copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills to prepare his birthday ascent up Oregon's South Sister Mountain, Krakauer became enamored with the Devil's Thumb, particularly its north face:
From the first time I saw it, the picture - a portrait of the thumb's north wall - held an almost pornographic fascination for me.  On hundreds - no, make that thousands - of occasions over the decade-and-a-half that followed I took my copy of Mountaineering down from the shelf, opened it to page 147 and quietly stared.  How would it feel, I wondered over and over, to be on that thumbnail-thin summit ride, worrying over the storm clouds building on the horizon, hunched against the wind and dunning cold, contemplating the horrible drop on either side? (13).
Krakauer finally gets to experience these emotions during his 1977 climb of the Devil's Thumb.  In fact, he runs into the exact situation that he often wondered about during his childhood when he reaches the summit; he spends only a few minutes on the summit because storm clouds appeared on the horizon that morning (23).  Thus, his trip could be seen as the fulfillment of his childhood dream.  Nevertheless, this remains problematic.

Although Krakauer successfully reaches the summit, he fails to completely realize his dream.  Instead of ascending the mountain's north wall, which no other climber had ever done, bad weather and impossible climbing conditions force him to use the well-known southeast face.  Clearly, this detracts from the experience and leads Krakauer to view the ascent as a partial failure.  This, coupled with his return to his job building houses in Colorado, leaves the reader - as our class discussion today revealed - with the impression that the experience not only failed to fulfill his childhood dream but also failed to transform his life as he hoped it would.  In short, the trip was apparently a failure.  Yet, Krakauer, writing a dozen years after the incident, clearly does not share that view.  He believes that he learned something from the climb: "It taught me something about what mountains can and can't do, about the limits of dreams" (26).  Given these words and the path that his career took following his climb, I believe that he succeeded in realizing his childhood dreams.  Childhood dreams, after all, are relatively fluid matters.   

Another kind of adventure narrative...

Life in the Taiga

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wooo! First post!

This is going to be about something I wanted to say in the first class when asked why I signed up for this course, but I was a little bit shy about it. I figure the extremely public domain of the internet is less intimidating than a <30 person class. I realize this is highly illogical. But now, I’ve something to use as a reference. So. Something that really struck me in our first reading, the Krakauer excerpt, was the point in the story that the author experienced a crippling loneliness after the plane left. This is something I also experience when on my “solo” during my Outward Bound trip in Alaska. Granted, it was to a lesser extent than Krakauer’s true aloneness, but the effect was the same. I found it somewhat terrifying, to be honest, because essentially one is left alone with oneself and the world. And with no one to talk to, I was forced to turn inward and study myself and my ability to survive, as well as the composure and attitude with which I faced that challenge. It was one of the most moving, frightening, and enlightening experiences of my life, and I found that this past experience allowed me to connect with the story and the author. I also wondered if it’s even possible to fully describe what happens when one is in such an extreme situation, especially since Krakauer spent so little text on those moments of his trip. I think this was the best thing I took away from my experience, but I suppose it was also the most private thing, too. It’s an unfortunate paradox that something so magical can’t be adequately shared with others through any medium but the sharing of the experience itself. And yet, here we are reading adventure narratives that people took the time to write because we can get something valuable out of it.