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.   


  1. I think his trip to the Devil's Thumb was a failure, like you say, but it was a failure that Krakauer needed, as making a solo expedition without any real planning is reckless and impatient (or as I said in class, "stupid," I really can be uncharitable sometimes). I think the Devil's Thumb trip acted as a catalyst to transform from an immature know-it-all to a professional climber.

  2. E.M. Forster puts it nicely, I think, when he writes "Adventures do occur, but not punctually." This quote hints at both the frustration of an adventure not beginning (or ending) as planned, and the the valuable experiences that can catch a person by surprise. The experience that fell flat for Krakauer, the failure of the Devil's Thumb, only reveals its true worth in retrospect. Krakauer's expedition on the Devil's Thumb emphasized the dangerous role of the anticipation of a certain outcome in this kind of expedition.