Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Something that has been on my mind throughout a few of the texts that we've read is how oxygen tanks play an important part in summit expeditions, both literally and symbolically. The role of oxygen, as life support, something to depend on, a source of comfort, and sometimes a sign of weakness, is very interesting. For obvious reasons, many climbers rely on oxygen to succeed in their expeditions, as the harsh altitude changes are nearly uninhabitable for humans otherwise. When Krakauer reached the summit of Everest, he obsessed over his oxygen levels. "As I began my descent I was extremely anxious, but my concern had little to do with the weather: a check of the gauge on my oxygen tank had revealed that it was almost empty. I needed to get down, fast." (6) He goes on to recount his struggle and near loss of oxygen in much greater detail than he described his brief time on the summit. Similarly, the female explorers on Annapurna relied on their oxygen for survival. The oxygen that the climbers bring with them in this expedition represents a sense of security and is something concrete that the climbers can rely on in such harsh circumstances.
However, there is also an appeal to climbing a mountain like Everest without any oxygen - to prove to oneself and the world that it can be done, to be the first at something, or to challenge oneself to the ultimate limits. As Krakauer said, "The culture of ascent was characterized by intense competition and undiluted machismo, but for the most part, its constituents were concerned with impressing only one another. Getting to the top of any mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware." (23) In this sense, climbing a mountain without oxygen is admirable and demands respect, even though it is arguably not the smartest thing to do. There's an powerful conflict for many climbers between safety and risk-taking, and the role that expeditioners use oxygen is a clear example.