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.


  1. I agree with your positioning of oxygen as a security blanket or or crutch, but maybe sometimes isn't so concrete, such as the reading of the oxygen meters at extremely high altitudes in frozen conditions. What if the oxygen reading betrays its user? "When we got there, an examination of the oxygen cache immediately revealed that there were at least six full bottles. Andy, however, refused to believe it. He kept insisting that they were all empty, and nothing Mike or I said could convince him otherwise" (Krakauer 195). The importance of oxygen is superseded by the more overwhelming dilemma that we talked briefly about in class- the role of guide and client. Here, the client is displayed as having better working mental faculties than the guide. Oxygen sort of acts as a monkey wrench in the operation of the descent, ask corny as that sounds. I agree it is interesting to examine the significance of the oxygen caches, as they are brought up multiple times for being inanimate objects.

  2. Until this book I hadn't really thought of oxygen as optional; I always just assumed that supplemental oxygen was a given for someone ascending Everest. However, the view that using supplemental oxygen is a form of cheating made me think more about the implications of using this "crutch." Yes, I am aware that, even with supplemental oxygen, climbing Mount Everest takes an incredible amount of strength and endurance, and Krakauer seems to consider the opposition to oxygen unrealistic. However, as we read, there are a few rare people capable of climbing Everest without oxygen. Is it so irrational to suggest that those who cannot survive "naturally" on the mountain (I know the word naturally is problematic since climbers and other people really on all sorts of machinery and equipment everyday, but I'll use it for lack of a better word) do not belong in such extreme environments? After all, Krakauer portrays the commercialization of Everest as degradation of the mountain. And, doesn't supplemental oxygen facilitate the flooding of Everest with inexperienced climbers? This cheapens the personal accomplishment and kills the spirit of the mountain. Ascent up the tallest mountain on earth should not be purchasable or streamlined. It seems to me that only the few men and women capable of climbing without the assistance of supplemental oxygen belong on Everest; if we reach the point when anyone can conquer anything, nothing will remain to at once capture our imaginations and keep us grounded.