Monday, April 1, 2013

Discomfort with Mystery

Leaving aside the question of Tabor's research method and his approach to the McKinley disaster - I do believe he did the best he could considering the circumstances - I want to address the question of "truth" once again.  However, I want to approach it from a different angle - why are we, the audience of the disaster, whether it be the readers or the public after the disaster, so intent on knowing the "truth" behind the McKinley disaster?

Tabor addresses the enduring nature of the controversy surrounding the McKinley disaster in the introduction to his book.  Part of the controversy and the desire to explain the events of the 1967 disaster stems from the simple fact that, "It was one of the worst tragedies in mountaineering history up to that time.  It is still the worst expeditionary mountaineering disaster in North American history" (xv). Nevertheless, the desire to explain the events behind the catastrophe and the controversy that has been generated through the numerous, and often contradictory attempts, that have been made to do so stems from something more than a morbid fascination with death and disaster.  As Tabor shows, other mountaineering disasters, such as the 1996 tragedy on Everest, generate relatively little controversy when compared with the McKinley disaster because "Its genesis, conduct, and aftermath were thoroughly documented" (xvii).  In contrast, the story of the McKinley disaster steadfastly remains a mystery because everybody that knew how and why it unfolded died on the mountain.  Thus, the best Tabor, the National Park Service, Joe, and Howard can hope to do is, in the words of Maclean, "find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts - hopefully, even the art to the sky" (xvii).  Thus, the endurance of the controversy surrounding the McKinley disaster stems in most part due to the mystery of what transpired on the mountain.

Nonetheless, this explanation does not address why the audience of the McKinley disaster has been so uncomfortable with this mystery and generated controversy in seeking to explain it.  Part of it stems, of course, from the fact that, "Investigators recovered no bodies after the 1967 McKinley tragedy, took no forensic photographs, convened no official inquiries" (xviii).  In other words, no attempts were made to reconstruct or explain the disaster right after occurred, when the best chance at successfully doing so would have been.  It extends beyond this, however.  "The young men who died on McKinley in 1967," Tabor writes, "were very good men indeed, capable climbers and exemplars of the best and brightest that the Unites Sates was capable of producing" (xviii).  The audience of the McKinley disaster, then, needed to find the truth behind the mystery because they needed "to explain why this very bad thing happened to these very good people, and to make sure that any investigation of the quick and the dead does justice to both" (xviii).  Whereas people could care less about how "villains and evildoers die," they need to understand why bad things happen to good people like themselves (xviii).  There is the hope that learning or uncovering the truth will give people the tools to prevent future disasters.

How does our discussion of "truth" and whether the "truth" about an event can actually be known figure into this?  I have said in the past that "truth" doesn't really exist and that it can never be known.  This, however, doesn't mean that people like Tabor should not attempt "to perform the first objective, unbiased investigation of the disaster, in the hope of revealing what actually happened to the victims, and why" because, in doing so, valuable lessons can be learned that can help prevent future deaths and tragedies of more good men and women (xx).

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