Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterInto Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bad luck is a feature of existence. Not that luck is necessarily a real thing, but the random nature of being is such that every once in a while the wheel lines up and crushes you. I’ve heard it helps to look on the bright side. Should you be feeling down and in need of some positivity, you may wish to remind yourself, “this may look bad, but at least I am not on Everest in a hurricane.” Like Jon Krakauer. In the spring of ’96 he and numerous other mountaineers, after paying mostly exorbitant fees to various guiding groups, began a month-long trek to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Some of them even achieved it. But it’s a mountaineering truism that “getting to the summit is the easy part; it’s getting back down that’s hard.” (290) Krakauer’s expedition alone lost five people, and though you wouldn’t think enough people would want to climb Everest that there would be multiple concurrent expeditions, there were and many of those expeditions lost several people. Bad luck, bad decisions, and worse weather combined in a perfect storm of tragedy. While Krakauer honestly describes the circumstances and individual choices that likely contributed to the egregious death toll, his own actions included, he is also sure to include praise where praise is due. People were heroes. In some cases it was enough. Other cases it wasn’t. His vivid descriptions, honest portrayal, and ability to refrain from condemnation won my admiration and made this book one of my favourites for the year. I highly recommend it. Unless someone you love is a mountaineer. In that case I would bypass this book entirely.

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In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov

In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian ArcticIn the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Valerian Albanov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely one of my new favourite tales of survival in the Arctic. Albanov could have made it three times as long and it still would have been interesting. He is a natural poet and it delights me that this book is coming out of obscurity. While it was originally published in Russia in 1917 and in France in 1928, it seems an English edition didn’t exist until the new millennium. It’s mind boggling to think that, while Albanov’s first hand account of his adventure wasn’t published until three years later, he evidently wrote it only a month or so after being rescued. He nearly died! Everyone nearly died, and a month later he’s jotting notes from his diary about it. After surviving such hardships, you would think Albanov would be nearly unkillable, living to be 100 and dying just for the adventure. You would be wrong. He died in 1919 from…something. It was either typhoid or an exploding munitions wagon. I can understand the confusion, personally I always get those two mixed up.
Hopefully some time in the near future I’ll have a chance to really binge on polar exploration books and make a list (probably named “Nearly Everyone Died”) of my favourites; if I do this one will be very close to the top. If you’re researching polar exploration, or just really interested in it, please add this book to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

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The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the WorldThe Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally published September 11th, 2014
This book was very oddly put together. Cherry-Garrard jumped all over the place relating the goings-on and frequently repeated the same bits of information multiple times. I’d file this as a useful book to have if you’re doing an extensive study on polar exploration, but it’s a hard slog to get through and there are better books. Like Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie, or The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration by Sarah Moss.

The e-book edition of The Worst Journey in the World I purchased had a 230 page introduction. Two hundred and thirty pages! I’d gotten into the habit of reading the introductions of history books but I just had to skip this one.

Also, they took ponies with them to the South Pole. Because when I think of an animal designed to endure the rigors of polar weather I totally think of a small horse. Right. It’d be a comedy of errors if everybody didn’t die. As it is, it kind of reads like a “how not to explore the South Pole” manual. Seriously, they did everything wrong and on top of all that the competing Norwegian team did it all in less time, didn’t die, and made it to the pole first. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

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The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its PeoplesThe Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published December 9th, 2012
This is quite the book. He really does cover the history of the entire North American continent, from the moment it starts to exist up to just a little into the future. There are some points where it just became overwhelmingly technical. Flannery makes long lists of all the historical species that existed in North America (and often on other continents for comparison’s sake). When these are commonly known animals (mammoth, bison, panther, camel, horse) he’ll use the Latin name once for specificity and then use its common name. But ones that aren’t well known don’t have common names, and seeing list after list of Latin names made my eyes glaze over. Once the history got into more recent eras that problem faded away. Flannery also does well distinguishing between what is fairly accepted in the paleontological community and what is debated theory or his own hypothesis, which I appreciated since I don’t have enough of a knowledge base to tell for myself. Flannery delves a little into the future of the frontier; what will happen to North America and the attitude of the frontier (conspicuous consumption) as people realize that no resource is inexhaustible, and that the frontier attitude has to end because eventually something will run out. My favourite part is an extended quote by Keynes:

“What will you do,” he asked, ‘when you have built all the houses and roads and town halls and electric grids and water supplies and so forth which the stationary population of the future require?” p352-353

If we don’t keep consuming, capital can’t keep increasing in value. And if capital doesn’t keep increasing in value, it will lose its value. And if it loses its value, what will we do?

What, indeed, will we do.

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