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I have often mentioned Into The Wild here as one of the books (and movies) that influenced me the most. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, stop right here. There are spoilers ahead.
Into The Wild was written by Jon Krakauer, first as a long-form piece for Outside magazine, and later expanded into the book. A fair bit of Chris McCandless’ journey after he left home is unknown. Jon did his best to trace Chris’ path using people’s accounts of brief interactions with Chris—people who’d written to him after reading the Outside piece. But one mystery was never adequately solved: What caused Chris’ death. It was some sort of food poisoning from a plant, Jon surmised, and wrote as much in the Outside piece. He corrected it to a different plant in the book but that too was never proven.
In a piece published yesterday at the New Yorker, Jon with the help of one Ronald Hamilton’s research paper solves the mystery as well as it could be based on the meagre evidence.
Speaking of Outside, I somehow missed this news about a massacre perpetrated by the Taliban at the base camp of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan on June 22nd. Outside reports about it here. Chilling.
“I’m worried that climbers are the new easy target,” he says. “We’re unarmed, we have lots of money, and we’re high-profile.”
Until now, terrorism has never been a major problem in mountaineering. This might drastically reduce mountaineering in northern Pakistan. This is bad for a couple of reasons. K2, considered one of the toughest climbs, is located there and attracts the best climbers in the world. On the other hand, the region is also home to Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II—peaks that are attempted by many climbers as a precursor to Everest.
Nanga Parbat is in what Indians call PoK, and the rest of the world calls Pakistan. If there is still any doubt, well, you need a Pakistani visa to climb K2 and Nanga Parbat. So that settles that.
Outside magazine has a piece I finally got around to reading, and would recommend: The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest.
While the title mentions Everest, it is about all mountaineering in Nepal. Every mountaineer will agree—and the article mentions this as well—that hardly anyone would be summitting peaks such as Everest if it weren’t for Sherpas’ assistance. No successful or unsuccessful climber has failed to mention the pivotal role Sherpas play on the mountain. Consider this: Most clients of guided tours have one oxygen bottle waiting for them above the Balcony on their way down from the summit. In almost every case, a Sherpa belonging to the group left it there. It seems like the high-altitude version of spoon-feeding but recognize that without such practices, we’d be seeing far more casualties, fewer tourists and fewer opportunities for Sherpas to earn a good living. (The big caveat being that the opportunity is life threatening.)
Mountaineers travelling to high altitudes too are entering something that is potentially life threatening. But they do it as a choice. Contrast that to the hapless situation of Sherpas who climb to earn a living. Sherpas have no cushion to fall back on: it’s either all or nothing. More specifically, their families have nothing to fall back on.
I don’t know what a good solution is. The article depressed me in equal measure as well as inspired me to go to the mountains. That itself conveys that a solution where we cut down on mountaineering is not going to work. But it gives a clue what ought to be done: There are always going to be people who yearn for the mountains. Most of them need Sherpas and the Sherpas need them. Perhaps the disparity in worst-case scenarios for climbers and Sherpas ought to be reduced. I realize that part of the disparity is the society Sherpas inhabit and the one that climbers and guides inhabit—in terms of the effects of disabilities in leading a respectable life.
The other disparity is money. I think of local companies such as RMI and how respected the company and its guides are, and how well the guides are paid. Sherpas need something similar. An American guide taking clients to Everest likely earns as much as all the Sherpas on the expedition put together. (The company the guide works for probably earns from each Everest expedition a few times that.)
The premium here is in part for marketing and how well known their brand is. Safety protocols can be emulated, and indeed, most high-tier guiding companies have similar protocols. Perhaps some day, we will have educated Sherpas who can run their own guiding services, market it well across the globe and control their destinies.
Until then—and I’m sorry to put it bluntly—they are relying on mountaineers’ guilt.
It’s a day, so someone is outraged at something Chetan Bhagat wrote.
This time around Chetan Bhagat wrote a Letter From an Indian Muslim Youth. HOW COULD HE SPEAK ON BEHALF OF ALL MUSLIMS?!?! (He didn’t.) AND DO THAT IN BAD ENGLISH?! That was the gist of the critiques.
Hey if critiques can reduce arguments, critiques of critiques sure as hell can.
Look, Chetan Bhagat should not be immune to critique but everyone deserves a smart critique. So I’m jumping in—with what else, but a meme that in my opinion is the main feature of Chetan’s thoughts: They are simplistic.
That in itself doesn’t mean he is wrong, but it does mean he is very meme-worthy.
Presenting: Simply Simplistic Chetan.
These two are verbatim from his article:
Some folks have made this wonderful video using an audio recording of David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement speech This Is Water:
Feel free to check out the entire speech.
Not long ago, I recall being frustrated at seemingly trivial things: traffic, delays, long lines, slow moving lines (or worse, being in a slow moving line next to a faster moving line.) I can’t quite put my finger on when I started changing but now it is rare for me to get frustrated. It comes down to how we think—or as Wallace puts it—how we choose to think.
Take an everyday example of being late to a meeting. We cut others in traffic, drive impatiently, hop into an elevator a few hundred milliseconds earlier, get annoyed when the folks getting out of the elevator don’t seem to share our urgency—all to save perhaps a few seconds or a minute. I don’t know about you but I have never once attended a meeting where my arriving a minute late would have had any impact whatsoever. Once that realization hits, you cannot be the same person.
As Wallace says, the constant bombardment of banalities in our everyday life is hard to escape. We can however do better. A few tricks work well for me in making a otherwise unhappy or neutral moment into one of fascination.
1. This one’s corny but take a moment to appreciate love. It’s all around you. Old couples, young couples, teenage couples, a dog and and her owner, a mother and daughter, a father and a son, a woman walking her new born.
I still find it immensely fascinating and awesome whenever a living being has love for another. I can’t think of anything that tops it in our experience of being alive.
(Sure, many seemingly loving relationships aren’t perfect and have problems of some sort. But you don’t have to think about that when appreciating love around you.)
2. Wallace touches upon this in his speech: Make up a story for every stranger you come across. Their actions will seem rational and your problems trivial. Take a waiter/waitress who messes up your order. If you know anything about the minimum wages for tipped employees, it should be easy to imagine a median life of a waiter or waitress who has to smile through their problems every day. There’s no fucking way you will ever again be annoyed when your order is late or a bit incorrect.
The old lady at the checkout counter of a grocery store, the lady driving a bit cautiously in her SUV, the young black girl working at a fast food chain: With just a tiny hint from their appearance or body language, you can make up the story of their life. And it doesn’t have to be Dickensian level of pathetic: a person living a normal life with a wife, two kids, a steady job and home in the suburb scares me enough to empathize for him.
No matter how good you are at the above, you will invariably come across assholes. I take the path that causes me the least unhappiness. My happiness is far too precious for a stranger to ruin it. In a weird way, you make him less of an asshole if he can’t make you unhappy. Make sense?
Lift the index finger of your right hand in front of you. Note the point where the tip of your finger meets space. By the time you read this, you are already about a thousand kilometers away from that point. And no human being—past, present or future—will ever be at that point in space again. You were the only human being to ever touch that point in space.
Follow up video here.
Every year National Geographic conducts a poll for the People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year. The winners in 2012:
Everest guide Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and extreme kayaker Sano Babu Sunuwar were named the People’s Choice Adventurers of the Year for 2012 for their climb to Everest’s summit, record-setting paragliding descent and long-distance kayak from Nepal to the Bay of Bengal in India, the National Geographic Society said today.
Do watch the video. More pictures here.
There were three activities here that required a superhuman effort: Mountaineering up to 29,000 ft., tandem paragliding at that altitude in thin air, and kayaking class V rapids. They had to be beyond excellent at each one of those to complete the journey. And they were. Insane stuff.
I have been told a few times by friends and acquaintances that I inspire them to seek out adventure. To be quite frank, they would do well to take inspiration from those who make me feel very small.
I came across a philosopher with an incredible voice (literally), Alan Watts. He’s a close second after Carl Sagan for voiceovers about larger than life concepts. Here’s one video:
He makes a passing observation that the existence of intelligent life was implied in the Big Bang itself—it just took billions of years to manifest on Earth. Arguments more sophisticated have been made against the existence of free will, many in the realm of neuroscience. But his words, to me, are the simplest argument against free will and for the existence of destiny, albeit retrospective destiny. In that, at the moment of the Big Bang, you were meant to exist some 13.8 billions years after and read this sentence a few years after that.
If you want to go deeper, you and I were part of the Big Bang. We—people, objects, atoms, energy—were all together when that happened.
It’s such a pity I can’t recall any of it.
For perspective, he died in 1973 and his fans have created beautiful videos such as the one above using his audio recordings. Yet there is a timelessness to his observations that they could have just as easily been said yesterday.
Vir Das combines the two things Punjabis like: Men and boobs.
Boobs have to win in the kickass-on-one-gender-but-so-not-on-the-other category.
Well maybe after moustaches.