Before I was a big bike rider — I started getting into hiking. And because I am a hyper-consumer of information, naturally I read a lot about hiking. And the Tour de France of hiking was the Seven Summits and crucially — climbing Mount Everest. And although Everest is only just the highest mountain on this planet, many mountaineers will tell you it is an easy climb compared to many of the other “lesser” mountains on Earth.
But it still claims a lot of lives — I guess cause it attracts a lot of “tourist” climbers. And one book I had just read was called “Into Thin Air” and it was almost the sequel to “Into the Wild” — another great book (which was made into a film just a few years ago by Sean Penn).
So Into Thin Air was about the 1996 disaster on Everest which the author — Jon Krakauer somehow survived. His narrative was compelling — mostly cause he was a writer and had a sense for drama and it was an epic tale. But his version of events apportioned blame. Real, cold, hard blame on the professional mountaineer and guide Anatoli Boukreev. While reading it I just agreed with the author — mostly because that’s your instinct when you are absorbed in a fantastic narrative.
But then only a few weeks later I found myself randomly face-to-face with one of the protagonists in this book. One of the only other survivors, apart from Krakauer.
The crazy thing about climbing Everest is that it is relatively “easy” to reach the summit — it is getting down where everyone tends to lose their lives or external appendages.
So it was 1999 and only about 4 years later. And that book fresh in my head I attended a relatively pedestrian “Governor’s Awards” ceremony at Queensland’s Government House as a cadet journalist to take a photo and interview an ambulance officer who was getting a bravery award. During the lengthy ceremony while I waited to get my photo of the ambo getting the award I noted one individual got an honour for climbing Everest. My ears pricked up for a second or two — but I instantly reverted to the job at hand.
And after the ceremony I slunk back as the man I intended to interview celebrated with his family — just wanting to give him space and save the boring stuff for later. And while I deferred I noticed ‘that guy who got the Everest medal thing’ and as we were both alone I walked up and said, “Hi. I couldn’t help hearing that you’ve climbed Everest.”
In my head I was like – “It’s not such a big deal. I mean anyone could climb that bad-boy so long as they had good weather and a bunch of guides and sherpas.” Whatevz.
And then I said how I had just read “Into Thin Air” and the guy was instantly curiously attentive but quite a bit more distant and disturbed at the same time.
I then proceeded to gush about how much I loved the book and how great a story it was.
He looked at me like I had just clubbed a baby seal. I asked him if he had read the book and he said, no, and didn’t really want to.
My stupid brain couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t be interested in this book, especially someone who had been there. But then a weird thought entered my brain. Maybe this guy had a gripe with the version of events, not with the storytelling.
And thus I must have realised he might know some of the people in this story. But I stupidly plowed on and I said, “Do you know Jon Krakauer?” And he was like, “Yeah.”
And I was like, “WOAH!” But he didn’t share my enthusiasm. This dude was a real tough nut to crack. Eventually still a bit giddy with excitement I asked, “So, um, what was your name again?”
And he replied, “Mike Groom.”
And so I lost my shit and when my knees stopped being all wobbly I said, “OH MY GOD. You’re, like, in the book! HOLY SHIT! You are in the book…”
And then I realised how animated I had just been — how excited with bloodlust at this incredible tragedy this person had been such a part of.
My face was suddenly ashen and I tried as best I could to sober the conversation up, but he had seen through my patheticness and made some excuse to talk to someone else while I just stood there with my mind exploding with amazement but also with an equal part of sheer revulsion.
I then read Boukreev’s account of events in his book and it was so much more convincing. I felt even more bad about how I had unintentionally behaved that day. And Boukreev died in an avalanche on Christmas Day 1997, the year after that evil day on Everest.
I am sorry Mike and I am sorry Anatoli. RIP.