This is part 2 of a series of articles about “Stealhead Joe,” and the evolution of disaster journalism at Outside Magazine.
Outside writer, Ian Frazier, went to Oregon, and ended up documenting a disaster.
All the elements were there, in the life of Stealhead Joe.
Outside has a history of this.
Of reporting human tragedy, most notably in the cases of Jon Krakauer’s stories in “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.”
He is a disaster journalist, and perhaps the most famous writer for Outside Magazine.
Krakauer’s credentials as an outdoorsmen are legit. His first book, “Eiger Dreams,” was published in 1990, and documents his amateur climbing exploits, including an attempt at the North Face of the Eiger.
He is a first rate journalist.
And his writing, perhaps, is introspection. A sort of self analysis; an attempt for him to understand himself.
To be fair, Krakauer’s interest in his subject matter, e.g., mountaineering, existed prior to any financial motivations to publish bestselling disaster books. He was a risk-taking climber, and that led him to these stories, of other risk-takers, before the money did…
(That’s important to point out, because Krakauer has written some great books.)
But let’s trace the publishing history of Jon Krakauer.
It started in 1990, with “Eiger Dreams.”
This is a book for climbers and not for a large audience; non-climbers really could care less about the technical challenges and routine crap described in “Eiger Dreams.”
What makes for a good climbing book is a severe storm.
On top of Everest, at 29,000 feet above sea level. So high, that helicopter blades can’t catch air…
A place that is, as Krakauer described in “Into Thin Air,” as remote as the dark side of the moon.
A very bad place to make a mistake.
So the transition from “Eiger Dreams” to “Into Thin Air” is important. Because the human element, of tragedy, is universal. And it occurred on Everest in 1996.
Tragedy has a large audience.
Technical climbing challenges that are overcome have no audience.
We readers prefer technical challenges that, well, are not overcome.
Into deep crevasses.
These are good.
The infinite darkness of the crevasse, and the attempt by survivors to communicate with the doomed climber, who’s been swallowed whole by a small, invisible fault line, between two massive walls of snow and ice…
To be digested alive inside the belly of a slowly moving glacier…
This is the formula for a best-seller.
“Into Thin Air” has all the elements.
During the ascent, climbers can see the famous corpses of climbers from past, ill-fated expeditions.
Bodies that have been lost, perhaps from a fall from a cliff, or in to the void of a deep crevasse, and then churned up, and spit out again, several years later, on remote, inaccessible ridges…
One arm up, frozen in to a locked position, as if waving to a new generation of thrill seekers…
(Well no, this is my macabre invention… It doesn’t happen precisely like this, in the book… But close to it…)
The real life drama is more than I could invent…
A stranded dad, talking to his pregnant wife via satellite, while he’s freezing to death.
That actually is described in the book, “Into Thin Air.”
So let’s go back to the beginning…
After “Eiger Dreams,” Krakauer published “Into the Wild,” in 1993.
In it, an adventurous young man, Chris McCandless, goes to Alaska, and lives off the land.
He doesn’t bring any guide books.
So he ends up eating some poisonous potato seeds that he gathers in the brush.
The poisonous seeds block the metabolism of all other food that McCandless eats.
So even if he’s able to shoot a few wayward porcupines, it won’t save him.
Because he’s made this fundamental mistake, of eating poisonous potato seeds.
And so his corpse is found, in an abandoned bus, a few days after he died, weighing 80 pounds or so.
It’s the human tragedy that was missing from “Eiger Dreams…”
So it’s a national bestseller.
I am speculating.
Just guessing, about the evolution of disaster journalism at Outside Magazine, but let me point out a few facts…
Back in 1992, Chris McCandless was found dead on an abandoned bus in Alaska.
Jon Krakauer covered the story for Outside. It was a huge story.
Krakauer expanded the article in to a book, and the book was made in to a major movie by Sean Penn.
And so it seems plausible that, after “Into the Wild,” Krakauer got the idea that covering tragedies was good business for a writer.
So he went to Everest in 1996, with guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall.
He could not have known that the worst tragedy in Everest history was about to occur.
But he did know that the ingredients for tragedy were all in place.
First, 1 in 8 climbers who summit Everest die on the way down.
Or something like that.
It is f’n dangerous shit that he chose to cover.
And these guides were charging 60-90k to bring inexperienced climbers to the summit, like Sandy Pittman, the rich wife of an MTV executive.
He was aware of overcrowding along the route to the summit, on summit day, and that it was a recipe for disaster.
Guides were abandoning strict turnaround times. So, if a client didn’t summit by, say, 2 pm on summit day (a preset and agreed up turnaround time) the guide often kept pushing w his client, and waiting together in long lines near ladders and other technical sections of the climb where climbers got in to human traffic jams….
And guides often had multiple clients, and so had to scramble from point to point in impossible conditions.
This was well known before the 96 expedition.
He knew this shit (I am postulating), but Krakauer took the risk for the story.
He was a somewhat experienced, and accomplished, technical climber. Perhaps the most qualified to be there. So I don’t take anything away from him….
Anyway, read the book, “Into Thin Air.” It is worth a read.
Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climber, wrote a follow up to Krakauer’s book, slamming the journalism.
But Krakauer’s was a much better read…
Now, more than 15 years later, I have a sense that Outside was going again with the high risk, Everest formula that worked with “Into Thin Air.”
My friend, Tony, does a good job describing the amorality of this type of journalism:
Why are we uncomfortable with disaster journalism? Look at “Into Thin Air.” The people being documented, e.g., Anatoli Boukreev, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, may make mistakes, bad choices etc., but do so from a sincere perspective of being “in it,” making decisions on the fly to the best of their ability.
Meanwhile the journalist has the perspective of knowing that the elements of a potential tragedy exist, which draws their attention in the first place. The same shared morality that leads to outrage when many witnesses to a crime standby and do nothing while the crime continues, makes us distrustful of the journalist who observes a tragedy, and even more so if the journalist predicts and then observes. I’m not sure a book that documents the journalist’s reaction is valuable or not.
How about war correspondents, they predict there will be tragedy, even atrocities in a war zone. Doesn’t documenting such events serve a greater good in a way than avoiding the events entirely? In the case of the fishing guide, I’m not seeing long term social value in the telling of the story, but in the climbing story, has it affected climbing safety since the tragedy?
Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog entry on “Stealhead Joe.”
It is based on the article by Ian Frazier for Outside Magazine.
You gotta read that first before continuing here…
This guy, Joe Randolph, wasn’t even licensed at the time of his trip with the Outside writer.
And if their ‘furtive’ walk to the river wasn’t enough to let him know that somethin’ was seriously wrong with “Stealhead Joe,” you gotta believe that some of Joe’s antics were gonna be part of the story for Outside Magazine.
The moral handwashing, when they were stealing breakfast, was enough for me to think that this writer guy was gonna act ok with anything, and let Joe think he could pull any questionable crap that got him in to trouble, with other guides or even the law, and then report the whole thing as if it were a surprise.
Anyway, thats about all I got to say about that…
Just some speculation.
Perhaps wild speculation???