Into Thin Air

When I was a bit younger, I spent a good few years reading as many true life exploration novels as I could. I remember being greatly influenced by stories of people overcoming great odds, especially mountaineering tales of strife and triumph, often at great sacrifice. One of the books that influenced how I perceived the world around me, and people in general, was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Into Thin Air is a personal account of the events that occurred during the 1996 disastrous season on Mount Everest. Krakauer was part of an expedition team, hired as a journalist with mountaineering experience to do a story for Outside magazine on the experiences of climbing Mount Everest.

Into Thin Air was an exploration of human strengths, flaws, successes, failures, bravery, and cowardice. Krakauer very successfully and sometimes brutally described how an individual goal can blind someone to those around him or her, even to the point of abandoning people to die to reach the summit and then descend to safety.  As well, he described actions of bravery and sacrifice that were deeply moving, and personal journeys both awe inspiring and as well, pitiable.

I was moved and saddened, inspired and horrified. The best and the worst of people laid bare in those pages. What changed my life though, was the commentary printed at the end of the book. People self-righteously taking these mountaineers to task for their actions from sea level, in their warm toasty homes. Having grown up in Fairbanks Alaska, I know what cold can do to a person. How quickly one can get frostbitten or seriously hypothermic in a matter of minutes, so I had just an inkling of what these mountaineers went through. Take that cold (-50F or colder), and add the lack of oxygen that slowly kills your brain above the death zone, and you have a situation that is beyond what most humans have experienced. Yet many people felt justified in their position of harsh judgement, which surprised me with its irrationality. How can each of us know what we would do in such a situation? Have I been in the death zone? Heck no. I have no idea how I would behave. I suspect that is true for almost all of us.

What does this have to do with martial arts? Simply put - never judge another person’s journey. We don’t know what struggles they have, we don’t know what their own past experiences are. People all have a different path to success, different goals, different strengths and weaknesses. It might take a student a long time to learn a form. A person you train with might not ever be good at sparring, or get weapons work, or do a jump kick well. Some students like competition, some don’t. Some work well with others, some don’t. When we get to a place where we feel superior to someone else, we need to work on it. Martial arts is mostly a personal experience, which is what makes it so awesome. We can work on our strengths and weaknesses, and our journey is like no one else's. If we spend time judging those around us, we might have a big blind spot where our own flaws are concerned - humility is important enough to be the sixth tenet in tang soo do for a reason.

One more lesson I learned from this book - the idea that we can get so focused on our own goals we don’t see that others might be struggling. Sometimes we get so caught up in the training and our own path, which is understandable, to be sure. Being passionate about something and wanting to excel in it is never a bad thing. However, if we stop and take a moment to help, to teach, to support and encourage, it has the added benefit of not only helping our fellow students. Doing those things makes us all better martial artists (and people) too.

As well, I have to add, Into Thin Air is an excellent read. I hope you give it a go if you have the opportunity.