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Short Memoir: Looking Back on Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," Part II

How I Coached Jon Krakauer to Write the Story that Only He Could Tell

Last week, I posted Part I of the story of my involvement with "Into Thin Air." That post told the behind-the-scenes story of the days during and immediately after the storm that killed climbers during the 1996 season. Today, I'm posting a short blog essay about the process of coaching Jon Krakauer to tell the story about what happened on Everest. To this day, Krakauer is a dogged journalist and talented writer. Editing him was a highlight of my seven years working as an editor at Outside. I know Jon wishes he'd never gone to Everest. I understand why. However, I'm grateful to Jon and Outside magazine for giving me the opportunity to have this experience.

Here's my latest blog essay:

I can still hear the buzzing and burping of the fax machine as it started to spit out Jon Krakauer’s first draft of “Into Thin Air.”

It was early June 1996, a few weeks after the infamous storm on Mount Everest...

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Short Memoir: Looking Back on Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air"

Sending Jon Krakauer to Everest was my idea. After the news broke, I spent the better part of a day wondering if I’d put him in a frozen grave.

IT WAS THE WORST STORY IDEA idea an editor could come up with, let alone assign to a real human being. That’s how I felt on Saturday, May 11, 1996, the day I heard Jon Krakauer had disappeared while reporting for Outside on the growing phenomenon of commercially guided trips up Mount Everest a story I’d conceived and helped make happen by dealing with an endless stream of logistical headaches. None of that mattered when I heard Krakauer was missing in a deadly high-altitude blizzard. Had I sent him to his death?

Just 24 hours earlier, of course, I’d considered myself a genius. On the morning of May 10, Mark Bryant, Outside‘s editor, made an announcement at the daily editorial meeting in our Santa Fe office. “I have news from Jon Krakauer’s wife,” he quietly told some two dozen...

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Short Memoir: Reflections on a Mystical Experience in India

At the age of twelve I had a brush with mortality that changed me. On the first day of a weekend father-son canoe trip in the Ozarks, the canoe carrying my dad and I capsized, and we were both sent overboard into the cold, fast-moving water. In the chaotic next seconds, my lifejacket snagged on a submerged tree, and I was trapped there. Though my mouth remained above water, the rest of me felt the fury of thousands of gallons of water running through a narrow channel. The upriver current flung my torso violently into the log at the same time that the downriver current seemed to claw at my spindly limbs, enticing me to be free. I was terrified, and, for ten minutes, I believed I would die. Eventually, I was rescued, but the event terrified me. It shook my sense of safety in nature, and it instilled in me, at a very young age, a deep knowing of how temporary this life is. In the next years, I became a very spiritual kid, and I latched onto Christianity, the dominant faith of my Kansas...

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Short Memoir: How Travel, Journaling, and Yoga Bring Us Home to Our True Self

Working in memoir requires a writer to stand in the fire of truth. This means holding ourselves accountable to seeing what’s true about our lives. Part of my process as a book writing coach is to point clients to ways they can write with a more open heart. Writing well about our life requires us to open our hearts. When one’s heart is open, we bring full awareness and presence to all situations and people. We are capable of writing patiently and honestly about the heartbreak and the ecstasy, as well as the ordinary. We can face the whole catastrophe of being alive, as Zorba might say. And we can do so from a place of wonder and generosity instead of from blame and shame.

Here’s an amazing thing about the human heart: you don’t need a field guide to learn how to open it. Yes, meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practice can help us slow down and develop distance, open space, between what happens to us and how we respond to...

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How Travel Changes Us

In 2011, I spent three months on walkabout in Israel and Palestine. At the time I was struggling with life. I wanted to see if I could believe in a higher power again as I did in my youth. I walked miles and miles in Jesus’ footsteps. Soaking in the Jordan River, I realized that I couldn’t believe again. But I discovered something huge: that no messiah can heal us or fix us. Not pills. Not religious dogma.Not travel. I came home changed. I recommitted to a daily yoga practice that I’d abandoned. On the yoga mat during the next years, I found what I couldn’t find on the road. Myself. Looking back on that pilgrimage, I see that sometimes we have to go external in order to go internal. I mean, it was necessary for me to go on that trip. I didn’t find what I was hoping to find. But I found something different, surprising, and, ultimately, that trip inspired me to do the hard work I needed to do to find myself again after years of self-abandonment....

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Short Memoir: How Pilgrimage Shows Us the Way Back to True Self

 Last winter, I traveled to southern India for a pilgrimage to Arunachala, a conical mountain considered by Hindus to be the embodiment of Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. The night before the pilgrimage, I dropped onto the mattress in my bamboo hut hoping for a peaceful rest. I fell asleep listening to mosquitoes bombard the window screens. The peace didn’t last. Two hours later, I was awake. When it became clear I wasn’t going back to sleep, I got up and went outside to the bamboo balcony of my two-story hut and spread out my yoga mat. I moved through a few Sun Salutations. Moving my body like this clears energy trapped in muscle and sinew. It makes me feel better and sometimes allows me to go back to sleep.

But on this night, sleep wasn’t in the cards. After more yoga poses, I lay on my mat, lost in thought, staring across the grassy land at Arunachala. Clouds shrouded its conical summit and, lit by a full moon, the mountain seemed to glow from...

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Short Memoir: How Pilgrimage Shows Us the Way Back to True Self, Part 2

Something changed in me that day on Mount Arunachala. I glimpsed something I’d never seen before. At least, not since I was a boy.

It was only a glimpse, so I can’t say for certain what I saw. But during and after my circumambulation, I peered deeper inside myself than I had done before. Deeper than during the most focused yoga or meditation session. Deeper than during any adventure to a far-flung natural place. Deeper than during the most reverent, prayerful visit to a sacred site or Indian temple. Arunachala shattered me. Opened me. And through the broken shell of myself I glimpsed something bright, essential, true. Was it my soul?

But as transformative and beautiful as that experience was, I was in no condition to return to “normal” life. During the next few days, my final days in India, I cried often. On the flight home to the States, I teared up every time my mind wandered back to Arunachala. Back at my apartment in Boulder, I turned the key in the lock...

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