A midsummer night's bacchanal in Moscow

Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Early in the spring of 1996, when climbers began arriving at Mount Everest base camp to begin training for an eventual trip to the summit -- this weeks-long, lung-strangling ordeal is called acclimatization -- they quickly discovered that they had a writer in their midst. Jon Krakauer, an American journalist under assignment for Outside magazine, announced his presence, if not his grandest literary ambitions, when he composed -- on the orders of Rob Hall, his team's leader -- a gonzo Do Not Enter sign that hung from the door of his team's portable john: "YO! Dude! If you are not a member of The New Zealand Everest Expedition Please do not use this toilet. We are a way serious bunch of shitters, and will have no trouble filling this thing up without your contribution. Thanks, The Big Cheese."

Krakauer's good humor, like everyone else's, wouldn't last long that year on Everest. As much of the world by now knows, the climb ended tragically. On May 10, 1996, 26 climbers from three separate expeditions reached Everest's summit. (At 29,028 feet, the peak juts up into the jet stream some five and a half miles above sea level, higher than some commercial airlines fly.) Crowded conditions and bad judgment had already put some climbers in peril that day; a late-afternoon blizzard that sent temperatures plummeting to more than 40 degrees below zero -- with wind chills in triple digits -- sealed the matter.

Descending climbers were scattered precariously along the upper portions of the mountain when the storm hit. Some were virtually stopped in their tracks near the summit; others managed to scramble down to within a few hundred yards of their tents at Camp Four (26,100 feet), on a small shelf known as the South Col, before becoming lost in the whiteout conditions. Eight climbers, including two respected guides -- New Zealander Hall and American Scott Fischer -- would die over the next day and a half. (Twelve would die in all that spring.) Another, a Texas pathologist named Beck Weathers, would eventually lose part of his nose, one of his hands and all the fingers on the other to severe frostbite. To remark that nearly everything turned to shit that year would not be an overstatement.

In countless newspaper and magazine accounts of the tragedy, the hand-wringing began almost immediately. Dozens of journalists, pundits and old-school mountaineers deplored the commercialization of Everest; others asked why relatively unskilled climbers were allowed to be on the mountain at all. Many more commentators shrugged their shoulders and suggested that hubris, plain and simple, was at the root of this fiasco -- the failure to accord an outsize mountain the outsize respect it deserves.

The most personal, and by far the most harrowing, account of the 1996 Everest disaster came from Krakauer, first in the form of a breathless 17,000-word article for Outside and then, in an expanded and more nuanced form, in his book "Into Thin Air." Hailed as an almost instant classic, "Into Thin Air" was a breathtaking piece of literary journalism that succeeded beyond anyone's, especially Krakauer's, wildest dreams.

"Into Thin Air" spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 800,000 copies are now in print. (This doesn't include the paperback version, which has already spent 15 weeks on bestseller lists.) Krakauer's book has been translated into more than 19 languages, including Latvian and Catalan, and it is credited with sparking a boomlet not only in gnarly-dude adventure travel -- a trend New York Times Magazine writer John Tierney recently slagged as "explornography" -- but also in hairy-chested, man-against-the-elements narratives like Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" and Gary Kinder's "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." Even a soupy, half-baked TV movie version couldn't kill "Into Thin Air's" buzz. Everywhere you look these days -- beaches, airports, subways -- someone's got a copy propped in his lap. Most of these people look stunned and appalled, as if they were studying their own grim medical reports.

Given "Into Thin Air's" ecstatic reviews and titanic sales, you might think Jon Krakauer would be a relatively happy man these days. Think again. Krakauer composed "Into Thin Air," he writes in the book's introduction, as an "act of catharsis," a way to get a 10-ton monkey off his back. But that monkey has hung on. "The success of this book is great -- it should be every writer's dream come true," he says now. "But I wish it had stopped selling a half-million copies ago. I just want it all to go away."

In part, Krakauer is still spooked by the lives lost on Everest that day, and by the fact that his own actions, or failure to act, may have been a factor (albeit a minor one) in the deaths of two climbers, his teammates Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba. "Everything is so tainted by the bad shit that happened," he says. "There's no getting around it -- my success is tied up with the fate of others." Among the therapies that the 44-year-old Krakauer, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., has resorted to is one of the oldest -- giving away what he describes as "tons of money." It helps a little, he says.

That Krakauer describes himself as a haunted soul isn't surprising; nearly every climber who returned alive from Everest in 1996 talks about his or her mental state in similar terms. What is surprising is how bitter, how defensive and how wounded Jon Krakauer sounds these days. Much of this bitterness stems from this fact: Since "Into Thin Air" was published nearly two years ago, the book has been under almost constant sniper fire from a small and close-knit group of climbers, a few of whom were on Everest in 1996, who dispute some of his book's facts and interpretations. In their view, Krakauer didn't merely get things wrong -- he got things intentionally, maliciously wrong.

We entered: heat and a press of flesh and red and green lights.
From the runway, a baby-oiled and black-masked Darth Vader sporting a
G-string reached down for the brunet on the barstool ahead of me. He
hoisted her up onto the stage. Two other streepteezyory, or male
strippers, a blond Zorro and a Slavic edition of the Cisco Kid, also in
G-strings and masks, stalked the edge of the counter, slipping through the
snatching tiny hands of the teens. We struggled to remain afoot in the
surging throng, amid currents of hot dripping flesh and wet shocks of hair.

The woman onstage, swaying to the ebbs and flows of booze coursing
through her arteries, suddenly cast herself onto Darth. Within a minute,
she was on her back, her shirt was off, her bra was sailing a sopping wet
lace boomerang into the crowd, and Darth's mouth was traveling north and
south all over her. The bartender turned a spritzer of Heineken on the
masses; tongues lapped the brew from the air.
"Could these women be paid performers?" I asked, sponging beer out
of my left eye.
"No," said Serge, "just look at them. These are the kind of girls
you see in the metro."
He was right. Here were gathered the daughters of the
coarse-and-once-hallowed but now just-plain-coarse proletariat, the proud
wearers of Farrah Fawcett curls and Made-in-Bucharest polyester-frill
blouses, the diligent appliers of smear-rouge lipstick and Bulgarian eye
shadow, girls who drank borax-flavored Soviet beer and dated junior thugs
from the mafia clans of Moscow's outer suburbs. They were the maidens of
the masses whose lot in Russia, for the past 800 years, has
differed in form but remained the same in essence -- enslavement to Mongol
invaders, serfdom on gentry manors, bondage to blighted kolkhoz and
factory and, most recently, exploitation by oligarchs and a corrupt,
rudderless state. Despite the current reforms, for these masses,
programmed by history, freedom still means less a delicate flowering of
liberty and more the anarchy, abandon and scythe-swinging blood lust of
the Pugachev serf rebellion.
One would never see such young women in the city's upscale night
clubs. But finding them here was invigorating; they were earthy types,
real people, sisters with soul, and they contrasted with the marble-skinned
Venuses of the elite who glided remote and vacant-eyed along downtown
avenues, stopping only to examine their reflections in the windows of
designer boutiques.
Shouts and yowls. Onstage, a topless woman drunkenly pawed the
shirt off her girlfriend, who then tumbled onto her back, her own eyes
swimming in booze, and lost her panties as well. Her pelvis was suddenly
level with the face of her disrober, her head was lolling side to side, her
bare feet were sliding slowly up and down the slick perspiring back beneath
her. A Sapphic exploit followed, and the air around us flooded with
vicarious moans. The women behind us were waving their arms to the music,
their untethered breasts slapping the backs of our heads. More Heineken
spritzed into the crowd from the bartender's nozzle; the heat and sweat and
beer clung to our faces like gauze soaked in warm urine.
A stocky peasant girl was now heading for Darth, her flat feet
unsteadily plodding the steel counter, her fingers popping open the buttons
of her blouse. Adjusting his mask, he assumed a ninja stance; she peeled
the blouse from her shoulders and lumbered into him. She was long-breasted
and Darth grabbed an udder; she flung him around shouting, "Ne nado!"
("Don't!") when he tried to touch her. She kneaded his shoulders and chest
like putty and forced him to his knees.
We slipped through the fleshy surround and reached the bar in the
side room. We ordered draft beer; it was cold but it had a benzene
Away from the mayhem we waxed philosophic. In Soviet times public
bacchanalia of this sort was unthinkable, of course, but Slavic folklore
is rife with summer solstice fertility rites: naked dances around midnight
fires; (no doubt prickly) copulations in stubbly fields of wheat; alfresco
marathons of boozing, sex and feverish swatting on mosquito-infested
riverbanks. Even in 1985, when I first visited the Soviet Union, men
and women were said to gather in countryside saunas for gruppovukhi (group
sex) by the fragrantly steaming stones, and I myself, during a number of
lingering June dusks, saw red arm-banded grannies patrolling city parks and
blowing their government-issue whistles at shaking bushes. To grasp what
excesses the light and heat prompt Russians to crave in midsummer, one must
first suffer through the Russian fall, winter and spring -- months of snow
and dark, legions of cabbage-pale faces under rabbit-fur hats marching into
the blowing slush, eyes down, brows furrowed, dreams on hold.
Now, across from us, a Kazakh woman sitting on the bar was stroking
the hair of her Russian girlfriend, whose head lay in her lap; another pair
of girls necked vigorously under a redwood table until the bottle atop it
wobbled and overturned and poured beer all over them. Lesbian currents
gushed through the debauch -- a slap in the face to the Soviet
Man-cum-mafiozo who still beats his wife, steals at work and boozes his
way into fisticuffs on weekends, collapsing flaccid at evening's end.
Serge and I finished our beer and headed back into the main room,
which now felt like a red-lit steam bath. Zorro was thrusting at Natasha,
a Nigerian dancer had joined Cisco and
teenyboppers were lining up to heave themselves seal-like onto the bar and
undress and get down. But at least half of these women ended up gratifying
themselves by stripping for the crowd, pushing away Darth and Zorro when
they approached, ignoring the frisky advances of Cisco, leaving the snubbed
streepteezyory to slink off and assume stark Nureyevesque poses on their
own, as if performing some sort of slow-motion mime in high school drama
This all began to seem routine, and my attention lagged. I turned
to Serge.
"You see, there's only so much shows like this can offer, only so
many variations on the old carnal theme."
But at that moment the clock struck 10. The men left the stage
and the disc jockey spun the volume knob on his sound system. We were
nearly blasted into the wall by the music, then almost trampled in the rush
of women leaping barward and jumping onto the runway. This was, it turned
out, the grandest of Hungry Duck rituals: amateur tabletop striptease and
an elevated fornicatory free-for-all.
But I focused on one woman in particular: a brunet of about
22 who was dancing barefoot in a silk bra and blue sarong tied
loosely beneath her creamy washboard stomach. Her eyes, slits of icy
green, were empty-looking at first, but as I stared closer, they turned into
pools of passion and suffering and desire and despair. She had surrendered
herself to the music, the heat, the thumping rhythms of the place. I
imagined what in her life would prompt her to embrace escape at the Hungry
Duck: an alcoholic husband who beat her, a lonely existence at home with an
embittered grandmother, or maybe the stress of having a favorite little
brother join the mafia -- common domestic troubles in Russia. Her eyes, I
fancied, spoke for women across the land, yearning for tenderness and, yes, for carnal knowledge -- but without vodka-drubbings or
sausage-belching. That was a lot to see in a pair of pupils, I admit, but I gazed
into them, mesmerized -- until drops of yellow liquid stung my own eyes. I
looked up: A groggy girl swaying over me was wringing the sweat out of her
sweater onto my head.
"I'VE GOT THE POWA!" Down the Duck's darkling aisles, atop its
redwood bars and wobbly tables, women were thrusting their hips to the
beat, like pistons, rapid-fire, boom-boom-boom, as if pumping out the
primal juice that fuels the world, the juice that, despite centuries of
puritanical damming and civilized dabbing, has pushed one generation after
another into this life. I'VE GOT THE POWA! The very walls sweated from
the labor of these women.
The heat surged. The propeller on a beanie-capped teenybopper
twirled madly with the torrid drafts rising from the bodies. Something was
about to happen, a Christian was about to be thrown to the lions, a sword
of Damocles was about to slice through beanie-fanned air ...
It was then that the beet farmers and accountants and
halfway-housers and borsht-brewers were loosed into the crowd, hot to
boogie, their arms hanging apelike and half-flexed.
The men bounced among the female bodies like bumper cars at a
carnival, their faces mugs of lust. "BOOM-DA-DA-DA." The accountant, I
saw, had clipped polarized shades to his horn-rims; he was now anonymous, a
roving predator with a leatherette briefcase, thrusting his way through the
women, grabbing at knobs of flesh, heading spermlike toward an egg of his
choosing. I envisioned him, suddenly, as a mobile blob of genetic
material, a Ray-Banned clot of DNA.
On the bar two topless women sandwiched a youth into a three-hipped
tandem, their figures melded into a many-breasted, multi-legged peroxided
godhead, three pairs of arms rising and falling. But there was a scream:
The godhead was tumbling from on high, beer-heavy, into the crowd; there
were bloody lips and peals of drunken laughter; there followed a tussling
and screaming and lashing of breasts, a crunching of Styrofoam beer cups, a
snapping of beanie propellers ...
Serge and I finally made it to a spot up next to the balcony
window. Our new location afforded us a divine overview: Below, from wall
to wall, we witnessed a panorama of chaos and coagulation, a fantasticated
fusion of piston-thrusting hips and borsht-brewer visages and flopping
breasts and beet-farming louts, a cross-section of modern Russia's
variegated population and bargain-basement apparel, lingerie-a-specialty.
Indeed, in this heated slosh of blood, sweat, tears, saliva and shawerma
(a shawerma food stand occupied one corner) were any of the primal proteins
lacking that were necessary for the spontaneous generation of life? The
sight served not to convince me of the baseness of humanity but rather to
prompt me to concede the unassailable superiority of Homo sapiens over all
the other animals of God's grand kingdom: Could a randy orangutan or
hotted-up hippo throw such a bash? No! This spectacle represented nothing
less than the acme of civilization, the melding of ritual and instinct and,
no less importantly, shawerma (I was starving after all this ruckus).
I thought I'd step over and buy myself a sandwich, in fact, when a
girl dropped her cigarette next to me. I picked it up and handed it to her;
she thrust her vodka'd tongue down my throat. But I pulled away,
half-remembering my earlier visit to the Duck, when I had ended up
pursued by a drunken schoolgirl who grunted and waved a piece of paper in
my face with the words I AM DEAF -- SEX $100.
The late evening sun persisted, pouring in through the open
windows, galvanizing the assembly as lightning might have sparked a puddle
of primal muck to life eons ago. It permitted no thought of rest, no
inkling of escape into a soothing nighttime Lethe; the relentless
effulgence and assault of energy from the heavens began short-circuiting
the revelers' already-addled synapses. Fights were breaking out among the
men, the accountant was brandishing his briefcase, the borsht-brewer his
ladle. The table-top proletariettes were now squabbling with each over
dancing space like Volga fishwives around a bushel of salted herring; the
spell of the place, for Serge and me, at least, was breaking.
And I was -- most unpleasantly -- deliquescing, slowly, surely,
dissolving in the heat. Even Serge looked soaked and haggard, his hair
matted to his skull. Shortly afterwards we stepped away from the window
and let the hurly-burly ejaculate us onto the street.
It was 11 o'clock and the sun, having just sunk behind the
slate rooftops of Old Moscow, had left the sky a scrim of luminous purpling
azure that, in its soaring spread and boundless arch, bespoke a
timelessness, an infinite number of midsummers past, of midsummers to come,
of estival passions acted upon during the few precious days of the year
when the hand of Hades, deity of the dark, would barely touch the

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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