Cliffhanger: On Extreme Survival Books

June 17, 2011 | 14 books mentioned 7 5 min read

covercoverThe dispute between Himalayan mountaineers and writers Greg Mortenson and Jon Krakauer has been cast as a dispute between fact and fiction. Recently, Mortenson’s wildly popular book from 2006, Three Cups of Tea—which narrates his failed attempt to climb K2, his kidnapping by the Taliban, and his early efforts to build schools for Pakistani children—was debunked by Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit. As you may know, this 89-page document systematically exposes Mortenson’s story as “an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact” and insists that both Mortenson’s “books and his public statements are permeated with falsehoods.” Though his publisher has launched in investigation into the book’s claims, Mortenson has insisted on its veracity.

coverDespite the antithetical roles they have assumed in this drama, Mortenson and Krakauer have much in common. Like Mortenson, Krakauer has parlayed his mountaineering adventures in exotic locales into a successful writing career. Into Thin Air, his gripping nonfiction account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, popularized and epitomized a genre that has in many ways become synonymous with Krakauer: the true-life extreme survival story. Stories in this genre follow a predictable pattern: an individual sets out on an adventure, things go horribly wrong, he or she confronts the possibility death, and lives to tell an incredible story. Disaster pushes man to the edge between life and death, and a lucky few live to tell about it. This plotline rarely changes; the details are grisly, the scenarios harrowing. Yet we can’t get enough of such extreme survival stories.

coverTake, for instance, Lauren Hillenbrand’s latest nonfiction bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which relates Louis Zamperini’s improbable true adventures, from shipwreck and starvation to shark attacks and torture. Zamperini’s extreme story is filtered through Hillenbrand’s capable narration, but it has much in common with other first-person survival accounts, including Aron Ralston’s 2005 book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston’s book chronicles his amputation of his own arm following a bouldering accident in a Utah canyon, and was adapted into a successful Hollywood movie (127 Hours) starring James Franco, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. In 1974, Piers Paul Read published Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which charted the grim ordeal of a South American rugby team after their plane crashed in the Andes mountains and they resorted to survival cannibalism in order to stay alive.


Why are we so fixated with such tales, gory and clichéd as they may be? The very gruesomeness of the material is an undeniable source of fascination. Yet our national obsession with extreme survival tales stems not only from their content but the fact that they are true. Ours is a digital age of “truthiness” in which so-called reality TV is scripted and the extreme situations that Bear Grylls undergoes on his TV show Man vs. Wild are revealed to have been surprisingly comfortable. As opposed to works of fiction, true-life extreme survival stories are granted a special type of immunity and cultural authority. How do you critique the truth? The difficulty of doing so makes the marketing of nonfiction under the banner of truth even more irresistible for publishers and authors.

But strangely, what makes the true-life extreme survival story so appealing is its fictional quality. Self-amputation, hypoxia at high altitudes, shark attacks, cannibalism: this is the stuff of fantasy. As the New York Times writes of Unbroken, “some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true.” Reviews of Into Thin Air insist that it “reads like a fine novel” and admit that “though it comes from the genre named for what it isn’t (nonfiction), this has the feel of literature.” “Every once in a while,” another notes, “a work of nonfiction comes a long that is as good as anything a novelist could make up.”

coverWhile the unbelievable qualities of nonfiction survival stories prompt the comparison to fiction, the book that’s generally considered the first novel written in English used truth as a marketing device to legitimate the new form of the novel. And it also happens to be an extreme survival story. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked Crusoe survives alone on an island for 28 years by planting crops, taming wild animals, and enduring battles with cannibals and pirates. In various advertisements and promotional prefaces, Defoe markets his fictional novel as an incredible true-life story. The preface to the first volume reads: “the Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” In prefaces to later volumes, Defoe (speaking in the voice of the fictional Crusoe) again insists that these are “real facts in my history.” Apparently, some eighteenth-century readers believed this claim. According to Theophilus Cibber, a writer contemporary of Defoe’s, the novel was filled with so many “probable incidents” that “it was judged by most people to be a true story.” Defoe capitalized upon this ambiguity, writing two more sequels to the Crusoe story after the phenomenal success of the first edition. A century later in 1822, Charles Lamb, in a letter to Walter Wilson, describes the technique (which the scholar Ian Watt later called “formal realism”) that helped make Defoe’s novel such a hit: “Facts are repeated over and over in varying phrases till you cannot chuse but believe them. It is like reading evidence in a court of Justice.” The effect, Lamb describes, is one of the truth and nothing but the truth.

Defoe probably based his novel on the real-life story of Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth-century sailor who survived for four years alone on an island before being rescued. Jonathan Franzen recently visited this South Pacific island (now named, appropriately, Alexander Selkirk) to experience his own Crusovian adventure, which involved re-reading Defoe’s novel on the island. According to Franzen, one of the most interesting questions associated with the origins of the English novel is this: “should a strange story be accepted as true because it is strange, or should its strangeness be taken as proof that it is false?” The genre of extreme survival stories, which, by definition, deals in the strange, sensational, and unbelievable, makes this question even more problematic and acute—and subject to exploitation by savvy writers.

coverOver one hundred years after the publication of Crusoe’s novel and on the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and marketed it as a true story. Published in 1838, Arthur Pym was hailed as the American Robinson Crusoe, and, not surprisingly, it has much in common with Crusoe, including a bizarre plotline, “atrocious butchery,” and an insistence on authenticity. In one of his essays, Poe himself marveled at Defoe’s literary achievement, which lay in the fact that it did not seem like one at all: “Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts—Robinson all.” What Poe admires here is Defoe’s sleight-of-hand, and he appeared to want to emulate it. Poe’s own work of extreme survival fiction pretended to be Pym’s first-person account of his strange seafaring adventures. For some commentators, Poe’s hybrid work reconciled generic opposites: according to the August 1, 1838 edition of Horace Greeley’s New Yorker newspaper, “it is a work more marvelous than the wildest fiction, yet is presented and supported as sober truth.” But for other readers, Poe was just a liar. Reviewers criticized the book as implausible and fabricated. One review admired the story as a work of fiction, but condemned its being “palmed upon the public as a true thing.” William Burton, the editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, huffed that it was “an impudent attempt at humbugging the public” and that Poe “puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, and coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his account.”

In terms of what is at stake, the Mortenson scandal may have little in common with Daniel Defoe’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manipulations of the public and the press. Mortenson’s book was required reading for the U.S. military and is the basis upon which his entire humanitarian organization was founded. If Krakauer’s claims are validated, then Mortenson could be said to have done more than insult and humbug his readers. But then again, the market for extreme survival stories, from the eighteenth century to today, has always been driven by—and eager to exploit—the same wish: the impossible desire for truth that possesses the flair of fiction and fiction legitimated by the veracity of truth.

Image credit: Pexels/Francesco Ungaro.

is a Ph.D. candidate studying English literature at Yale. She recently taught a class on extreme survival literature.


  1. I quote “the same wish: the impossible desire for truth that possesses the flair of fiction and fiction legitimated by the veracity of truth.”
    I am saddened by the idea that truth could be an impossible desire. For the last few decades I have not knowingly read much fiction. If an author proclaims a book ( or a film )is true then I believe it – and am so much the richer for it. Learning more about the human condition is fascinating. I simply do not find I learn nearly as much from fiction. I am not foolish enough to believe that fiction is not based on experience but give me the bare facts over fictionalised facts any time. As for flair, non-fiction possesses it in abundance , and without much effort. Fiction, in comparison, is just a clever flow of rather empty words.
    I back up my statement with my own experience. I have written fact when writing for a newspaper but cannot write a factual book. On the other hand I can write fiction as it is so very much easier. It is, in my mind, a cop out.
    Rosy Russell

  2. “The dispute between Himalayan mountaineers and writers Greg Mortenson and Jon Krakauer has been cast as a dispute between fact and fiction.”

    On April 17, 2011 CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired their expose of Greg Mortenson (best-selling author of “Three Cups of Tea” & “Stones Into Schools”) accusing him of fabricating his inspirational story and mismanaging the funds of his charitable organization. Jon Krakauer (best-selling author of “Into Thin Air & “Into the Wild”) said that Mortenson tells a “beautiful story, and it’s a lie.”

    I haven’t closely followed the Mortenson scandal, so I won’t comment much on the extent of Mortensen’s deceit (for thoughtful commentary I would suggest Daniel Glick’s blog posts at However, it appears that Jon Krakauer was not just a “crusading do-gooder” outraged at Mortenson’s literary deceit. It appears that Krakauer was also motivated to “take down” Mortenson to launch an old friends’ new publishing venture and pump up sales of his own books.

    Daniel Glick wrote in his blog, “I believe in the importance of journalism to … hold people and institutions accountable. … it’s hard to believe why “60 Minutes” decided that Greg Mortenson … qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.”

    However, Krakauer didn’t simply “join in” with an on-going 60 Minutes investigation. Krakauer fed his story to 60 Minutes and later timed the release of his e-book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” (the day after the 60 Minutes expose aired) to maximize publicity for the launch of the new publishing venture (whose editor is Mark Bryant, an old friend of Krakauers’ and his former editor at Outside magazine). Besides any anger about Mortensons’ literary sins, it appears Krakauer was also motivated to “take down” Mortenson to build up his own book sales and launch his old friends’ start-up.

    It certainly appears that Greg Mortenson embellished his inspirational story. But, I believe Daniel Glick has offered balanced commentary on this affair: “Mortenson is neither a saint nor a charlatan; Krakauer is not either a jilted crank or a crusading do-gooder. There are nuances, debatable “facts” and conflicting motivations in almost every situation, messy and at times seemingly irreconcilable. This is no exception.”

  3. “[Krakauer] insists that both Mortenson’s “books and his public statements are permeated with falsehoods.”

    I haven’t closely followed the Mortenson scandal, so I won’t comment much on the extent of Mortensen’s deceit. However, I do have first-hand knowledge of Jon Krakauer’s own deceit in his latest book “Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” Krakauer displayed hypocrisy by “throwing stones” at Mortenson when his own hands were not clean of literary deceit.

    Pat Tillman was the NFL football player who enlisted with the Army Rangers and was killed in 2004 by friendly-fire in Afghanistan. Although Gen. Stanley McChrystal learned the next day about Tillman’s friendly-fire death, he didn’t notify Tillman’s family, his legal officer withheld that information from the medical examiner, and he supervised the writing of a “misleading” Silver Star medal recommendation (with altered witness statements).

    In the first edition of “Where Men Win Glory,” McChrystal was barely a footnote. But just a month later, Krakauer published his “Daily Beast” piece, “Gen. McChrystal’s Credibility Problem,” and nine months later further described McChrystal’s “central role in the scandal” in his updated paperback edition. In the Preface, it appears Krakauer prevaricated where he wrote, “Following publication of the first edition in September 2009, I discovered additional evidence of deceit by high-ranking Army officers.”

    “I discovered”? In reality, just two days after the release of the first edition, my Aunt Candy literally placed two binders of my research (about 200 pages) into Krakauer’s hands at his Boulder book signing. My analysis (see 135-page “Jon Krakauer’s Credibility Problem” posted at the feralfirefighter blog) indicates my material was the source of Krakauer’s “additional evidence of deceit.”

    I don’t care (much) about Krakauer stealing my credit. But, his greater act of deceit was one of omission. After reading his book, you would believe the Democratic Congress’s Tillman investigation was “stonewalled” by President Bush. But, even after being handed my “untold story,” Krakauer still failed to describe in his updated edition how President Obama and the Democratic Congress continued the Bush administration’s whitewash of McChrystal’s central role in the cover-up of Tillman’s friendly-fire death.

    In the 2010 Foreword to her paperback edition (at of “Boots on the Ground by Dusk,” Mary Tillman (Pat Tillman’s mother) wrote, “Over the last five years, the Pentagon and Congress have had numerous opportunities to hold accountable those responsible for the cover-up of Pat’s death. Each time they’ve failed. … “The Tillman Story” [documentary] illustrates the corruption, deception, and indifference that is systemic in our government.”

    And, this story is not over yet; President Obama has continued to shield General McChrystal. On April 12, 2011, Obama appointed McChrystal to head the “Joining Forces” program (to support the families of military veterans) despite the protest of Mary Tillman. The White House said, “The circumstances … have been thoroughly investigated, and General McChrystal was found to have acted honorably…” and Michelle Obama said, “we’re proud to have him on board.”

    Perhaps Krakauer choose to omit the “untold story” from his updated edition because it didn’t fit into his simple black-and-white fable? Or out of Democratic bias? Or a lack of courage? Perhaps, his ego would be bruised to admit he (once again) had gotten his story wrong the first time around? Regardless, Krakauer embellished his “discovery” of Gen. McChrystal’s central role and omitted the “untold story.” Like Mortenson, it appears Krakauer wanted to boost his ego and tell a better story.

    It’s worth mentioning that, besides with Where Men Win Glory, Krakauer has also had credibility problems with the Tillman family, his harsh portrayal of mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev in “Into Thin Air”, and his “poison plant fable” explanation of Christopher McCandless‘s death in “Into the Wild”.

    CBS’s “60 Minutes,” in their September 2009 hagiographic profile, didn’t bother to press Gen. McChrystal about his role in the Tillman story. I agree with journalist Daniel Glick who wrote in his blog, “I believe in the importance of journalism to … hold people and institutions accountable. … it’s hard to believe why “60 Minutes” decided that Greg Mortenson … qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.”

    It certainly appears that Greg Mortenson embellished parts of his inspirational story. However, Jon Krakauer has “credibility problems” of his own and displayed hypocrisy by “throwing stones” at Mortenson when his own hands are not clean of deceit.

  4. Pym + Three Cups of Tea + 127 hours = so true! We are obsessed with “true” extreme survival.

  5. Dear Ms Menges,

    We readers are lucky to have the benefit of your professorial research and thought, both for continued evaluation of the GM / JK debate and for our own education. Thank you!

    Historical context and literary analysis are exciting endeavors, at least in my book. You have woven an excellent fabric from them.

    Unless I blinked while reading, you left out the fact that David Oliver Relin was brought in (hired?) by Viking to be THE author of “3CofT” and considers himself such to this day. Mr. Mortenson had submitted 4 chapters which, I understand, Viking thought began a whopping good story but were badly written. Mr. Relin was never a ghost writer on that project; in fact, when he received the galleys from the publisher, he was surprised to see himself listed (second, no less) with GM as co-authors.

    These facts complicate the GM / JK debate in a way that has not yet been discussed on the Web to my knowledge. They are especially relevant to your essay.

    I do not raise the issue to excuse Mr. Mortenson of any textual faults. Instead, I think we all need all of the facts on the table before the jigsaw puzzle can even begin to work out.

    P.S. Hi to Guy Montag, a fellow traveveller through so many of these postings!

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