'Heaven' On Earth

EW When you wrote ''Into Thin Air,'' didn't some of the family members of the climbers who died think it was wrong that you made so much money from the tragedy?
JK Oh, absolutely.

EW How did that make you feel?
JK Not good. But I'm glad I wrote that book. I'm proud of it. Do I have survivor's guilt that I made money from that book? Sure. That's why I established a memorial fund. I've given away a huge chunk of money. And if I didn't feel guilty, would I have given as much? I like to think so. But probably not. To a remarkable extent, I'm over feeling so weird about Everest and I've come out of that with a thicker skin, which I hope will serve me well when this book comes out. I regret that I ever went on the expedition. The money from ''Into Thin Air'' has been way more trouble than it's worth.

EW There's a chapter in the new book about Elizabeth Smart's abduction by Brian David Mitchell. That must have been a last-minute addition.
JK It's in there because it's directly relevant to the book. It's interesting, Dan Lafferty out of the blue sent me a letter boasting ''I knew Mitchell was a polygamist the moment I saw him on TV.'' He turned out to be right.

EW Do you think Ron and Dan Lafferty are crazy?
JK I can't answer for Ron. The state found him mentally competent. But I don't think Dan's crazy at all. He's no crazier than John Ashcroft. The difference between Dan Lafferty and John Ashcroft is not very great. I mean, John Ashcroft hasn't killed anybody. And that's a very important distinction. John Ashcroft isn't a Mormon, but he's a fundamentalist. Their belief systems are remarkably similar. That really scares me. That you have people in high positions of government making decisions that affect the survival of the world who are consulting their God.

EW After 9/11, many Americans are trying to understand Islamic fundamentalism. How does that relate to the kind of Mormon fundamentalism in your book?
JK They're all of a piece to me. I don't see a distinction. I confronted Dan Lafferty in prison. I asked him, ''What's the difference between you and Osama bin Laden or his lieutenants who flew the airplanes?'' And it's the one time I saw his demeanor sort of crack. All he could offer basically was ''They're wrong and I'm right. I know I'm right because I honestly questioned my God and he told me.'' And I was like, you don't think they did the same thing? That's what it all comes down to. My God is right and yours is wrong. You need to have something more than that.

EW Well, you must, obviously, because you're an atheist.
JK I'm a serious doubter, yet I've prayed. I've been scared shitless climbing to where I said, ''God, if you're there...''

EW Did you pray on Everest?
JK I don't think I did on Everest. I was too f---ed-up to even pray. But I've been on many climbs where I've been in lightning storms.... I've had a lot of close calls climbing. Fewer now than I used to, and you bet I've prayed.

EW Do you still have any nightmares about it?
JK Oh, yeah, no doubt. Not every day, but I have moments. Dark moments.

EW Is it strange for you to be a celebrity for such a tragic event?
JK Yeah. It was a ''Be careful what you ask for'' kind of thing. Having a lot of people think you're an asshole isn't a lot of fun. And I don't understand the appeal of celebrity, personally. I mean, money's great. But celebrity otherwise seems like a burden. I mean, you're asking about Everest and that was seven years ago. And there's going to be a lot of people who are hugely disappointed because there's nothing about Everest or climbing in this book. Who knows, by the end of this book tour, I'll probably be begging for people to buy my book.

Originally posted Jul 18, 2003 Published in issue #719 Jul 18, 2003 Order article reprints