The Bookworm: Into Thin Air
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. 333 pages. Anchor Books. 1997.
Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. (p. 140)
Into Thin Air has been on my reading wish list for a long time, and thanks to my RAGBRAI captain, who lent me his copy way back in March, I was finally able to read it.
As part of an assignment to write about the commercial expeditions guiding millionaires and novice climbers to the top of Mount Everest, Jon Krakauer joined Adventure Consultants’ guided expedition to reach the world’s highest point in the spring of 1996. However, the story changed dramatically when a number of clients and guides died as a result of “a combination of hubris, greed, poor judgment, and plain bad luck” (back cover). The spring of 1996 became the deadliest season on Everest and Into Thin Air not only chronicles the disaster that unfolded near the top of the mountain but also the grueling acclimatization and preparation process, life at Base Camp, and the arduous journey to the summit.
This is an amazing book. As proclaimed on the back cover, Into Thin Air “virtually defines excellence in the genre of narrative nonfiction.” From his first glimpse of Everest from a plane, through his few oxygen-deprived moments “atop a slender wedge of ice, adorned with a discarded oxygen cylinder and a battered aluminum survey pole, with nowhere higher to climb” (p. 189), to a battle for survival and search for survivors at 26,000 feet, Krakauer takes the reader on a vivid and mesmerizing journey, providing fascinating and personal insights on how humans reach the highest point on the planet, often dying in the process. The writing is clear and concise, personable and informative. It is a riveting report, adventure log, and first-person account wrapped into one.
While Krakauer was one of the lucky ones able to descend through a blizzard and find relative safety at Camp Four, others were not. Though it remains unknown what happened to a few members of the Adventure Consultants’ expedition that night, Krakauer pieces together the disaster that unfolded on the flanks of Everest through extensive interviews with other survivors. It is a harrowing and bone-chilling tale.
Before reading Into Thin Air, I was aware that climbing Everest was very dangerous, and even remember news coverage of the disaster when it happened; images of Beck Weathers’ frostbitten face are forever linked to Everest in my mind. However, I knew little about the effort and process to reach the summit. This book opened my eyes to the masochistic willpower it takes to do so. Krakauer, an experienced mountaineer himself, freely describes the incredible physical toll the mountain took on him and others on the expedition, even those who had climbed Everest before. Especially sobering are Krakauer’s accounts of finding frozen bodies along the route to the top, the numerous ways one can die on the mountain, and the unknown fates of many climbers.
Though morbid, that is now what fascinates me most about efforts to reach Everest: the human toll and the fact we will never know what happens to many climbers, including some of those who died during the events outlined in Into Thin Air. When things go horribly wrong at that altitude, the chances for rescue are slim to none. Some are left to die so others can escape danger. Bodies remain unrecovered, sometimes becoming macabre landmarks, and the whereabouts of others are unknown.
Speaking about the unknown, Krakauer touches on the fascinating history of Everest’s discovery (or at least the discovery that it is the highest point on the planet), the early attempts to climb it, and the debate about who were the first people to reach its summit.
Krakauer’s account of the disaster in Into Thin Air is not without its detractors, though. This version includes a lengthy afterward by Krakauer that responses to criticism by Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on the Mountain Madness expedition that climbed Everest on the same, ill-fated day. A highly accomplished and skilled climber, Boukreev reached the top of Everest that day without the aid of supplemental oxygen. After staying on the summit for a short time, Boukreev descended to Camp Four instead of providing additional assistance to the expedition’s clients as they either continued their efforts to reach the top or climb down. Why? That is the subject of much debate and Boukreev disliked his portrayal in Into Thin Air so much that he provided his own account of the disaster in a different book, The Climb. He and The Climb’s author (Boukreev died in an avalanche in 1997) attacked Krakauer and Into Thin Air. In the afterward, Krakauer details and refutes (convincingly, I think) the accusations.
I’ll say it again: Into Thin Air is an amazing book. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it but I am very glad I finally have.