1997. Doubleday. Mass Market Paperback. 378 pages.
In a nutshell:
In May 1996, Jon Krakauer and other climbers reached the summit of Everest. As they descended, they were hit by a storm. Krakauer was a client of Adventure Consultants Guided Expedition; two guides and two climbers of this expedition died. The head guide of another expedition also died. Into Thin Air describes the events of the expedition, mostly from Krakauer’s perspective, with added witness provided by interviews with the other surviving climbers. The book also provides the historical context behind Everest expeditions, and grapples with the controversies surrounding the commercialization of these expeditions.
Into Thin Air has been on my to-read list for a very long time, as well as Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven. I read it a couple of weeks ago, to pass the time while flying to Chicago and back. It was a fast read.
I am no stranger to harrowing nonfiction reads. Into Thin Air is not the emotional gut-punch of say Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun or Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Those books featured the horrors of what people can inflict on other people. But Into Thin Air is still haunting, in the way that the altitude and the blind fury of a storm isolates the climbers and circumvents their ability to help themselves and help each other. The altitude dulled their minds just when they needed to be the most focused, causing climbers to become dangerously confused and others slow to recognize a climber in trouble. The storm kept climbers in shelter from being able to search for the climbers who were lost just outside the camp. I was particularly haunted by the story of Beck Weathers, who was left for dead by the others, but managed to survive anyway.
Into Thin Air first existed as an article published in Outside magazine (which I was unable to find online). The article upset some people close to the story; it turned out that Krakauer was wrong about the circumstances about one of the guide’s death. The book corrected the earlier account, but was still controversial. In both article and book, Krakauer attempted to describe some of the mistakes that led to the deaths of the climbers. When I read Into Thin Air, I thought Krakauer came across as even-handed, as he pointed out the pitfalls of commercialization without demonizing the guides and clients who participated in the enterprise. He also pointed out his own mistakes during the expedition.
However, a relative of one of the deceased climbers wrote an excoriating letter to the magazine in response to the original article. The book includes her letter. While I want to give latitude to a grieving relative, she goes too far in her implication that Krakauer was a coward for taking shelter in his tent during the storm. I’m sorry, but if you’re not a guide and you’ve just hiked the highest mountain in the world, it seems a prudent action to then return to camp and go to sleep. That is not an act of cowardice. I’ve seen this criticism repeated in reviews on goodreads too, and it seems to boil out of another controversial aspect of Into Thin Air: Krakauer’s criticism of Anatoli Boukreev.
Boukreev was one of the guides for a different expedition, Mountain Madness (head guide was Scott Fischer, one of the fatalities of the disaster). Boukreev reached the summit of Everest and returned to Camp Four before several of the Mountain Madness clients made it back. Several of them ran into trouble (along with clients of Adventure Consultants) and got lost in the storm. Boukreev later rescued them. Krakauer intimates that Boukreev failed to do his job as a guide by returning to Camp Four faster than the clients of his expedition. In response, Boukreev co-wrote a book called The Climb where he presents his side of the story, and how his decisions helped him rescue the clients in trouble. Boukreev later died in an avalanche on Annapurna in 1997.
I haven’t read The Climb and in any case it would be ludicrous for me to try and assert my own judgment on what happened. But I bristle at the tone of some of the reviews I’ve seen of the Climb where reviewers disdainfully judge Krakauer for being a journalist and thus his word cannot stand against Boukreev who was a real mountaineer.
And several reviewers seem to misguidedly correlate Boukreev’s credibility to the fact that he saved the lives of several people and Krakauer did not (again the implication of cowardice). Displaying great courage does not mean one has the monopoly on the truth. In this light, I was appreciative of more even-keeled reviews like those of an Eric_W who said: “I have no way to judge the authenticity of either story, but common sense would seem to dictate that both could be right since they are both very personal stories told by the participants, all of whom were under an enormous amount of stress and whose perspective will naturally have been shaped by their very limited personal view of events.”
People continue to die on Mount Everest every year, and the ethics of such endeavors continue to be complicated. I don’t feel outraged about the loss of life, since all who climb Mount Everest choose to be there and know the risks. I may be sad for their deaths, but not outraged. There’s nothing necessary about climbing Mount Everest. I also think it’s a shame that the mountain is getting trashed as a byproduct of human ambition. (Krakauer mentions the trash in the book as well.)
I’m glad I finally read one of Krakauer’s books, and will continue with my plans to someday read the other two books I mentioned at the start of the review.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
At Home with Books – “It takes a while for the pace of the book to pick up, since he is very thorough in giving background information about all of the climbers who have important roles in the dramatic climb. Reader’s will learn not only about the climber’s abilities and training, but also about their family life – allowing the reader to see them not only as climbers, but also as real people with friends and family who will mourn their loss.”
utter randomonium – “I’m not usually interested in sad stories, but the personality of Krakauer’s writing kept me going. The details are shared with such frankness and intimacy that I felt like I was there. Would I recommend this book? Sure, as long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into: there’s no redemption, no happy ending.”
Wendi’s Book Corner – “On occasion I found the book a little hard to follow, as some descriptions and accounts of people or places didn’t flow along with the story as well as I would have liked. That said, once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.”