Reader’s Journal: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterI’m not exactly a risk-taker. In fact, I’m what might be described as “indoorsy.” The most daunting thing I face daily is trying not to trip on the stairs while carrying food and drink up to my office. Given this, you might be surprised at my interest in a book like Into Thin Air.

Well, truth be told, I really wasn’t all that interested. I mainly bought it for two reasons: it was on sale, and I wanted my mother to stop nagging me about reading it already. (Don’t feel sorry for her and think that now she has nothing to nag me about. She has plenty of other things, including calling her, making one of the eleventy-million recipes she sends me, reading Wolf Hall, and wearing just a tad more mascara because it wouldn’t kill me…but I digress.) Into Thin Air is Mom’s go-to book when she can’t seem to find anything else she wants to read. The fact that a book about a terrible, real-life tragedy during a mountaineering expedition is a “go-to” book in my mother’s mind is another post entirely.

If you’re one of my hundreds of Twitter followers—I can say that now, because as I write this I am officially up to 204 followers and yes I am willingly counting you in the mix, Nissan-Dialer, whoever (whatever) you are—then you know all about the tragic events in my own life these last few weeks. But maybe you don’t so I’ll fill you in: I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, making some pretty nice (for me) progress and happy to be out of a months-long slump at last, when I hit page 439. Page 439 is the end of Section 4 in that book. So I flipped past the “Section 5” page and a pretty print of some flower drawing and found myself mid-sentence on page 471. My copy was a rather nice hard-bound edition, by the way. For several minutes I just flipped the pages back and forth, as though that simple motion might somehow cause the missing pages to appear and apologize for taking a break. The pages clearly had not been removed from the book–it was a printing error. (But what about Into Thin Air, right? Can’t I just tell this story when—nay, IF—I review The Signature of All Things? No. But I promise if I review that book I won’t tell this story again, okay? Happy?)

And so, as I am obviously some kind of Twitter power-user which is why I have so many people interested in what I have to say, I decided to tweet Viking Books and give them what for. And anyway long story short they were really nice and sent me a new hard-cover copy just like the old one except with all the pages and I have since finished that book BUT.

Obviously I had to have something to read while I waited for said book to arrive. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t start a novel while I am reading a novel, unless I am intentionally abandoning the first novel for the second. Besides that, I haven’t been having the best luck with fiction lately, but we can talk about that another time. I scrolled through my Kindle app to see what looked good, and there it was, my mother’s go-to, Into Thin Air, and I thought, why not?

Into Thin Air was published in 1997, and it recounts Jon Krakauer’s experience of following a guided expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist, planning to write a piece about guided expeditions for Outside magazine. Krakauer visited Everest from April through May 1996, and the following September he did eventually go on to publish a 17,000-word story about the tragic events that occurred there. After receiving some criticism about the piece, and wanting to explore more deeply the events of that expedition–and his part in those events–he decided to write the book that would become Into Thin Air.

The most critical decision Krakauer made took place before he ever even left Seattle for Everest. Outside magazine initially invited him to travel to Everest in 1995 and park at the base camp to interview the climbers about their experiences. But Krakauer had a past with mountaineering. He saw what might be his only opportunity to summit the greatest mountain of them all, something he had dreamed of since childhood. He convinced the magazine to give him a year to train so that he could join an expedition and go all the way to the top.

When he arrived in Nepal in April 1996, Krakauer joined an expedition led by New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. Including Krakauer, that expedition included ten climbers, seven climbing Sherpas, and three guides (including Rob Hall). There were at least thirteen other expeditions (groups and solo climbers) planning to summit Everest from the Nepalese side at the same time as Krakauer’s group, and two other expeditions summiting from the Tibetan side. And here’s where I should tell you the book includes a “Dramatis Personae” list to rival something out of Tolstoy. I cannot possibly cover what happens to all these people, except to say eight of them died in one day as the result of a freak storm (and some very bad decisions made by many players).

And really, it isn’t so much about events as it is about the telling, the recounting, the wondering, and Krakauer, pardon the obvious metaphor, is an excellent guide. Interwoven with the story of the Adventure Consultants expedition is his own past experience with mountaineering and the difficulties of mountaineering in general, some history of Everest expeditions, some history of key players like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (lead guide of another expedition), the history of the Sherpas, and so on. I found it to Krakauer’s credit that he avoids making any one person the villain, which could have been easy to do.

That said, he does call into question some decisions that he believes contributed to the tragedy. In some cases, the decision he calls into question is the decision to climb at all, especially given that several of the people on guided expeditions that year were not mountaineers, not in the least. Writing about their first attempt to leave base camp for Camp One, Krakauer says:

“As I loaded my backpack for the morrow, I learned that between the demands of their families and and their high-powered careers, few of my fellow clients had the opportunity to go climbing more than once or twice in the previous year. Although everyone appeared to be in superb physical shape, circumstances had forced them to do the bulk of their training on StairMasters and treadmills rather than on actual peaks. This gave me pause. Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.”

But then a bit later:

“But the question of who belongs on Everest and who doesn’t is more complicated than it might first appear. The fact that a climber has paid a large sum of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain.”

Really, this is one of the biggest questions at the heart of the book, whether people should be shelling out big bucks (when Krakauer went to Everest in 1997, Adventure Consultants was charging $75,000 for the pleasure) and putting their own and other people’s (the Sherpas’ for example) lives in great danger. When Krakauer et. al. start to climb in earnest, he realizes that some people don’t even know how to use their equipment; they cannot figure out how to put the crampons on their boots, for example. Little things like that. Things you’d think you might get the really helpful salespeople at REI to show you in the store when you buy the damn things. (Although, granted, they probably won’t show you how to do it with numb hands and a raging altitude headache.)

If anyone maybe comes off as making some questionable decisions, it’s an assistant guide from Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who was killed in an avalanche in 1997, wrote his own account of the tragedy in a book called The Climb. To say that he thought Krakauer got things wrong is an understatement, and Krakauer addresses this in a long epilogue in my edition. To be fair, Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on any of the other key players that day, but while pointing out that he was not a guide and not responsible for any clients, while Boukreev was.

And I think that’s the right word, tragedy. If there is one thing Into Thin Air does not make me want to do, it’s climb a mountain. And in all honesty, I cannot help thinking, after reading this book, that people who want to climb mountains are just a leeeetle bit nuts, and not just because they expose themselves willingly to such things as extreme cold and going to the bathroom outdoors. Some of these people climb alone (well, with Sherpas to fix their ropes and carry their stuff, so “alone”). Some of these people climb without using supplemental oxygen. Keep in mind that Everest is at 29,029 feet above sea level. That is thin air indeed. Rarified. Um, nuts.

Certainly after reading Into Thin Air, I am interested in reading more of Krakauer’s work, but I’m also interested in reading more about why these crazy people climb mountains. I know, I know. Because they are there. Same reason I read books, which is easier, warmer, and so much safer. And while I don’t think this will be a “go-to” for me, I’m happy I picked it up. You win, Mom. This time.

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3 comments

  1. I read Into Thin Air last year after it had languished on my to-read list for ages. It was a very engrossing read and I also think that people are crazy to climb it. To go to some place so extreme that you feel you can’t stop and help another climber who’s dying is just … why would you do that. And all that trash that’s on Everest now just seems to underscore the unnecessary nature of it all. Anyway, it’s a good book and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

  2. Christy, I was happy I read this one, too. The story is gripping, but I admit that one thing I liked about it was that it justified all my prejudices against people who climb Everest. Yes, the trash is horrible, but the thing that bothers me most is the Sherpas and the risks they take. I don’t buy into the idea that it’s generous to them because they would not make a living otherwise.

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