Friday, March 4, 2011

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I don't plan on repeating the Everest-related books I've read before this blog, but since I found an audio book at my local library of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I decided it couldn't hurt to get a refresher on it during my commute. Additionally, since it is still the number one Everest book discussed on the internet, I'd like a chance to talk about it as well. The audio book is an abridgment of the original text, and I have to say that I like the shorter version almost as much as the original; though it lacks a lot of the detail and moves almost too fast for me, it's punchy and exciting, yet it still stays true to the story.

This book has a history with me. It was the second Everest-related book I read, and it's definitely the text that got me reading more books about the mountain. I didn't fall in love with the book, but it did get me curious about the story of the mountain. (My first Everest book was John West's Everest: The Testing Place, which caused me to avoid Everest books for a while.) After reading it, I went to a second-hand bookstore to pick up whatever they had on the mountain, which by chance happened to be Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, Lene Gammelgaard's Climbing High, and Beck Weather's Left for Dead, all about the same climb as Krakauer's book. I couldn't believe there were four books about the same event (actually closer to twenty!), and it none of them seemed to agree on the nature of the main character, Mount Everest. It later occurred to me that the mountain was more of a sounding board and a magnifier of the climbers' character, and its ability to hyperbolize the human psyche fascinated me.

This book seems to polarize people. (Perhaps it's also fair to say the 1996 disaster does as well.) I think a lot of people miss Krakauer's point that an over-analysis of events is a fruitless exercise. I'm not one to join a camp and defend someone's opinion over another's. I like that Krakauer strives to get the facts straight, even when they do not put him in a favorable light or when he has to admit that he was wrong. People say he threw a lot of punches at Boukreev and Lobsang, which perhaps is a fair assessment; I think those same strong opinions show the difficulty of being both a participant and a journalist. Much like Ken Vernon, in Ascent and Dissent, though with less recognition of the fact, Krakauer finds himself tied to and relying on the very people he is covering, so both his climbing relationship and his journalistic relationship to these people becomes messy. Krakauer admits and discusses how his journalistic presence exacerbated events, egging on both climbers and guides. This may be at least a small reason why at the end of the book he is still rattled by guilt, whereas climbers such as Stuart Hutchinson and and Beck Weathers seem to be able to overcome the tragedy. A lot of bloggers seem to jump on the smaller details of Krakauer's analysis, such as the statistics he provides or the idea of banning bottled oxygen on the mountain, rather than the big picture. He is right that little can and will be done in response to the 1996 tragedy and others like it (2006?). He is also correct that it doesn't matter how well you plan and prepare; climbing a mountain like Everest will always be a gamble. The real hubris of 1996 isn't that people died on Everest (That happens all too often!), but that those who by all odds shouldn't have died (Hall and Fischer) never returned, while those who didn't stand a chance, either through inexperience or their battered condition (Gau and Weathers) summoned the strength to come home.


  1. I loved the book for the reasons you have said. It was my first read on Everest and it started the obsession! Having read nearly 10 books of the accounts of that day, I still have to say that John was pretty true to what happened. Certainly the details are different etc. however for all of the criticisms of this book, he took a great deal of risk and called people out and that took guts!

  2. hey Grant, thanks a lot for keeping this blog, it's really great to find such an incredible source of material about the Everest.
    What makes Krakauer's book so compelling to read is that it tries to present all people and also their views and feelings.... more than an historical account, it's a theatrical piece of intense dramatism .