I’ll never forget the first time I read Into Thin Air. It was about 10 years ago, and I held my breath for most of the second half. Even today, after reading it probably four or five times, it’s an incredibly exciting experience that is exactly what reading is supposed to be about–taking you places you’ll never be able to go yourself.
This time, after finishing it, I decided to read The Climb for the first time. Both books are about the same thing: the terrible Everest season of 1996, when 12 climbers died (the deadliest year on Everest up until 2014 and 2015), and more specifically about the summiting attempts on May 10-11, 1996, when eight of those 12 died. Jon Krakauer’s book is the more famous of the two, and certainly the better written by far, but it caused a great deal of controversy in mountain-climbing circles when it was first written, and The Climb (written by a climbing guide who was also on the mountain during the doomed climb) was, at least in part, written as a response to Into Thin Air.
In 1996, several teams attempted to summit Mount Everest on May 11, and were caught in a storm at the top of the mountain. Jon Krakauer was there as part of a climbing team, to write an article on summiting Mount Everest for Outside magazine. Anatoli Boukreev, a famed climber originally from Russia, was there too, as a guide. Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s recounting of the experience; The Climb is Boukreev’s. They tell basically the same story. Climbers continued up to the summit far into the afternoon, way past the point when they should’ve turned around in order to safely make it back down to their camp before dark and before they ran out of oxygen. Maybe, if there hadn’t been a storm, they would’ve been okay anyway–but there was a storm and they were most definitely not okay.
The difference is in the details–and in the style of the storytelling. Into Thin Air is solely from Krakauer’s point of view, and therefore some parts of the story are missing or less complete. Krakauer also doesn’t hesitate to criticize his own actions in hindsight, as well as those of others on the mountain–Boukreev in particular. The Climb, on the other hand, is mostly Boukreev’s story but also includes snippets from the point of view of other climbers. Boukreev also steadfastly refuses to place any blame on himself or others for what happened that day. Before I’d read The Climb, I’d always assumed that Boukreev was kind of a jerk who probably should have done a lot more to help his clients up on the mountain. After reading it, however, I think that Boukreev was kind of a jerk and seemed more interested in absolving himself than in truly examining what had happened, but shouldn’t be blamed for everything that went wrong. In a situation like that, that is truly life or death, it’s impossible to know beforehand how anyone would react–especially considering that everyone on the mountain was suffering from hypoxia, frostbite, and exhaustion. I think all the survivors feel culpable in some way for the deaths that occurred, but when you are surviving on a knife’s edge like that, it’s hard to see how you could possibly be expected to do anything other than what it takes to stay alive. All of the people who tried to save other climbers that day were heroes, regardless of their success or failure. To that end, I do appreciate Boukreev’s refusal to blame anyone else for the tragedy, but on the other hand there’s a lengthy, lengthy, post-script to this book that consists solely of Boukreev and his co-author responding to Krakauer’s statements about what happened up on the mountain and what Boukreev could have or should have done differently. It felt unnecessary as a reader, but I’m sure to Boukreev it seemed vital at the time.
When it comes to Into Thin Air and The Climb, my opinion is this: Into Thin Air is a gripping adventure story, but The Climb is only for “Everest completists” (is this a thing? Just me?). Krakauer, regardless of his many faults, is simply the better storyteller. Boukreev’s preoccupation with absolving himself of any guilt also detracts from his story.
When reading a book like this, I find myself trying so hard to just comprehend what on earth possesses someone to do something like this. The whole experience, besides sounding miserable from beginning to end, could also kill you. For every 4 people who have summitted Everest, 1 has died. Why do people still keep climbing it? There are parts on the route to the top where you literally have to step over the dead bodies of climbers who have died in previous years (it’s too expensive and dangerous to remove dead bodies from Everest, for the most part). As a person who gives up at the first sign of a blister, this is just incomprehensible to me.
The whole culture of Mount Everest is amazing: there are the climbers; the guides, who are hired by climbers to help them up the mountain (or at least to take care of the logistics of climbing, which are legion); and the Sherpas, hired by various climbing teams to cook, secure ropes, carry loads up the mountain, and provide assistance to guides and climbers. The term Sherpa actually refers to an ethnic group from Nepal. Working on Everest is a common job for Sherpas, who tend to live in high altitude and therefore are well-suited to work at an altitude that would make most people feel like they were dying. Many of the climbing records for Everest are held by Sherpas. In the 2014 avalanche on Everest, all 16 people who were killed were Nepalese, and most of them were Sherpa. Sherpas who work on Everest make a lot of money for a person who lives in Nepal, but they make next to nothing compared to the people they work for and with (many of the climbers pay exorbitant fees to be guided up the mountain). Sorry–this is a bit of a tangent but it’s only because every part of the Everest experience is so interesting. It also doesn’t seem fair to talk about the climbers and the story of Mount Everest without also devoting some time to Sherpas.There are multiple Sherpa climbers who have summitted Mount Everest over 20 times. That’s an insane number, when you think about all the people who fail–or die–on their first attempt.
I really could go on and on about Everest, but I’m getting off track so I’ll stop here. Bottom line, I’ll continue to reread Into Thin Air every few years or so, but while I’m glad I read The Climb, I’ll never bother with it again.
Rating: 4 stars for Into Thin Air, 2 stars for The Climb