In 1996, Outside magazine sent journalist and mountain climber Jon Krakauer to chronicle a typical journey to the summit of Earth’s highest peak, Mount Everest. Instead, he played witness to one of the deadliest excursions to ever befall the mountain. Numerous climbers died or disappeared into the white of a brutal storm, and those who survived suffered untold psychological and spiritual damage long after the journey. Murphy’s Law came down mercilessly on this group, even before the disastrous final day. Into Thin Air reads like an ascent into hell, and readers are as equally blessed as Krakauer’s excursion was cursed that he was there to recount this tragedy.
Based on Krakauer’s telling, even a standard trip up Everest demands a problematic acceptance of immense suffering and perilous vulnerability. Even those taking the greatest precautions are susceptible to all manner of cold and elevation induced maladies. Those looking to conquer the mountain don’t just risk frostbite, but altitude induced brain swelling, exposure to higher concentrations of UV rays, and all manner of natural impediments like avalanches and hurricane force winds. No individual emerges unscathed, and Krakauer catalogs their plight with his usual exhaustive details. Early in the book, his precise, crisp prose lures us in with the beauty and history of the mountain, and then cruelly and efficiently dispels any romantic notions we may have about the quest to conquer Everest as the living nightmare of the story’s final act indiscriminately decimates Krakauer’s party.
Krakauer’s survivor’s guilt permeates the book. Even with impeccable journalistic integrity, he can’t or won’t hide his sense of responsibility for what transpired. Yet in his meticulous details he reveals the endless points of failure for any trip to Everest’s summit. After finishing the book, I’m left with the impression that it’s a miracle events like the ones in 1996 aren’t more frequent. Planning failures, faulty equipment, and varying degrees of climbing abilities all contributed to the tragedy. Solving any one of them might have saved them all, or it might have made no difference whatsoever. That dichotomy let some survivors move beyond what happened on the mountain, and some, like Krakauer, unable to escape its ghosts.
I closed the book wondering why anyone would attempt a climb such as this. There is an undeniable class distinction for the non-locals who come to the mountain; climbing Everest seems something of a lark for the privileged. A climb demands tens of thousands of dollars in fees to attempt, not to mention the ability to put aside weeks for training and the journey itself. Krakauer, an experienced climber, never specifically directs criticism at one climber or another. He goes out of his way not to lay blame at the feet of any one individual, climber, or guide. But it’s impossible to read Into Thin Air and walk away absolving its subjects of an abundance of hubris at the least. Maybe it didn’t play a direct role in any one person’s demise, but surely it drew many of them to the mountain in the first place.
I thought about Chris McCandless a lot while reading this book. As the subject of Krakauer’s previous book, Into the Wild, McCandless received plenty of posthumous criticism for choosing to walk into the Alaskan wilderness to live off of nature. A rich kid from a good family, he went out into the great unknown hoping to push himself to some sort of new spiritual heights. There were plenty who were all too quick to call him spoiled, naive, and foolish. Yet, I don’t hear those same voices howling about those who would see the top of the world. We romanticize Everest still, and the commercialization that had only begun to take root in 1996 has only grown since. Is it because more people are willing to do it? One person attempting it is crazy. A mob of people attempting it — what’s that? A movement? I don’t have an answer for that. I just know the results were the same. People died.