Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill.  The trick is to get back down alive.”

Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article.  In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest.  He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall.  As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died.  Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.

Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty.  It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.  

He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research.  However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers.   Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude.  His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”).  He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:

“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”  

Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either:  “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.  

Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice).  Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity.  There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional.  However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and  “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy?  The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:

To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”  

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