by Jon Krakauer, 1997
If I had to sum up this book in one word it would be this: hubris.
To use a second word: enthralling.
Into Thin Air is writer Jon Krakauer’s telling of his own experience as part of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. During this expedition, eight climbers were killed, including Everest guides Rob Hall and Scott Fisher. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist for the magazine Outside with the objective to make the journey to basecamp in Nepal and write about the commodification of Everest. However, Krakauer’s mountain climbing background gets the best of him and he joins the others in their quest for the summit.
I was immediately struck by the fact that you do not have to have much experience climbing mountains to attempt Everest. You’d think that the tallest peak in the world would demand some sort of expertise, however with the popularity of guided tours – such as those led by Hall and Fisher – you really only need the time and the money (about $70,000 worth). That seems to me like a recipe for disaster right there, given that I get winded at 10,000 feet in Colorado, but that is partially Krakauer’s original intention with the article: What effect does the lack of experience and the abundance of financial privilege have on climbing and on the communities surrounding Everest? As evidenced from the events that followed, it can be a disastrous one.
Although there is no official guarantee, from Krakauer’s point of view guided tours offer too much promise that the climber will reach the summit. Oxygen deprivation, cold, lack of physical strength, inability to keep food down – these are all things that would keep the average Joe out of work for a day, but are all part of a normal day on Everest. The businesses live and die by the number of successful climbs, causing them to take all manner of risks. He posits that that may have been one of the factors leading up to the fatal day that found the guided group behind schedule, but still pushing for the summit when they should have gone back. Admirably, Krakauer admits his own culpability in the disaster, suggesting that the presence of a journalist may have fueled the guides’ egos, and openly describes how he directly contributed to a horrible mistake. It’s what we would call a perfect storm of events and it’s heartbreaking to read.
If I ever had dreams of climbing Everest (let’s be real, I didn’t!) I certainly don’t now. Krakauer does not paint the journey to basecamp as an especially fun time, referring to one of the villages along the way as “overflowing with excrement” thanks to an influx of tourist climbers. No, thank you! (Although not the focus of the book, I would have liked to know more about how the popularity of Everest affects the local economy and its citizens, most notably the Sherpas who seem to do the brunt of the work but capture little of the glory and even less of the money. Just another day in the life of an exploited native, I suppose.) However, I would recommend this book to anyone with even a hint of inclination to the outdoors. It is gripping and informative and tragic all at once and I simply could not put it down.