Remembering ‘Into Thin Air’
If you follow Mt. Everest summit attempts–or followed then in the late 1990s–you already know that Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is not without controversy. Since it relates the events of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster (when Krakauer did reach the summit) in which eight climbers died and the high altitude perceptions of people from multiple climbing teams varied, the controversy isn’t unexpected. Others on the scene had quite different accounts and some published their own books.
Nonetheless, I see Into Thin Air as honest attempt by one of those on the scene to tell the stories of those involved as accurately as possible. Most who reach the “death zone” (above 25,000 feet) say that brains don’t function well even on bottled oxygen and that almost every moment as climbers near the summit is an exhausted and agonizing one.
Even a good journalist like Krakauer couldn’t be everywhere at once and was bound to hear widely contrasting accounts from those he interviewed (leaders, guides, and other climbers) about the disaster.
Krakauer notes in the book that when compared to the Europeans, Americans in general have a low amount of interest in mountain climbing, especially when it comes to 8,000-meter peaks far away. I’m in the minority. When Hillary reached the summit of Everest in 1953, that was almost more exciting to me (as a third grader) than the moon landing was when I was in college. My father had numerous books about Everest and I read all of them.
I missed out on an early 1970s opportunity to go on a trekking expedition to the Everest Base Camp (17,000 feet) that had few of the risks associated with summit attempts. So, I followed Everest, hoping one day to be there, even though I was appalled at the fact that some expeditions were leading gaggles of climbing neophytes up to the higher level camps for–by the time Krakauer wrote his book–$65,000 each plus travel and equipment expenses–and leaving tons of garbage behind.
I read Krakauer’s book when it came out because I knew about the rogue storm and the deaths from newspaper and magazine reports. It was a sobering book then. It’s a sobering book now as I re-read it for the first time in the twenty years since it was published. While Krakauer stipulates that climbing such mountains as K2 and Everest is really an irrational act, he disputes the notion that those who climb the world’s highest mountains are reckless risk takers. Climbing is grueling hard work, more conservative as it plays out says Krakauer than rising a motorcycle down the road at 120 miles an hour.
At my age, I no longer think about going even as far as Everest’s base camp. But if you’re thinking about it, this book is a must. If you become infected by the idea of Everest, be ready to climb many lower peaks first and spend a lot of time in a gym because going into air that’s 1/3 as dense as that at sea level in hurricane force winds bringing sub-zero temps to fields of ice and sheer rock is something that requires a plan in the middle of your insanity.
One good thing about being a writer is having one’s characters do what he didn’t or couldn’t do. In my novel “At Sea,” my protagonist talks about climbing K2, the world’s second highest peak and one that is probably more difficult than Everest. I interviewed a variety of people who’d been to the summit of K2. One person said that when he got there, the peak was covered by a cloud and he couldn’t see a thing. Kind of a letdown, in a way, but I believe Krakauer when he says that during the five minutes he stood on Everest’s summit and looked at the beauty around him, he was too tired and too sick to care. I felt that way at the summits of Colorado’s highest mountains and kind of knew the feeling.