Written by: Jon Krakauer
Synopsis: On May 9th 1996, five expeditions launched an assault on the summit of Mount Everest. The conditions seemed perfect. Twenty-four hours later one climber had died and 23 other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives as they battled against a ferocious storm that threatened to tear them from the mountain. In all, eight climbers died that day in the worst tragedy Everest has ever seen.
Jon Krakauer, an accomplished climber, joined a commercial expedition run by guides for paying clients, many of whom had little or no climbing experience. In Into Thin Air he gives a thorough and chilling account of the ill-fated climb and reveals the complex web of decisions and circumstances that left a group of amateurs fighting for their lives in the thin air and sub-zero cold above 26,000 feet - a place climbers call 'The Death Zone'. Into Thin Air reveals the harsh realities of mountaineering and echoes with frantic calls of climbers lost high on the mountain and way beyond help. (Via Goodreads)
“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill ... The trick is to get back down alive.”
A couple of months ago I actually saw a review for his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and earmarked that as a book to request from my library. I haven't gotten around to that yet, but it rekindled my Krakauer interest for the first time in years. And then I saw the trailer for the upcoming film Everest which is based on this book.
The trailer reminded me of that outdoor wonderlust I experienced when I first read Into the Wild, and once again there seemed that there was an intense mother-nature-is-not-your-friend theme running through it. I bought it immediately, and once I started reading I could not stop.
I finished this book with a heavy heart. I actually can't remember a time a book made me feel this weary. I cried and felt numb for a good few hours after I put the book down. It was one of the most emotionally exhaustive experiences I've ever gone through that wasn't actually something that was happening to me.
Here's the thing though, I wasn't emotional because of the loss of life during this Everest climb. Well, I was but that wasn't really what made me feel so damn tired. It was the whole story of Everest. The fanaticism, the commercialism, the risks, the waste and the lack of humanity that people climbing Everest seem to have.
There is a point early into their climb where Jon remarks on a bundle he sees in the snow along the path. It's the dead body of someone who died making the climb a couple of decades before him. That just seemed so emblematic of how dehumanising this endeavour is. A person died to climb a mountain, not because they needed to for survival but because they wanted to be able to add their name to the list of people who had. And when they died, they get left by their peers like the trash and the old oxygen tanks. "The slopes of Everest are littered with corpses" writes Krakauer at one point, and he isn't exaggerating. One in four climbers have died trying to reach the summit of Everest, and yet it's become a tourist attraction that people with barely any climbing experience pay tens of thousands to do. It's just. so. stupid.
At another point, Krakauer writes:
“It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificient activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”
And I get it, I really do. I can completely understand the draw of wanting to climb Everest. But the toxicity that surrounds mountains like Everest is everything I hate about humanity. People charging $65,000 to guide you up to the top of the mountain, but not making sure their charges are at a particular level of climbing skill or athleticism. It's so greedy, and when the death toll is so high, it's just a really ugly sight. It makes me think of Gollum and the ring in Lord of the Rings. Reaching the summit is everything, and if that means you leave a person dying on the side of the mountain, like some Japanese climbers did in 1996, then that's what you do. I can't even imagine how terrifying it is to die alone on the side of a stark and baron mountain after watching two people leave you where you lay, because giving you their oxygen means that they wouldn't be able to make the trip up to the top. How can a person actually do that? And I can't imagine how heartbreaking it is to have a loved one die on Everest, and have their body sit where they died until someone pushes it down a ravine or covers it with rocks. It's just so utterly lonely an image.
While the book itself is primarily about the horrific storm that hit in 1996 and cost 8 people their lives, it's also broadly about the curse of Everest. Krakauer weaves in stories about the climbing history of Everest and the famous stories of men and women both succeeding and failing to reach the summit over the last 100 years. He was originally employed to climb Everest to write an article about the commercialism of the many guided tours going up the mountain each season. But at the end of the day, this commercialism both is and isn't the cause of the wanton loss of life. People were dying well before climbers got the clever idea of leading packs of people up the mountain for $30,000. But the people dying were typically people who had mountaineering experience and who knew the risks of climbing a mountain as high as Everest. As the trailer above points out, once you hit a certain point your body is literally dying. Nowadays, people climbing the mountain are often people who have the money to. They may have some climbing experience, but they're ultimately paying for their guide to get them to the top no matter what. And this is where things turn ugly. When they start their preliminary climb, Krakauer notes that many people in his group have only rudimentary climbing skills and had only climbed one mountain (and not one on the scale of Everest) in the year earlier. They were all in good shape, but as he explains, climbing a mountain isn't about being in shape. It's about the instincts you need to have to problem solve and anticipate the numerous issues you're faced when scaling a wall of ice and snow. When you then toss in the issues of sleep deprivation, sore and wasted muscles, injuries and the brain fuzziness that comes from being withheld necessary oxygen, the issues caused by this lack of experience are vastly intensified. How can you trust being tied to someone who hasn't climbed a mountain before? Or who hasn't experienced oxygen deprivation?
"This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die"
The book is a fascinating look at both mountain climbing as a career or hobby and the magical draw of mountains. It's so ruthless and competitive and heartless, but it's also this amazing depiction of human endurance and determination. It's horrifying because there are so many examples in the book of how dehumanising this experience is, but it's compounded by the fact that at the back of my mind a little part of me gets it, and i'm disgusted by that. You finish the book feeling the weight of every decision, good and bad, that was made on that mountain. This book might sound like it has a very small base of people it'd appeal to but I came away from it feeling like my eyes had been opened to a whole new view of humanity. Because Krakauer was both a climber with relatively decent experience but also one of the novices joining a guided tour I've discussed above, he offers a very unique perspective into this world. He understands climbing and he understood his limitations and that he probably shouldn't have been there, but as a climber he was also under the spell of the mountain and the desperate need to conquer something that has foiled so many. It's both hard to watch, and hard to look away.