Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – Book Review

into-thin-air-978144720018501I ended up reading this book twice, because I didn’t feel like I gave it justice the first time around: I read it in a terribly rushed, haphazard manner and this is simply not a book to read in 15-minute bites. Plus I have a bad habit where sometimes I get impatient about two thirds into the reading, and start scanning and skipping through the final pages in a race to the finish.

The previous non-fiction I’ve read by Krakauer, Into the Wild, was one of those rare books that really got under my skin and haunted my imagination for a very long time afterwards; also I’ve just watched Everest, which, like the book, tells the story of the disastrous guided ascent in May 1996 when eight people lost their lives in the terrible storm. Krakauer, who was sent to write about the expedition by the Outside magazine, was one of the survivors, so this book was also an incredibly personal account, written not long after he returned home. In the preface, he says that, rather than waiting to put some distance between himself and the event, he wanted his account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty, and the book certainly drips with it. The very first paragraph immediately sets the mood: Krakauer describes arriving at the top of Everest, looking down at the spectacular sight beneath him, yet instead of feeling elation over achieving a long-held dream, he is simply too tired to care. There’s your romanticism slaughtered right away.

Movie vs book comparisons are always interesting to make, and while the book doesn’t have the power of the visuals, it has remarkably vivid descriptions and the advantage of a far greater breadth of details. It delves into the history of Everest climbing, mentioning such prominent figures as George Mallory and Edmund Hillary; the culture of Sherpas, the Nepalese ethnic group whose livelihood came to revolve around the business of organised climbing; and Krakauer’s own obsession with scaling mountains which never completely went away even after he got married. I think that this personal insight into what drives people to suffer hardship and risk their lives out in the wilderness is what makes this book and Into the Wild so compelling. It is not a drive I can personally relate to but reading these books gives me a kind of understanding. This paragraph I think sums up his experience at Everest:

I’d always know that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game – without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.

Until I visited the Himalaya, however, I’d never actually seen death at close range. Hell, before I went to Everest, I’d never even been to a funeral. Mortality had remained a conveniently hypothetical concept, an idea to ponder in the abstract.

The second part of the book, which deals with the events of the day Krakauer’s group made the final ascent to the top of Everest from Camp Four, was harrowing to read. Krakauer made it back to the camp before the weather got really hairy, but even so his experience brought him to the utmost brink of exhaustion, yet he still was luckier than some of his fellow climbers who got caught in the storm. Their suffering was especially heartbreaking considering that some of them were a mere 15 minutes away from the safety of the camp, had their vision not been completely blocked by the snow and lacerating wind. Krakauer gives a full account of the mistakes and ill judgements (including some of his own which came to haunt him later) that were made on the day, without putting the blame on any single person, and stressing that the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of Everest does not encourage lucid thinking. One also has to keep the extremity of the situation in mind when reading about some of the life-and-death decisions the group had to make on whether a still-living person was beyond rescue. As one of the members from a different Everest expedition bluntly puts it, “above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality”, but even so this story is not without examples of courage and selflessness. There’s also a story of survival concerning one of the climbers which is so improbable that if you saw it in a movie you’d probably cry bullshit. As the additional chapter shows, some of the readers considered Krakauer’s book a slander against one particular guide, but personally I never got this impression while reading the book, which to me retained an impartial tone at all times and didn’t stress one person’s mistake over another’s.

In the end, I was really glad that I gave the book a more thorough second reading, as it deserves it.

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