I just finished Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer last night. It was the first book I have finished since I took on the 1,000 Book List task and it was a phenomenal book to start with.
I was recommended the book by a dear friend of mine who had also pointed me in the direction of Into the Wild, my opinion of which she said would be a good indicator of how I would enjoy Into Thin Air. Since I really enjoyed the fire-side story style Krakauer used in Wild, with all of his side stories and round about explanations, and the outdoors/adventure theme I decided that I would tackle Air as well.
Similar to Wild, the outcome of Air is already known to the reader at the beginning of the book. In fact, Into Thin Air begins with Krakauer telling the reader about the outcome of the 1996 Everest expedition just in case you weren’t already familiar with it. While I think the beginning of the story would be much more gripping if you didn’t already know the end, that is not why Krakauer decided to write the book at all. Krakauer speaks plainly to the fact that he told the story and wrote the book not for the entertainment of the readers but because he felt like he had to. There is a big difference between telling a story to entertain and telling a story because you feel compelled to. Krakauer absolutely felt compelled to, so much so that he braved the fire of his fellow climbers and their families who were uncomfortable with the story being published.
Krakauer’s dedication to telling the story as accurately and bias-free as possible is pretty remarkable. It would have been quite easy for him to half-ass the research or give up on those who were initially hesitant to be interviewed. Additionally, Krakauer makes it clear throughout the book that while he took great lengths to provide the most accurate details of the expedition the story inevitably has his own opinions laced into it. The official title of the book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, makes this clear before you even put the first wrinkle in the binding. This being said, I thought that Krakauer did a very good job of being upfront about what was opinion and what was fact. For the most part, this was seen in the way some of the characters were portrayed throughout the book. Krakauer made it clear who he had connected with and befriended on the mountain as well as those people who he had very little interaction with. I did not think he let his personal relationships with any of the characters affected his telling of the story. If anything Krakauer downplayed his relationships with people and for the most part described his relationship with the person merely another adjective that went along with what their career was or the family life they had. While I understand and Krakauer admits to it that the story is far from completely subjective, at no point did I think, “He is going easy/being tough on *insert character here* because he does/doesn’t like them.”
The actual story in and of itself is extremely depressing. Since Krakauer gives up the end before the book even starts, I am not worried about spoilers here. Into Thin Air is the story of Rob Hall’s 1996 expedition to summit Everest. Eight clients (including Krakauer) were on the trip as well as several guides and Sherpas. The expedition shared the mountain with several other ventures, most notably a Mountain Madness expedition lead by Scott Fischer, an IMAX expedition whose ventures (although mostly unrelated to Krakauer’s team except in the most dire of situations) were recorded and put to film in Everest, a South African team, a Taiwanese team, and several others.
The beginning of the Air is mostly about how Krakauer came to be on the expedition in the first place as well as his relationship with climbing as a hobby, then as a lifestyle, then as a force that he simply could not completely rid his life of. He also takes time to tell the reader how his personal thoughts on summiting Everest morphed through the years. The upshot of all of this is a slow read that takes a long time to explain that Krakauer was a journalist who was hired by Outside magazine to write an article about the commercialization of Everest. That is to say, Krakauer was going to go on a commercial (defined as a for-profit venture) expedition to Everest so he could write an article about the pros and cons of this development, which is a heated debate in the climbing world. At first Krakauer said that he was not going to summit but as the time got closer and his enthusiasm took hold he admits that it was always his intention to summit.
The middle part of the book is also a relatively slow read about the team’s time at Everest Base Camp and their acclimation climbs. Being completely ignorant of anything related to climbing past what I learned from my afternoon classes at Rock Quest when I was in elementary school, reading about this entire process was very interesting to me. I had no idea that it would take that long, that climbers would ascend and descend several times as opposed to just a constant, gradual ascent, or that there was actually a massive sanitation/trash problem due to the said commercialization of Everest. Really fascinating stuff but it did go slow. Even though I am used to character-overloaded books such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, I found myself going back to the expedition reference pages to keep everyone straight. I think a big reason for this is that Krakauer was not trying to develop these people as characters. Into Thin Air is not a novel and Krakauer merely reports the known actions and behaviors of the people he was on the mountain with. His opinion is laced throughout, of course, but other then that the characters are not developed to a point where the reader can become attached to them.
The last part of the book is where things speed up and shit hits the proverbial fan. At this point we have been along for Krakauer’s team’s acclimation climbs, gone through camp drama, and dealt with various physical and mental health issues. Finally, we are going to summit Everest! It is May 10, 1996. Krakauer writes a lot of foreshadowing into the beginning of the climb and talks about how there had been signs all along that something would go wrong. As the team moves higher and higher up the mountain, things get steadily worse and uncomfortable for them. But Everest is almost more of a mental conquest then it is a physical one so they push on. The summit day accounts for at least a quarter of the book and that is because this is when everything goes wrong. You know how you joke when it seems like, “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong?” Well, everything that could have gone wrong really did go wrong on this day and it just so happened that they were over five miles above sea level.
While each of the events that lead to the disaster by themselves seem inconsequential, together they proved to be an incredibly unfortunate mix. Guides not wearing oxygen, oxygen being used too quickly or not effectively, time tables being pushed back, climber’s physical condition being underestimated, weather signs being ignored, a general “only out for myself” attitude between teams and teammates. All of these are just a few of the things that Krakauer talks about being factors that lead to 8 people (5 of whom were associated with Krakauer and his team) dying on the mountain that day after the climbers got stuck in a blizzard. I found myself surprisingly attached to the outcome at this point, despite the lack of character development and knowing how things would end. I also had to put the book down for a few minutes when it got to the part about the other teams doing everything they could to assist in the emergency.
While I was vaguely aware of the events surrounding the 1996 Everest season, Into Thin Air was by far the most details I had ever received on it. Consequently, I was also aware of the major controversy over Krakauer’s account of what happened and portrayal of certain individuals who were involved. I found this out in the lengthy post script that has been added by Krakauer addressing these arguments and, for what it is worth, I find that Krakauer did a very good job of consistently qualifying his account through acknowledgment that this was his own recollection and research, that oxygen deprivation and exhaustion makes it hard for anyone to think clearly at those heights, and by never claiming that without a doubt he knows exactly what happened that day and why. So while it was interesting to get a little insight to why people do not agree with Krakauer, I personally never thought he ever attacked anyone or made claims that he did not subsequently back up.
NOTE TO READERS: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT CLIMBING OR EVEREST OR WHAT HAPPENED ON MAY 10, 1996. Anything that I have said in this post is my interpretation of another individual’s interpretation of what happened on the mountain that day. Please, for the love of whatever God you believe in, do NOT call my mother terrible things or try to argue with me about what happened on Everest that day. Because not only will Becky find you and call you by your full name (trust me it is terrifying) but I will ignore you and you will look like an idiot because (unless this blog gets REALLY popular in the next day or so) I know for a fact that you weren’t on Everest that day either and therefore have no grounds to argue with me anyways.