Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

In the spring of 1996 mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer was sent to climb Mount Everest and report on the increase in human traffic up the mountain and the effect this was having on the experience of being on top of the world. Out of a team of eight paying “clients” and three experienced guides, four would die and a fifth would be disfigured and crippled for life.

This book is a memorial to the lost climbers (12 died altogether that year, making it the most fatal ever), and in some ways an attempt at atonement.

It is also a fantastic read. Krakauer knows how to write, and he has a story that won’t let go. Rock slides, hurricanes, debilitating high-altitude infirmities, a route strewn with corpses, the highest mountain in the world – this book has them all. It is unlikely that there will be as powerfully dramatic a book written this year. Even the photos are engrossing, and the woodcuts (by Randy Rackliff) at the beginning of each chapter are terrific. You won’t find many books this good-looking so hard to put down.

Of course the question that hangs over any account of climbing Everest is “Why?” It was a climber named George Leigh Mallory who first responded “Because it is there,” and this has been repeated as a kind of mantra ever since. It was a flip comment, and possibly apocryphal, but it is about as good an explanation as any.

As Krakauer admits, there is no convincing reason to risk one’s life hiking up such a big rock. “Most of us,” he confides, “were probably seeking something like a state of grace.” One also gets the sense that people climb Everest to prove something to themselves, to give meaning or purpose to otherwise “rudderless” lives (as Krakauer candidly describes his own).

As a result, climbers tend to be solitary types, and the expedition suffers due to the members’ inability to cohere as a team.

But it is this extreme individualism that makes the self-sacrifice to save others seem even greater. Unfortunately Krakauer, though a survivor, is not one of the heroes. And it is his sense of having perhaps contributed to some of his teammates’ deaths that haunts him and his book.

Adventure stories like this fulfill a human need – especially for those who can’t afford the $65,000 US to climb Everest themselves. There is a Superperson in all of us that wants to leave the commercial, daily grind of existence behind and scale into the Romantic sublime.

The problem is that more and more people are going up that mountain path. Parts of Everest are already a dump, the expeditions are often corporate-sponsored high-altitude advertisements, and the number of climbers is creating an increasing risk due to inexperience and the dangerous traffic-jams the crowds create.

It is a tragic story in more ways than one. But all the same, a cautionary tale has seldom been so uplifting. Everest’s appeal is rooted in its refusal to be housebroken. “Climbing mountains,” Krakauer concludes, “will never be a safe, predictable, rule-bound enterprise.” And those who risk death for such a goal have already passed a kind of judgment on their lives.

Review first published August 2, 1997.


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