Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Blog post submitted by Tara Kehoe

intothinairIn the spring of 1996, Outside Magazine journalist and amateur mountain climber Jon Krakauer joined a commercial expedition team on their climb to the summit of Mt. Everest — a decision he has come to regret.  Krakauer’s Everest attempt was funded by Outside so he could write an article for the magazine about his experiences as a client on a professional guide-led climb. Though several teams vied for him, Krakauer joined New Zealander Rob Hall’s “Adventure Consultants.” Hall, a renowned expert climber known for his commitment to safety, had successfully guided several groups to the summit in previous years.  Krakauer was one of eight clients in Hall’s group, led by three guides and seven climbing Sherpas.

The climbers spent six weeks preparing for the push to the world’s highest mountain, an effort that involved an arduous climb just to reach base camp and then acclimatization forays to the higher camps on the mountain.  This level of physical exertion at such high altitudes had detrimental effects on most of the team members’ health — including debilitating headache, intestinal distress, lack of appetite, and inability to sleep.  Krakauer describes a chronic cough he developed on the way to base camp that did not subside until he returned to his home in Seattle.  Another problem was, with several other commercial expeditions also leading teams to the summit that month, the amount of climbers on the mountain created bottlenecks at some of the more difficult passes — congestion that slowed down climbers and forced them to wait and use up more of their precious oxygen reserves.

With a favorable weather forecast on May 10, 1996, Adventure Consultants slated that day to attempt to reach the summit peak.  Several other expedition teams, including “Mountain Madness” (led by famed American climber Scott Fischer) also selected May 10 for their summit attempts.  On that fateful day, after hours of grueling climbing, Krakauer reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain — where he barely took a moment to enjoy his accomplishment.  Instead, the journalist was more focused on how dreadful he felt due to a deprivation of air (despite using canned oxygen for the climb), lack of sleep, worry over his fellow climbers who were nowhere in sight, and fear of the impending difficult descent he would have to make.  The few clouds brewing below the north side of the summit face barely registered amongst Krakauer’s concerns.   The storm though, would prove to be devastating to the Adventure Consultants team.  Of the five members of the expedition who reached the summit — four perished on the mountain.   All told, twelve climbers from four separate expeditions were dead by the time the month was over.

Fryderyk_Sup-Into Thin Air is a page-turning suspenseful adventure tale.  Krakauer describes what he could remember from his time on the mountain and interviewed many of his fellow climbers and base camp support crew, with the caveat that Krakauer admits that recall of events that occurred at elevations ranging from 19,000 to 29,028 feet are sketchy at best.  The human brain is arguably not meant to function at such altitudes, and certainly the body and the mind do not perform as well at such great heights as they do at sea level.   This book is also full of details including a history of Everest climbing; cultural implications to countries including India, China, and Nepal; Sherpa culture; gear used to aid climbers; and the commercialization of guided expeditions.  Rather than seeming extraneous, Krakauer’s skillful descriptions only add to the level of suspense while reading; one feels like they are right there on the mountain with Krakauer.

The tragic loss of human lives including, Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, Andy Harris, Yasuko Namba, Ngawang Topche Sherpa, and Scott Fischer are lamented, not glorified nor sensationalized.  Krakauer chronicles events, including the mistakes and decisions made with arguably questionable judgement that occurred on the mountain without assigning blame.  Though some climbers also on the mountain that month have since publicly criticized Krakauer’s account as laying blame, being misleading, and/or incorrect.   In fact, the author is hardest on himself—for he survived when so many others perished.

After his article was published in Outside magazine, the events of May 1996 on the mountain and his perceived role in the deaths of fellow climbers and friends continued to haunt Krakauer.  Feeling that he had more to say on the ordeal, Krakauer penned Into Thin Air.   Although this book chronicles events that occurred twenty years ago, Mt. Everest and the drive people experience to reach its summit continues to take lives.  Just this past May, four Everest climbers died tragically.

Into Thin Air offers a thrilling edge-of-your-seat account of a spectacular tragedy and poses great questions — that we are still asking ourselves: why do mountain climbers feel the urge to reach heights roughly the same altitude as a commercial airplane?  Why do people feel compelled to take on such challenges even knowing the risks involved?