In 1996, Jon Krakauer, a mountaineer and journalist, was commissioned by Outside magazine to join and write about a commercial expedition to climb Mount Everest. The journey ended in disaster.
Krakauer weaves a history of Mount Everest and different expeditions, famous climbers of the past and his present as well as the culture of climbing into this narrative. For him, climbing inducted him into a close community that was rarely noticed by the mainstream public. Climbers sought to impress each other, but one cannot ignore the dangers of the sport.
He joins a team led by Rob Hall, an experienced climber. His colourfully depicts his diverse fellow climbers include a few doctors, a New York socialite called Sandy Pittman who brought along magazine clippings about herself to hand out to people, a guide called Mike Groom whose toes had been amputated after being forced to spend a night in the open during a previous climb. This had not stopped him. Another guide was Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climber.
His early judgement of their motives dissolve into respect as they make the treacherous ascent. He soon learns that “climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.” Yet, the desire for fame, recognition, achievement, all seem to fade away in favour of just surviving getting to the top.
The brutality of the journey, from the mundane to the Herculean, is captured in vivid detail.
One can feel the pain, the horrors of the conditions, the complications and the personalities that accompanied the author. It’s the stuff Hollywood films are made of, and there are at least two that have been made depicting this particular expedition and the resulting disaster.
Krakauer describes the physical experience of being that high, of climbing with the feeling of being underwater and moving slowly, of everything seeming “not quite real” and having to remind oneself that a wrong step can result in death while worrying about running out of supplemented oxygen, makes one marvel at the sheer force of will it takes for these men and women to keep going.
One of the guides, Andy Harris, suffers an attack of vomiting and diarrhoea but insists on moving forward. Krakauer develops a hacking cough that persists throughout. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun leaves him lying for hours in excruciating pain. One of the Sherpas, Lopsang, tires himself out carrying a satellite phone for Sandy Pittman.The next day, he vomits on the ascent to the top.
Why do humans seek to achieve risky feats? What drives us to push past our limits in the face of undeniable danger? Krakauer offers insightful accounts of the reasons why people undertake this unforgiving goal. Climbing does different things for different people – for one individual who lost his way after leaving the military with a failed marriage and a dark tunnel ahead, climbing provided him with “the challenge, the camaraderie, the sense of mission” that he had in the military and missed. Krakauer learns that “those who undertake the journey are probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.”
Krakauer is cognisant of what’s at stake here. When he said goodbye to his wife back home, she is aware that it’s possible she won’t see him again and she found it “stupid and pointless.” In every direction, there are palpable signs of how dangerous and life-threatening this undertaking is.
And yet, they push on.
He also shines a light on the changing culture and economy spurred on by climbing tourism. Sherpas are the backbone of any summit. As mountaineering attracts larger numbers of tourists each year, the increase in business and pay means that Sherpas make more trips each year, risking their lives on each expedition. In the competition to gain business, companies and expedition leaders risk pushing past limits and allowing their clients to go further and higher and at later times in the day than is safe.
This becomes obvious as his team makes their push for the peak. The summit was “really only the halfway point.” The real battle is to conserve enough energy to get back down alive. A traffic jam formed on the highest peak of the world, as climbers tried to both ascend and descend the final peak at the same time. When an unexpected storm blows over the mountaintop, Krakauer depicts in excruciating detail, each moment of his struggle to survive, and chronicles the chilling battles each of his teammates fight to try and save each other and escape alive. Many will not make it.
Other survivors have gone on to publish their own accounts of the disaster. One, in particular, Anatoli Boukreev, the guide who saved a few lives, took major issue with Krakauer’s depiction of events and wrote his own account titled The Climb. Newer editions of Into Thin Air include a rebuttal by Krakrauer.
Regardless, this book is a page-turner. It is an absorbing and nail-biting account of the determination of man, the ruthless brutality of nature and the lengths humans go to in order to achieve their goals.