Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Originally published in Creative Loafing
Ascent into Hell
A few years ago, one of alpining's greatest tragedies occurred when a dozen climbers died attempting to ascend Mt. Everest, with eight of them dying during one day -- May 10, 1996. Jon Krakauer, a contributing writer for Outside magazine, was on the mountain when those people died. And it seems he still hasn't recovered from the incident. "I wish I'd never heard of Everest," he told interviewers from ABC's television show "Turning Point" the next year. "I wish I hadn't gone. It was a huge mistake," he said. "It will affect me the rest of my life."
Into Thin Air is Krakauer's riveting account of his own painstaking ascent of Everest and the deadly events that unfolded on "the roof of the world" in 1996. His brilliant description of this territory alternately awes and chills the reader:
"The ink-black wedge of the summit pyramid stood out in stark relief, towering over the surrounding ridges. Thrust high into the jet-stream, the mountain ripped a visible gash in the 120-knot hurricane, sending forth a plume of ice crystals that trailed to the east like a long silk scarf."
If the cynic in you suspects Krakauer may be capitalizing on the tragedy, he responded to such criticism in the May 1997 issue of Outside: "I'm a writer -- it's what I do to pay the bills." And he stressed that he has given "a fair bit" of money he has made to charities like the American Himalayan Foundation. And Krakauer does a pretty comprehensive job of castigating himself over the Everest incident anyway. Much of Into Thin Air amounts to a confessional mode through which he scrutinizes and mulls over every facet of that expedition, attempting to pinpoint his particular role in its deadly failure. "The plain truth," he writes, "is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was party to death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time."
Sadly, his cautionary tome hasn't slowed those who hope to make the Everest ascent. The following year, in 1997, more than 300 climbers doled out the $65,000 required to climb Everest; there were more expeditions headed to Everest than ever before. By the time the short margin (the middle of May is optimal) within which climbers can approach Everest's peak came round again in mid-1997, several more climbers had died attempting to make the summit this year, bringing the total number of lives Everest had claimed to more than 150. Probably, the survivors of those expeditions made their way home, shaking their heads, asking themselves the same questions, feeling the same guilt Krakauer apparently still feels.
Take Krakauer's advice: stay home and read the book. His crisp journalistic writing and unflinchingly honesty make Into Thin Air an instant alpining classic and certainly one of the most gripping non-fiction books on the market in 1997.