Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Reviewed By Steve Rudd
Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; against long odds, afterall, I had just attained a goal I'd coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.
From the acclaimed writer of Into The Wild (which ranks as one of my three favourite-ever books), writer/ mountaineer Jon recounts one long day .. May 10th 1996, which tragically brought with it eight deaths on the slopes of the highest mountain on earth.
Jon had gone to Everest to write an article - for the brilliant Outside magazine - about, amongst other things, how the mountain had become a dumping ground full of empty gas canisters and general human waste as a direct result of the sheer number of expeditions in pursuit of reaching the summit.
Setting out with one of two prominent guided expeditions heading for the summit that day, Jon managed to get to the top, but on his way back down he (along with the rest of the people who were either still ascending or descending in his wake) was caught in a vicious storm which proceeded to claim the lives of eight climbers in the most horrific ways imaginable.
One of the reasons that so many people lost their lives could have been down to the simple
fact that so many people were on the mountain at one time, causing frequent traffic jams
in such places as the vertical Hillary Step section.
Indeed, Jon recalls that on the night of May 9th, the night before the push for the summit,
There were more than fifty people camped on the col that night, huddled in shelters pitched
side by side, yet an odd feeling of isolation hung in the air.
The roar of the wind made it impossible to communicate from one tent to the next.
In this godforsaken place, I felt disconnected from the climbers around me - emotionally,
spiritually, physically - to a degree I hadn't experienced on any previous expedition.
We were a team in name only.
Thus, after enduring and miraculously surviving such an ordeal, Jon's article logically darted off
in a different direction altogether. Instead, his Outside magazine article (that formed the basis of this book) focused on the events of the day. Many questions had to be asked in order to ascertain what exactly went so to pot up there, other than the weather.
Into Thin Air, Krakauer openly acknowledges, angered many members of family and friends of those climbers who were unlucky enough to perish. But Krakauer is such a skillful writer and has to be respected for having the guts to bring such a vivid and detailed account of such an astounding tragedy to the fore. He's been careful to thoroughly interview all survivors of the ordeal before letting loose in blaming anybody for any actions that might have made matters worse up there on that fateful day, at 8848 metres above sea level.
As much as this does make for harrowing reading, Krakauer's authoritative talent for writing,
along with his accompanying enthusiasm for mountaineering, ensures that this is surely one of
the most compelling Everest stories to ever have been set down on paper.
And no, it isn't designed to put the reader entirely off the pursuit of mountain climbing.
Honestly. Afterall, as fellow writer and climbing enthusiast David Roberts muses,
Behind a mystique of adventure, toughness, footloose vagabondage - all much needed antidotes
to our culture's built-in comfort and convenience - may lie a kind of adolescent refusal to
take seriously aging, the frailty of others, interpersonal responsibility,
weakness of all kinds, the slow and unspectacular course of life itself..
No amount of deaths will put people off mountain climbing entirely.
Because such sport is deemed to be too much of a great escape.
ISBN 0-333-69527-5 (first published in 1997 by Macmillan)
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