My best friend Amanda recommended this to me a few years back, but if you don’t put a book in my hands when you recommend it, then good luck! Fortunately I was reminded of this book while looking for excerpts of travel writing to show to my Grade 11/12 English class last week. I was in the mood for some “adventure non-fiction” as one might call Into Thin Air. The library had an ebook available to borrow, so off I went!
If you aren’t familiar with this title yet, it’s the memoir of writer and climber Jon Krakauer. He joined a paid expedition to climb Mount Everest in April/May 1996. He was going to write an article about the commercialization of Everest for Outside magazine. But the staggering tragedy that occurred overshadowed that topic. Krakauer recounts the events and, through his interviews with others on the mountain at the time, attempts to reconstruct what happened elsewhere. In so doing, as he professes in his introduction, he hopes to make some sense out of a tragedy that clearly affected him deeply. For us as readers, especially those of us who are not mountain climbers, we can only begin to guess how such an event might shake and shape someone.
Krakauer is clearly a Writer with a capital W; his prose is purple enough I could wring it out to get some dye for clothing. He indulges his vocabulary and displays a proud penchant for metaphors. I can appreciate the craft, yet I also found this distracting at times. Sometimes I just want writers to say what they mean.
Still, I definitely enjoyed the work that he puts into describing everything about the experience. There is no way I’m ever getting anywhere near Everest, yet I would never deny a fascination with it that I suspect most of us feel, at least sometimes, about remote and unknowable parts of the world. I can understand what draws people to explore, ascend, and feel like they have “conquered” such peaks. Yet as this book demonstrates, that feeling is an illusion. Everest can and will kill you, and even approaching it is a chore I would not relish.
As Krakauer described the frankly horrific conditions prior to reaching Base Camp—at one point they’re staying somewhere so crowded that the latrines are overflowing, and his lungs become raw from the smoke. And he hadn’t even started climbing the mountain! I remember thinking to myself, as I lay outside on my deck, “This is why you don’t leave the deck, Kara. Outdoors is going to kill you.” I can barely muster up the enthusiasm for a casual outdoor hike along carefully-groomed trails, let alone climbing the world’s tallest mountain.
So it’s safe to say I can’t empathize with Krakauer’s desire to summit Everest, but I sympathize with his passion and drive and the proportional regret he must feel. Into Thin Air portrays many conflicts, from the obvious ones (person versus nature, person versus person, person versus self) to less obvious ones … there is a sense of Greek tragedy to this book. Krakauer and the other climbers’ hamartia is their prideful desire to be one of the elite who have climbed this mountain, and it’s that desire that ultimately gets many others killed. I appreciate that Krakauer does not absolve himself of responsibility or even make excuses for himself. He straight up says that his actions likely contributed to Andy Harris’ death. Into Thin Air is a sharp reminder that no matter your level of skill, no matter how prepared you are, no matter your good intentions, when disaster strikes at 29,000 feet … you are just as vulnerable to bad decisions and moments of confusion or weakness as everyone else.
It’s clear, too, that not everyone on the mountain had good intentions to begin with. Krakauer’s portrayal of a South African expedition led by Ian Woodall is particularly unflattering: they pretty much flatly refuse to do anything to help any of the other expeditions, even when it’s clear that Hall’s and Fischer’s expeditions are in huge trouble. In contrast, an IMAX team led by David Breashears offered up their oxygen supplies even though it jeopardized their own summit attempt. The stunning selfishness exhibited by some, and the corresponding selflessness of others, drives some of the book’s most intense and fascinating parts.
There’s so much to recommend here: the narration and description, the intensity of the actual events, and the perhaps bleak analysis of the human spirit. Krakauer is clearly shaken from this ordeal—he confesses he shouldn’t be writing the book so close to the timing of the events. Yet he turned out something that I nearly couldn’t put down, which is high praise for a non-fiction book.
My ebook edition is the updated version with an afterword that addresses some criticisms of Into Thin Air, particularly from Anatoli Boukreev his a ghostwriter. I enjoyed this additional material and the intertextual depth it provides to the meta-conversation around the book. It’s important to challenge and hold writers accountable for the accuracy of their portrayals, of course. I’m biased because all I’ve read is Krakauer’s work and his defense thereof; that being said, the quotations he includes from Boukreev’s book do not make me inclined to think that Boukreev and his ghostwriter were striving for anything other than self-aggrandizement.
Into Thin Air is an intense and enjoyable read, albeit one that contains more than its fair share of human tragedy. You’ll be drawn into the sense of adventure but sometimes overwhelmed by the crushing helplessness of Krakauer, Hall, and the others. Even though he foreshadows most of the outcomes, including Fischer’s death, it’s so brutal to actually hear these events described as if they are happening in real time. I found myself in denial, thinking, “No, there must be a different ending here. They are going to survive.”
But this is non-fiction, and whereas fiction can give us a happy ending if that’s the writer’s desire, non-fiction cannot change this story’s ending. Krakauer is careful not to wrap up his writing in a bow and claim he learned some huge lesson or celebrate the triumphs of human ingenuity. Into Thin Air is appropriately sobre and sombre in its portrayal of climbing Mount Everest. A remarkable accomplishment? Yes. But at a very steep price? Also yes.
Lives up to the hype.