On May 9th 1996, five expeditions launched an assault on the summit of Mount Everest. The conditions seemed perfect. Twenty-four hours later one climber had died and 23 other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives as they battled against a ferocious storm that threatened to tear them from the mountain. In all, eight climbers died that day in the worst tragedy Everest has ever seen.
Jon Krakauer, an accomplished climber, joined a commercial expedition run by guides for paying clients, many of whom had little or no climbing experience. In Into Thin Air he gives a thorough and chilling account of the ill-fated climb and reveals the complex web of decisions and circumstances that left a group of amateurs fighting for their lives in the thin air and sub-zero cold above 26,000 feet – a place climbers call ‘The Death Zone’. Into Thin Air reveals the harsh realities of mountaineering and echoes with frantic calls of climbers lost high on the mountain and way beyond help.
~ Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I started this book knowing very little about this phenomenon of guided climbs. I was always under the (mistaken) impression that only hard-core mountaineers would even think of undertaking a task as humongous as climbing Mt.Everest.
Turns out I have vastly underestimated the pockets and the egos of the super-rich who think that with the outlay of around just only USD 65000 or so (and this was in 1996, am sure the costs are more now), they can climb the tallest mountain in the world.
To get an idea of just how tough a climb it is, here’s a graphic taken from google showing the route to the top.
Basically, the climbing strategy guides follow is to set siege to the mountain. Somehow make it to base camp, then do shorter climbs up to the higher camps to get acclimatized to the elevation, and then do the last climb from camp 4 to the top.
Makes perfect sense as a strategy.
But what doesn’t make sense is the idea of climbing novices and journalists being led up the mountain in spite of many of them just not being physically ready enough for it.
Even the author is honest enough to admit it, and he does so multiple times in the book, and in multiple ways here:
The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.
The summit looked so cold, so high, so impossibly far away. I felt as though I might as well be on an expedition to the moon. As I turned away to continue walking up the trail, my emotions oscillated between nervous anticipation and a nearly overwhelming sense of dread.
The guides are also party to this nonsense, promising tourists that they will definitely be able to do the climb with the assistance of the guides, and the sherpas (those poor souls) who literally had to climb the mountain with all the luggage, cook food, make tea, set up camp, tie ropes, and basically do all the heavy lifting to enable these so-called mountaineers make it up the mountain. The whole setup reeked of the British Raj times, honestly.
It seems that the only sensible person on that mountain peak was Boukreev – one of the guides who neglected his clients but ended up saving the lives of four people trapped in a storm by the end of the book. Boukreev was not good at typical guide duties, like chatting up clients, helping them with tents, and coaching them through tough spots. He felt that if you needed hand-holding, you shouldn’t be on Everest and should be turned around.
It’s a pity more people didn’t share his opinion.
Anyway, this is not a review of the actions and decisions that people took on that fateful day, but a review of the book, so onto the review.
For a non-fiction book (which I equate to slow and dreary), this one was pretty fast-paced and exciting. I like how the author introduces the various people on the mountain (and there were a lot of people that day), with a nice back story, and a little insight to what might be motivating them to climb Everest.
He also talks a bit about Everest itself, and I enjoyed the history of the mount, how it was identified as the world’s tallest, and about the attempts of the people who climbed it – both successes and failures. Some of the stories are pretty funny, quite a few others are tragic, and a couple are just all-round awe-inspiring.
My favorite one was about Goran Kropp who bicycled from Sweden to India, and then proceeded to climb up Mount Everest all alone without the help of guides or sherpas. Now this is what I expected to read about when I started on this book, not socialites writing Vogue columns from 26,000 feet high.
Reading this book made me understand just how exhilarating it can be when you successfully climb a mountain. Reading the tragic stories just emphasize how badly things can go wrong, and how helpless men are when faced with the might of the mountain.
Unfortunately, it’s the latter fate that awaits Jon’s team as they queue up to climb the mount.
A series of bad decisions on the part of the guides, an unexpected storm, and inexperienced and slow climbers all combine to create a tragedy with people getting trapped in the storm and dying of exposure.
Jon Krakauer is a reporter by profession, and this book stands as a testimony to his skills. His observation and balanced remarks on all the things that went wrong that day, while at the same time being sympathetic with the plight of the others, the tone of his book is just note-perfect. It is also pretty fast-paced account and there is a tense aspect to the book that kept me reading non-stop from start to finish.
That said, I do think Krakauer was a bit disingenuous at times. In the early parts of the book, he calls himself an amateur climber. But in the later half, he was the first in his group to reach the mountain peak (ahead of the guides even), and was able to get back to his tent without much difficulty.
His climbing speed made all the difference between life and death as the slower climbers were the ones who got caught in the storm. Considering that Krakauer made it safely back to camp, it was surprising that he didn’t do more to try to get his fellow climbers to safety. The other people in the camp seemed to do a lot more – going out multiple times to search for survivors while all Krakauer did was huddle up in his tent.
In his defense, he admits all his mistakes and explains why he did what he did – too tired, judgement impaired because of the elevation, and so on, and while it reads awful that a healthy and uninjured person did so little to help others, I can understand how it happened, and admire his honesty in exposing his own flaws.
Overall, I found myself really enjoying this book. It was funny, and sad, and harrowing at the same time, and I recommend it highly for the true-life adventure read it is.
I found myself so interested in his account of the Everest disaster that I found myself googling more about it, and found that there are two more books written about it from the point of view of others in the team.
One called The Climb is by Anatoli Boukreev – a famous guide who was part of the expedition, and who was mildly criticized by Krakauer for leaving his clients and returning early to his tent. He later became a hero when he went back into the storm and rescued four people who were lost. In The Climb, Boukreev contradicts a lot of what Krakauer says and justifies his reasons for returning earlier. He unfortunately died later that year climbing Annapurna when an avalanche buried him.
Another book Left for Dead is by Beck Weathers, one of the survivors who was left for dead twice, but made it alive (albeit missing a limb, and a few fingers and toes). I am sure that this would be a pretty inspiring read.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon