‘Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster’ by Jon Krakauer (1997)

I’m a huge fan of Jon Krakauer’s writing and all of his books – particularly Under the Banner of Heaven, his examination of Mormon Fundamentalism through the lens of an appalling double murder.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s deeply personal account of the May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest through his own first hand experience of being on the summit of the mountain at the time and losing members of the expedition he was travelling with.

Krakauer was on the mountain to write a story for Outside magazine on the commercialisation of Everest and also to satisfy his own desire to conquer Everest.  He joined a guided expedition led by experienced guide Rob Hall.  When I first read this book over 10 years ago, it was the first mountaineering book I had read.  I was shocked to discover that those climbing Everest weren’t all the world’s most amazing athletes but that fit and wealthy people could pay large sums to be guided up the mountain.  Krakauer was an experienced climber who struggled at times with feeling like a fraud for being on a guided expedition relying on guides and the labour of Sherpas.

The book is a fascinating examination of the challenges of mountaineering at high altitude and the mindset of those who risk life and limb to climb the world’s highest peaks.  It was fascinating to read the details of how the mountain is actually climbed and the difficulties and dangers of high altitude.  But this book is also about much more than that. It’s a story about guilt, about the fallibility of memory, about decision-making under pressure, and about small actions that can have huge consequences.

Some characters are painted in very unsympathetic light – Ian Woodall, the bolshy, arrogant leader of the South African expedition in particular is presented as a very unlikable guy whose own ego came ahead of anything else.

Anatoli Boukreev, a guide working for another expedition led by Scott Fischer, is at times painted as being selfish and failing to be a responsible guide, however by the end he is a redeemed figure who rescued fairly climbers at great personal risk.

There have been claims that Krakaeur’s version is not sufficiently substantiated and potentially inaccurate.  Many of the other climbers who survived have similarly written books covering the events including Bourkreev, Beck Weathers, Graham Ratcliffe and Lene Gammelgaard. However, to me the book feels honest and I believe it is the truth as Krakaeur can best establish it from his own memories and extensive interviews.

Krakaeur doesn’t shy away from discussing the decision points and actions where he deeply regrets his own words or actions and the contribution they played to the tragedy.  His inaccurate recollection of meeting guide Andy Harris on his way down may have contributed to the failure of any rescue attempt to locate Harris.

Overall it’s an intensely moving and thought-provoking book that stays with you well after you read it.  Krakaeur is an amazing storyteller who blends history and memory (his own and others) into a gripping, harrowing, horrifying, fascinating story.  It can at times have a ‘disaster porn’ feel to it – like how passing drivers stare at a car crash – the tragedy adds a voyeuristic appeal that keeps you gripped while making you feeling uncomfortable at the same time. However, as long as people continue to climb Everest, there will continue to be accidents and continue to books written about them.  It will be difficult for any of those books to top this one.

into thin air

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