Whenever Jon Krakauer wants to recall his perilous journey to the highest point on earth, he need only look at his wristwatch. The built-in altimeter on his clunky Avocet is frozen at 28,970 feet, some 60 feet shy of the Mount Everest summit. The gizmo apparently conked out in that oxygen-starved realm called the Death Zone, but Krakauer himself made it all the way.
For most people, surviving a walk to the roof of the world would be the mother of all accomplishments, but you can tell by looking into Krakauer’s dark, brooding eyes — and by reading his new book, Into Thin Air, a personal account of his torturous ascent last May — that the climb has left him plagued with anguish, shame, and regret of the worst variety: the regret of having been spared. Of the 13 guides and clients in his New Zealand-based climbing party, 6 reached the summit, and of those, only 2, Krakauer and another man, returned alive.
”I wish I’d never gone to Everest or even heard of Everest,” the 43-year-old author says, gazing out his living-room window toward the cloud-enshrouded Olympic Mountains near his home in Seattle. He is short and soft-spoken, with a neatly cropped beard and an air of introspection. ”Climbing is a central thread in my life, and I came back wondering if it was somehow evil or wrong.”
Krakauer also came back something of an unwitting celebrity. The tragedy — a total of eight climbers (some from other expeditions) perished in what would become the deadliest 24 hours in the mountain’s history — was tailor-made for pop-culture consumption, right down to the prominent players. Front and center was New York socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, the attractive estranged wife of MTV founder and AOL president Bob Pittman, who outfitted her duffel bags with an espresso maker, fancy coffees, and chocolate Easter eggs, all toted up the mountain by hired Sherpas. (She later became the target of anger about the tragedy and has threatened to sue Krakauer, claiming he helped damage her reputation.) On the other extreme were everyday folk like Seattle-area postal worker Doug Hansen, who’d saved up for an adventure that would cost him his life.
Sprinkle in a few heart-wrenching scenes (like the farewell satellite phone call legendary guide Rob Hall, hours from death, made to his pregnant wife in New Zealand) and some amazing survivor stories (in agony from frostbite, Michigan attorney Lou Kasischke turned around just 400 feet from the summit, minutes before a storm rolled in, thus saving his own life), and set it all on the world’s tallest peak and you have the makings of a blockbuster story.
Krakauer himself, a contributing editor for Outside who wrote about the expedition for that magazine last September, has become a sort of ’90s Marco Polo with a backpack full of adventure stories that are catching the interest of Hollywood. Sean Penn is lobbying hard for the rights to Krakauer’s 1995 book, Into the Wild, the story of a young man’s fatal trek into the Alaskan wilderness. As for his Everest book, Krakauer earned a six-figure advance from Villard and then sold the TV-movie rights to TriStar Television. Not exactly what Krakauer expected to come from such a miserable experience. ”As a writer, I had hoped to gain a certain level of notoriety,” he says, ”but it’s tough handling success when it’s based around a tragedy. How do you deal with that?”