On May 10, 1996, writer Jon Krakauer found himself quite literally on top of the world and less than 24 hours away from a tragedy that he says is ”likely to haunt me for the rest of my life.” Two months earlier, Outside magazine had sent him to Nepal to climb Mount Everest on a guided expedition and write about it. Krakauer thought he had a good angle; in the 43 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had become the first men to reach the 29,028-foot summit, Everest had become perceived as so routinely surmountable that a trip to the top was available to any fit climber with some mountaineering ability and the $65,000 cost of an expedition ticket. ”Hey, experience is overrated,” guide Scott Fischer told him. ”We’ve got the big E figured out….I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”
As Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s wrenching report of his trip, makes painfully clear, getting to the top is only half the battle, and overconfidence may be a good climber’s most lethal enemy. Krakauer made it down alive by the luck of timing; hours after he made the summit, a storm led to the deaths of two of his teammates as well as their guides, Rob Hall and Andy Harris, plus Fischer himself, who was leading a separate group up the mountain. Less than a year later, the arrival of Into Thin Air, written against the advice of colleagues who told Krakauer he needed more distance from his trauma, stands as a horrible triumph — a book that offers readers the emotional immediacy of a survivor’s testament as well as the precision, detail, and quest for accuracy of a great piece of journalism.
That Krakauer’s book is even lucid represents a victory over his own physiology. Into Thin Air vividly renders the bodily betrayals that afflicted the 43-year-old author and his teammates — three doctors, a lawyer, a publisher, a Federal Express employee (the only woman), and a postal worker — as they ascended, first to the 17,600-foot Base Camp and then to the four intermediate camps that allowed them to adjust to high altitudes before attempting the summit. In fact, there is no adjusting: Leave aside the blinding headaches, the gastrointestinal brutalities, the frozen fingers that frigid winds can produce, and the far more deadly possibilities of pulmonary or cerebral edema, and a climber will still face hypoxia, the oxygen deprivation that can reduce his judgment to that of a slow child just when he needs his adult wits most. It was hypoxia that caused the incident for which Krakauer indicts himself most severely — his failure to recognize that Harris, while insisting he was fine, was himself hypoxic and in desperate need of help.
It’s hard to imagine most readers of Into Thin Air damning Krakauer, but many may share his belief that climbing Everest is ”an intrinsically irrational act” — or, as his own wife put it with furious candor after driving him to the airport, ”f—ing stupid and pointless.” But Krakauer is a master at investigating the psychology of those who feel a hunger for the rough edge of nature (his Into the Wild, EW’s 1996 Book of the Year, is a brilliant exploration of the topic), and his new book will enthrall even the most couch-bound of skeptics.
Using all of his powers of observation and reportage, Krakauer simply takes you to Everest — to a monastery where a lama proudly shows off a picture of himself posing with Steven Seagal; to the Base Camp, where some climbers enjoy such luxuries as a fax machine and fresh-baked bread while others bask under a Starbucks sponsorship banner; to the terrifying Icefall, a maze of glacier where ice blocks as large as office buildings groan overhead; to the ghostly aerie called Camp Four, a huddle of wind-lashed tents alongside hundreds of discarded, empty canisters of oxygen. He explores the frost-nipped camaraderie of climbers, the commercialization of Everest itself, and the all-too-exploitable culture of the Sherpas, who are hired to haul equipment and supplies, and sometimes haul climbers as well. You are with Krakauer step by debilitating step — and this is as close to Everest as you want to get.
But all of the author’s acuity did him little good when he and his fellow climbers were suddenly trapped, sapped of strength, and left powerless in a world of wind, ice, and darkness. In the last third of Into Thin Air, as the full horror of Krakauer’s trip unfolds, it is impossible to finish this book unmoved and impossible to forget for a moment that its author would have given anything not to have to write it. A