Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer | Review

A magical landscape only barely visible through mist swirls.

Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer’s eye-witness account of the 1996 Everest disaster – reveals the dark legacy of the world’s highest mountain.

When journalist Jon Krakauer joins a guided Everest climb, he has no inkling of the tragedy that lies ahead.

The beautiful, remote world he describes in Into Thin Air is vivid and compelling. It shines a light on the obsession that drives climbers of all abilities. And given how things turned out on this particular climb in 1996, it’s a haunting combination of memoir and memorial.

Like Into the Wild, Krakauer’s documentary-style written account of the disappearance of Chris McCandless, this is a detailed reconstruction of events that really happened.

What is Into Thin Air about?

Krakauer thinks he’s won the lottery when he gets a shot at climbing Everest for a magazine feature. He, like the rest of the expedition party, is a climbing fanatic – and of this mountain in particular.

The first half of the book is a travelogue. Krakauer turns his journalistic lens on himself and his fellow climbers. He explains what brings them each to Everest, and why. Some of them won’t return.

He also gives some insight into what Everest signifies within the climbing community. The endeavour has roots in colonialism; now there are concerns as well for the environmental damage climbing does to the region.

Krakauer lingers on the commercialisation of Everest. Pictures of climbers queueing to reach the summit hit headlines again in 2019, and the controversy remains relevant to the 1996 disaster.

For non-climbers, Krakauer’s detailed description of climbing Everest is a jewel in its own right. It’s a hypnotic, vivid description of an alien landscape that most of us will never see in person. He also shows what climbing is like – what it involves, and what it feels like at its best and worst.

Explaining Everest

Of course, part of the book is about things going wrong. The tragedy is seeing individual mistakes under the glare of hindsight. Each seems so small, yet in combination are an unstoppable force.

Part of the riddle of Everest is the technical, physical and mental rigour it demands. And yet, the higher climbers go (where there’s less oxygen), the less competent they become. Krakauer describes this several times as like performing surgery while drunk:

“I was so far beyond ordinary exhaustion that I experienced a queer detachment from my body, as if I were observing my descent from a few feet overhead. I imagined that I was dressed in a green cardigan and wingtips. And although the gale was generating a wind-chill in excess of seventy below zero Fahrenheit, I felt strangely, disturbingly warm.”

Into Thin Air

For some of the Krakauer’s climbing buddies, this ends in slow, lingering death. And awfully, the survivors can do nothing but listen or watch as it happens.

This is not an easy read. Some of these people seem to walk willingly into death. This might be partly because of their obsessions, plus the effects of altitude.

Krakauer’s account records what happened, when and why. But his honesty is at times overwhelming. At this point, the book almost feels like a confession or testimonial.

The book ends with what happened after Everest. There’s grief, recrimination and the struggle to make sense of tragedy. An epilogue and postscript feel unnecessary (or unwanted) to the spirit of the book. This blame game also feels like another kind of tragedy.

Into Thin Air is a long-form poem to Everest and human endeavour. It doesn’t shy away from beauty and ugliness – and that’s a potent, haunting combination.

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

Quoted edition published by Pan Books, 2011

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Picture credit: Etienne Desclides