Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air reveals the lure and deadly gamble of the world’s highest mountain.
When journalist Jon Krakauer joined a guided Everest climb in 1996, he couldn’t have known it would be so brutal.
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 in 1996, it’s a haunting combination of memoir and memorial.
Like Into the Wild, Krakauer’s written documentary about 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 climbing party he joins, is obsessed with mountains – and 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 won’t return.
He also gives some insight into what Everest signifies within the climbing community. It’s an endeavour rooted in colonialism. Now too there are concerns for the 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. The controversy has particular relevance to the 1996 disaster.
For non-climbers, Krakauer’s detailed description of climbing Everest is a jewel. 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.
Of course, part of the book is about things going wrong. The tragedy is seeing these mistakes revealed in hindsight. Each seems so small, yet in combination they’re 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 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.
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 them seem to walk towards death. This might be partly because of that obsession, and 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 a 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.
Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster. Pan Books (2011)
- Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (same author)
- The Fear Bubble, by Ant Middleton (Everest)
Picture credit: Manuel Meurisse