Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air
Posted by Meghan Hayes
My friend Katie is obsessed with the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. She's read at least four or five books about it. After months of talking about the expedition with her I decided to read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. This book also really fit with my new-found obsession with non-fiction, disaster-type accounts. The only thing I knew going into the book was that one of the guides leading the expedition ends up alone and dying on the mountain, and somehow manages to call his wife. Since reading the book I've decided I'm an expert on what went wrong on the expedition and could talk to anyone about it for eight hours. I'm noticing that this is how I start all my book reviews... I'm sorry.
The biggest obstacle to this book is that most people aren’t passionate mountaineers. It's hard to imagine why anyone would feel compelled to climb Mount Everest given how dangerous it is. Krakauer also does a really good job of describing what your body goes through when dealing with that sort of elevation / oxygen level. It seems like you are pretty much just slowly dying the entire way up the mountain.
I had no idea that Jon Krakauer went on the expedition, I thought that he wrote the book based solely on interviews and his own research. The introduction Krakauer writes is pretty heartbreaking. He mentions that despite many authors/editors advising him not to write it he felt he needed to because “what happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out. I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn’t, of course […] The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.”
A lot of Krakauer’s “survivor’s guilt” stems from the death of Andy Harris. Krakauer mistook someone for Harris and told base camp that Harris was alive. This information was passed on to Harris’ family despite that fact that Harris was actually already dead. But I think the major root of his distress was in his helplessness during the storm. In Krakauer’s reaction to the 2016 movie adaption Everest he says how angry he was that the movie suggested he couldn’t leave his tent to try and assist his fellow climbers because he had snow blindness. This isn’t true at all. Krakauer couldn’t leave his tent out of sheer exhaustion. He physically couldn’t drag himself out of the tent. But this type of exhaustion is strange and unbelievable to anyone who hasn’t climbed Everest. It was a cheap route taken by a semi-exploitative blockbuster. Oh well ...
I developed a weird crush on Rob Hall while reading this book. But the most interesting climbers involved in the tragedy were Scott Fischer, Fishcer’s sherpa Lopsang Jangbu, Antoli Boukreev and Sandy Hill Pittman. I left Doug Hansen out because he enrages me, and Beck Weathers because the only thing interesting about him is that he loses his nose and some fingers due to frostbite (he is basically assumed dead and then stumbles into base camp).
Rob Hall- Rob and his wife Jan Arnold met climbing. They are goddamn adorable. Hall was always incredibly concerned with safety. There are multiple times in the book where Krakauer is shocked by some of the decisions Hall makes during the expedition (particularly with his decision to not turn back before reaching the top after missing their noon deadline). The book (and the movie too, to it's credit) does a really great job of showing the intense amount of pressure on guides to get their clients to the top of Everest. In 1996 clients would pay ~$40 grand for a chance to summit. Making sure all clients summited was important for the success of the guiding company.
Scott Fischer- I love that Scott Fischer is described as someone who would make himself sick working out regularly. That is how physically intense this man was. But he is characterized as lighthearted and relaxed, kind of making Rob Hall look like “no fun” in comparison.
Lopsang Jangbu - Lopsang was a loyal sherpa who worked for, and deeply respected, Fischer. You learn a lot about sherpas while reading the book. Many of them were incredibly superstitious and it made me cry reading about how devastated Lopsang was when Fischer died on the mountain. My friend Katie believes that Lopsang has the real answers for what happened on Everest, and I think she is right. Lopsang had harnessed Sandy Hill Pittman to himself because he knew how important it was for Fischer’s company to get the social media star to the top of the mountain. Because of this Lopsang wasn’t able to secure the ropes further up, and this delayed the two teams significantly.
Antoli Boukreev- This is the only person that Krakauer openly vilified in the book (which is a surprise given how easy it would have been to blame Sandy Hill Pittman). He accuses the Russian guide of being selfish and unhelpful with the clients who were paying for his assistance. But Boukreev lived by the belief that you should not climb Everest if you couldn't do it yourself. He was very against affluent hobbyists paying to summit. This is something I completely agree with. If you want to hear his side of the story you can read The Climb. In my edition of Into Thin Air Krakauer responds to Boukreev's book. Boukreev dies a year after the tragedy in a climbing accident.
Sandy Hill Pittman- As a rich socialite, Sandy Hill Pittman is hard not to target. She had an outrageous amount of gear with her so that she could try and broadcast from the summit. Krakauer is incredibly fair with her. He mentioned how brutal the media was on her afterwards and her hesitancy to talk about the expedition. A line he includes that makes her more tolerable is that she would vehemently disagree with anyone who suggested she was a mountaineer. She always maintained that it was just a hobby.
Into Thin Air also gives you a really good sense of the commercialization of Everest, as well as a little bit about Nepal and Tibet. To learn more about the commercialization I bought the book Dark Summit by Nick Heil based off Katie’s recommendation. She is a topical reader and should be the one writing this blog post.
I’ve never read Jon Krakauer before, but I did enjoy it. I do think you need a Katie in your life to get as much out of it though. I’m still not sick of discussing it with her, and she still sends me photos of Scott Fischer. But I’m also really digging non-fiction by journalists these days, so …
To finish this post I should mention that unrelatedly Meg and I learned some mountaineering terminology. If you say that you climbed Everest it doesn’t necessarily mean you “summited” it. Summiting means you reached the highest peak. Obviously we now plan to walk 0.5 kms up Everest so we can add it to our resumes. Stay tuned for that blog post.