Recommendation: I really enjoyed this – be aware that some of its factual assertions have been criticised but Krakauer is a fantastic writer
Where to read: On a cold winter’s night
Read with: Is it bad taste to suggest a Blizzard cocktail?
In brief: When most people think of mountaineering, this is the book they think about. A journalist on assignment with Outside magazine, Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants team to climb Everest and write a feature about the experience and the company. Instead, he became a participant in a truly terrifying debacle on the upper slopes of the mountain which resulted in the deaths of 8 climbers and decades of controversy.
Into Thin Air, as the most popular account of the 1996 tragedy, has been the focus of fierce criticism, both for Krakauer’s critiques of other climbers and for alleged factual inaccuracies. Many of those involved have suggested that his very presence was a factor in the disaster, with Rob Hall feeling more pressure than he otherwise would have to get clients to the top. Others have pointed out that the guides received weather forecasts which clearly showed the storm, making his characterisation of the storm as “unexpected” misleading. Krakauer was also very critical of Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev, particularly his decision to not use supplemental oxygen (for what it’s worth, Ed Viesturs agrees with him), but Boukreev and others have expressed anger at his portrayal and there is no doubt he did extraordinary things to save lives.
This criticism strikes me as slightly unfair. The title of the book alludes to the fact that once you have crossed into the “death zone”, the air is literally too thin to support human life. Krakauer is very frank about the impact this oxygen deprivation has on cognitive functioning and the ability to accurately recall events. It is clear he has done his best, but he is also careful to clarify the limitations of his narrative where appropriate. The other obvious limitation, and a tragic one, is that some of the most central figures died so there is necessarily a degree of mystery about pivotal events.
It is also interesting to note that Krakauer was not a complete novice. He had initially been asked to go to Base Camp to write about the growing commercialization of Everest but put the assignment off for a year in order to train for an actual summit bid. Accordingly, he does discuss his early experiences learning to climb and some of his youthful misadventures ice-climbing, although he is quite transparent about his lack of experience on really big mountains. It becomes apparent throughout the book that he was a more experienced climber than many on the mountain and yet he struggled at the altitude, particularly once his oxygen ran out.
Of course, Krakauer’s depiction of his inexperienced companions on the mountain, and the accompanying implication that none of them could have been there without paying Sherpas and commercial guiding companies obscene amounts of money, has been the most enduring part of Into Thin Air. Krakauer was sent to report on commercialisation but the piece seems to have been intended more as an advertising piece for Adventure Consultants rather than an indictment on the whole situation. As it comes out in the book, however, Krakauer has clear reservations about the entire enterprise, and very little good to say about some of the characters at Base Camp. The Taiwanese expedition, the South African expedition and some of the commercial clients come off looking particularly inept. Some of the guides struggled too, as they ran rescue missions in the weeks before the climb and worked overtime to drag their clients up the mountain. Add “summit fever” to large numbers of slow and inexperienced climbers, or so goes the argument, and you have a recipe for disaster. That said, Krakauer also recognises that some of his less well trained doctor and lawyer expedition mates made better decisions that day than anyone else, deciding to turn back when they got stuck behind the Taiwanese team rather than risk descending in the dark.
What should, to my mind, have received more attention at the time was Krakauer’s portrayal of the racial dynamics at play. He does not examine this as much as he could have, but he is careful to note the significantly different pay rates for Western guides and Sherpas (think a factor of 10). He also points out Fisher’s hesitation to call for a helicopter evacuation for a Sherpa suffering from HAPE when a western client would almost certainly have warranted one. It may not have made much difference in the end, given the seriousness of the case, but it is striking.
Controversy aside, there is no denying that Krakauer writes brilliantly. I am not widely read enough to have a view on the best mountaineering books ever written but I suggest this would be up there on the strength of the prose alone. It might not be a ‘must read’ for general readers, but I think it is worth it for anyone with a passing interest in the subject.