A history of Mount Everest expedition is intertwined with the disastrous expedition the author was a part of, during which five members were killed by a hurricane-strength blizzard. When Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996, he hadn't slept in fifty-seven hours and was reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion. As he turned to begin his long, dangerous descent from 29,028 feet, twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly toward the top. No one had noticed that the sky had begun to fill with clouds. Six hours later and 3,000 feet lower, in 70-knot winds and blinding snow, Krakauer collapsed in his tent, freezing, hallucinating from exhaustion and hypoxia, but safe. The following morning he learned that six of his fellow climbers hadn't made it back to their camp and were in a desperate struggle for their lives. When the storm finally passed, five of them would be dead, and the sixth so horribly frostbitten that his right hand would have to be amputated. Krakauer examines what it is about Everest that has compelled so many people - including himself - to throw caution to the wind, ignore the concerns of loved ones, and willingly subject themselves to such risk, hardship, and expense. Written with emotional clarity and supported by his unimpeachable reporting, Krakauer's eye-witness account of what happened on the roof of the world is a singular achievement.
The disaster is a story I know well, but I still found myself at the edge of my seat reading about it here. For readers who are less familiar with the details, I have to imagine it would be an even more exciting, intense and moving reading experience. A theme that comes up in a great deal of climbing literature (including this book) is that the climb is not an exciting act of the daredevil, but rather the slow, excruciating battle against the elements and oneself. Krakauer, as a climber himself, well understands this, and is able to tell the story (which is powerful to begin with) in such a strong way because the excitement comes from a tension at the heart of any expedition like this. On one hand, climbers are those who are able to overcome incredible physical and mental adversity to pursue their goal, at the same time, they have to make smart decisions about when to turn around. It is this dynamic which drives the book, and Krakauer does a great job structuring the narrative around it.
It is also well written. As a writer, Krakauer does a nice job using both a stylistic voice and a direct, journalistic voice. He is able to interweave these well, capturing both the transcendent experience of being 28,000 feet above sea level with the intensely personal experience of trying to survive in the death zone. It is a breeze to read, and I found myself totally absorbed into the events as they unfolded.
One thing that the author wrestles with throughout the book is the reliability of the narrator. At that altitude, the mind is dulled, and memories become sketchy. Indeed, Krakauer corrects a serious error he made in his original article in this book, based upon a faulty memory. We are never far from a reminder of this simple fact, that no matter how many people he talks to discuss the story with, there is a aspect of mystery to everything that happened.
I also found Krakauer to be honest about his own role in the tragedy. He places blame on himself for failing to recognize Andy Harris' struggles with the altitude, and for remaining in his tent while his teammates were trapped in the storm outside. Though he ultimately diffuses the blame for the tragedy across a number of sources, he is willing to critically examine his own role in it. This self-reflective character of the book (in both these passages and in those considering the unreliability of his memory) are among the most moving in the book, and make it a very personal read.
Finally, one cannot review this book without mentioning the controversy about the role of Anatoli Boukreev, a guide for one of the ill-fated expeditions. Boukreev summitted without bottled oxygen, which Krakauer argues forced him to descend ahead of his clients. Though critical of this decision (along with a couple of other decisions Boukreev made), Krakauer also praises him for the amazing courage he displayed when he went out into the storm alone, numerous times, saving the lives of a couple of stranded climbers. Krakauer's criticisms of Boukreev caused a controversy, which resulted in the publication of The Climb, a rebuttal to the events as they are described in Into Thin Air. Later editions of the latter novel contain a detailed reply to the claims made in that book.
The debate over this book was heated, with much of the more aggressive rhetoric coming in a series of exchanges between the authors. It is surprising that it became such a public dispute, when it really concerns a few passages in Into Thin Air which focus on some fine points in alpine climbing decision making. Otherwise Krakauer provides opportunities for Boukreev's own explanations to be heard, and rightly lauds Boukreev's heroism. Despite the passion of this dispute, I found Krakauer's book to be more even-handed than his critiques allege, particularly given that he points out on numerous occasions his own unreliability as a narrator, despite his best efforts to confirm details. This dispute does not take away from Boukreev's heroism, the important questions his descent raises for alpinists, and the quality of Krakauer's book.
Krakauer is a masterful reporter and his out door tales (also Into the Wild) are fascinating and exciting to read.
The quest to conquer Everest is a universal tale all humans can relate to.
The book is, obviously, written in such a way that one knows from the beginning that specific people are going to die. That knowledge is what inspires the morbid fascination that kept me glued to this book for hours on end. Mountaineering, admittedly, is not something I am particularly interested in, and at times I did find it difficult to understand why on Earth anyone would want to climb up a mountain when there was obviously so much danger involved. I suppose that its thrill is similar to that of gambling, only the people climbing are betting not only money but also their lives on whether or not the mountain will kill them.
I mentioned a feeling of fascination coupled with morbidity, and this book did inspire a certain amount of anxiety, if not fear, in me, for I was reading about men- and women- who are now dead. Who staked everything on their ability to survive, on their guides’ ability to make decisions when thin air makes rational thinking all but impossible. Who gambled and lost. And their companions had to leave them behind.
One of the more frightening parts of this book is how Krakauer describes the death of each of these people in depth, whether they died of disease or froze in the snow. I did find that the descriptions that frightened me the most were those of Ngawang Topche and Yasuko Namba. Ngawang fell ill early on in the book but his death was no small matter. He had contracted HAPE, a dangerous high-altitude disease, which was made more dangerous by some pre-existing pulmonary condition. He was shuttled down the mountain and brought to the doctors as quickly as possible, but he still died after struggling for days. Yasuko made it to the top of Everest, but was trapped with the others when that fateful storm blew in. She and another member were separated from the group and lost their way trying to find the camp. When searchers found them they were both alive, both breathing, but it was evident that Yasuko had gone beyond the point where the doctors could save her. By some miracle those two had survived in the cold, and the expedition had to leave her behind anyway. If they hadn’t, there would have been more death.
Walking hand in hand with that reality is Everest, spreading its message that mountains are not things to be trifled with, no matter how skilled the climber. In the end, the mountain is the one that decides whether climbers live or die. The smallest storm on top of that mountain can kill a man easily. The truth is , as it says in the book, that getting to the top of a mountain is easy. It’s getting down that matters.
To tell the truth, just thinking about that freaks me out. To be on top of a mountain, where the air is thin enough that bottled oxygen is necessary, and there’s no promise of returning to the ground, and the wind slices through layers of cloth like a knife. I know that I’d never be able to climb up that high, no matter how euphoric the experience may be. For one thing, I’m afraid of heights, and for another I just don’t like the chances. I’m not very fond of gambling.
This is a suspenseful real-life thriller about the tragic climb and I greatly enjoyed learning more about high-altitude climbing. Since I had little awareness about the event, it was suspenseful to anticipate who might survive and how it would end. The author has since been criticized for assuming the motivations of those who died on the expedition and the survivors who refused to be interviewed. While the author acknowledged that he made some errors in presenting the information, which was hurtful to the families involved, I appreciated his candor and willingness to admit to his mistakes. I felt his account was a humble and genuine attempt to make sense of his traumatic experience and bring peace to himself and others impacted by the tragedy. Highly recommended.
But I was still left wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing. My experiences of hiking are very minor and usually include a pleasant lunch with a view at the end of a minor uphill climb. These people actually risk their health and life and simply get to the summit and then turn back. I just don't get it. And I couldn't help agreeing with those sherpas who felt like the mountain wasn't happy with the commercialization and pollution brought by man. That somewhere, someone wanted us to just stand in awe of such majesty rather than trying to build a tower to the heavens.
In the preface, Krakauer explains why he decided to write a book about this experience -- though he was originally on the Everest expedition to write an article for Outside magazine, he found when he returned that a simple article was not enough to sooth his painful memories. Thus, he wrote Into Thin Air as an act of cartharsis, and the emotion imbued in his narrative is palpable throughout, especially as it becomes evident that Krakauer has yet to forgive himself for the events of that day.
If you're going to read Into Thin Air, you should get a post-1999 version, as it includes a postscript in which which Krakauer responds to his detractors and defends his story. His defense is measured, well-researched, and convincing, and I appreciated Krakauer as a writer (and as a man) even more after reading it.
So, I had planned to read this book for last year's Modern Classics challenge, but never got around to it. Then, after my sister incessantly berated me, I picked it up. It started kind of slow, as did Into the Wild (one of Krakauer's other books), but it got really good.
Krakauer has this way of telling a story where you already go in knowing what happens; seriously, he tells you in the preface notes that a bunch of people died in a horrible storm, but you still keep reading.
Probably because in the "tedious" set-up of the book, he has laid out the meticulous nature of these guides (whom you know end up dying in the end) and you ask yourself, "What went wrong?"
The only problem is that you can't really read this book if you're looking for answers--there aren't any. Sometimes accidents happen and the people who were in the position to anticipate and/or prevent the "accidents" are all dead, so we can't know their motivations or thought processes. Also, the people who are still alive sometimes have conflicting accounts of their own experiences.
None the less, the book does open up discussions for interesting topics such as, "If there's a point on the globe that's so high that it's nearly impossible to reach it without compressed air or the assistance of hard-working, and perhaps under-paid, sherpas, should we be going there?" Granted, there are a handful of people who have summited Everest without using canned air or the assistance of sherpas (one guy in 1996 did it... he's an all-star in my book), and maybe this mountain (a sacred part of Himalayan culture) should be left alone except for the truly exceptional people. Who knows? That's not necessarily for me to answer, but I've definitely been thinking on this for a couple of days now.
This book was so fantastic that I'd recommend for everyone I know to read it (with the up-front disclaimer that it's worth plugging through the "tedious" part so you can really get it in the end). Also, several other people who were on the trip have written their own accounts (my sister read Beck Weather's book, Left for Dead, and I'm intrigued beyond belief to read this, also Mike Groom, a guide from Scott Fisher's team who lived wrote a version based on his recollection).
All in all, this is a dynamite, fantastic, should be read by everyone in the entire world kind of book. (I only marked it down from A+ to an A because I would have preferred the "tedious" part to be a little less tedious, but I'm not entirely sure that's possible.)
It seems wrong to say that I “enjoyed” this book, since it is about such a tragic subject. I guess the best thing that I can think to say is that this book was fascinating. Before I picked it up, I knew very little about climbing Everest. I had no idea that an attempt to reach the summit included going up and down portions of the mountain several times, and over a period of 4 weeks. I assumed that it was more like climbing a less-imposing mountain, where you are always camping higher until you reach the summit. I didn’t know that it was much more of a two-steps-forward/two-steps-back endeavor.
I also didn’t realize that helicopter evacuations are not possible anywhere near the top of the mountain, so your options for getting the injured down from the summit are very limited. I guess I had never considered all of the physical limitations that come with that kind of altitude. Supplemental oxygen is a necessity for survival over more than a day or so, and all oxygen must be carried up. That means that if something goes wrong, there isn’t an abundance of time for action.
I would highly recommend this book, even though the subject is so sad. There are still great stories of survival and human strength contained in it. It really underscores the fact that tragedy can happen to even the best climbers. Nature is just such a powerful force.
Most of the account describes the ordinary business of climbing Everest -- if "ordinary" is remotely the right word to use for such an endeavor -- with a lot of background on the history of the mountain and its climbers, and a lot of detail about what an Everest attempt entails. Towards the end of the account, when disaster begins to strike in earnest, he continues to attempt to give as objective an account as he can muster, but also shares the depth of his survivor's guilt and his anguish at the role that he played in events.
What's particularly interesting about those events is that there are no obvious lessons to take from them, and no clear, simple narrative about actions A, B, and C leading to disastrous consequences X, Y, and Z. Instead, a lot of things just happened: weather, illness, bad choices and misperceptions by exhausted, oxygen-starved people.
My personal take-away from this narrative, honestly, is that attempting to climb Everest is a fundamentally crazy, even self-destructive act. Not because it's a harsh, dangerous environment where rescue in the event of disaster may be impossible, but because it's a harsh, dangerous, difficult-to-be-rescued-from environment where the human mind and body are not capable of proper functioning. But it's one that has just enough of a chance of not actually killing you that people insist on trying it anyway. Which I'd say makes it much worse place than, say, Mars. Nobody's going to try exploring Mars without proper life-support technology.
Well, that's one of my personal take-aways, anyway. The other one involves never, ever taking the life-giving sweetness of oxygen for granted again. I swear, the entire time I was reading this thing, I felt short of breath.
Jon Kraukauer is a journalist who has written for the sports magazine Outside. His climb of Mt. Everest was initiated by a request for an article on the commercialization of the mountain, the highest in the world. Such an article preceded the writing of this book, and it sets the tone for the book. I was unaware that the commercialization of Mt. Everest would be a central theme of the book. I was unaware that the book would be directed toward mountaineers and sport enthusiasts, that being because it grew from the article in the sports magazine. If you are a mountaineer yourself, you will be more interested in the detailed exposition of who has climbed which mountains and when and with which equipment. (I prefer trekking and I am not gear oriented.) The history of climbing is interesting, but here you get a rundown of each climber’s accomplishments and failures. I couldn’t keep all the different “big names” straight, and there are many, both in this excursion and in the numerous others mentioned. This information interrupts the telling of what happened in the 1996 Everest disaster, which is what drew me to the book. Who were at fault? Why did it happen What can be done to improve safety? Is there one answer? No, of course not. Sandy Pittman/Sandra Hill has written articles and spoken of her view of what happened. There is also Anatoli Boukreev’s book : The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. In his book, Krakauer clearly criticizes Boukreev, but it was Boukreev who saved Sandy’s life. All three were there, along with so many others.
Climbing Mt. Everest has become a business, a commodity to be sold, and on that day when the storm hit there were so many people there were bottlenecks and queues up there near the summit. Mountaineering, at least on Everest, is not a solitary sport! So at the bottom lies also my dislike of “the crowd” and of a sport that seems to me ridiculous. If people choose to put their lives at risk, well then they better be prepared for the consequences. Krakauer’s belief that it might be worthwhile to forbid the use of bottled gas, which enables all too many to attempt what they are untrained to do, is not a bad idea. How do you enforce that?! Do you deter people through exorbitant fees? All of this is discussed. Very little of the book is exciting, and at the end I don’t know if I have any clear answers.
The author narrates the book himself. Not a bad job, but I did laugh at how he pronounced the Swedish mountaineer, Göran Kropp’s, first name. Someone could have told him. It is such a common name. It made me wonder if he pronounced other names incorrectly, the Sherpas’ for example.
Finally, I think this book should have made clear what draws people to the mountaineering sport. I still don’t understand that. Krakauer just says it has an attraction for some and once you are hooked, well you are hooked! I want to understand what they feel, see, experience. I only saw the business side of the whole thing. He states that the view at Everest is unexceptional, and at high altitudes you can easily destroy your body! So why do they do it? This book never answered that question for me. It cannot be for fame or recognition because so many do not succeed. So what is it?
Krakauer is a long-time writer for adventure-type magazines and his experience displays well here. The reader may already know the outcome but that does not lessen the extreme enjoyment of the adventure.
Krakauer also describes well the incredible effect that living at high altitude can have in terms of sickness of the heart and brain, and what being in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere does to powers of judgement and even the simple abilities to walk, to talk, and to think. The story of the loss of people in the storm and the desperate attempts to find them is heart-rendering, and so is the accounting of the incredible demands that the climb, compounded by the emergency, placed on mere human beings. There are stories of incredible fatigue, incredible fortitude, incredible selfishness and thoughtlessness, incredible sacrifice. It seems that everything is magnified and focused in that most extreme of environments where a single misstep can mean death either instantly through a great fall, or more slowly through exposure and freezing. The most incredible story of endurance concerned a doctor from Texas who was given up for dead by his rescuers (even though they detected some breath after they chipped three inches of ice off his face when they found him after a night in the blizzard, but no one had the strength to carry him); who then walked, on his own power, into the camp a few hours later; was given the minimal treatment available (this was near the summit) but not expected to last the night; who did last the night although his tent collapsed in the storm and was almost smothering him; who was brought down the mountain and eventually into a hospital with the worst case of frostbite and frozen skin that the doctors had ever seen; and who lost an arm mid-forearm, several fingers off the other hand, and several toes, but who still hoped to be able to practice medicine!
Krakauer wrote about his experience in a magazine article before the book, and he took some vicious criticism from some surviving family members who accused him of saving his own skin when he could have done more to help the others. To his credit, he reproduces those criticisms in the book; he is clearly tormented by these thoughts (and many of the survivors faced similar reactions), but one cannot judge from the safety and comfort of an armchair what, if anything more, Krakauer could have done on the summit given his, and everyone else's, state of oxygen-deprived fatigue that is beyond comprehension and beyond measure. The fact that anyone got down off the mountain was a miracle in itself.
The book is a very good read. The events are terrible, tragic, but it's difficult to put the story aside. I first heard of this story when I saw the Omnimax movie, "Everest," which was filming on the mountain when the storm struck. The film crew did what they could to help out, but a number of climbers were lost.
It's disturbing to think that people are allowed to climb the mountain when they clearly lacked the experience (much less the equipment) to do so. At the same time, who's to decide who is ready and who's not?
I highly recommend this book.