* Prices may differ from that shown
This book is absolutely thrilling, I think I read the whole thing in about 3 sittings because I couldn't put it down.
It is quite a long and detailed account which also contains four pages of colour photographs. It tells the true story of the tragic deaths of commercial climbers on Mount Everest in 1996. I have no real interest in mountaineering, but this book is so well written that you don't need to. Even if you remember the event from the news at the time, the author keeps the tension well throughout so you are continually gritting your teeth and wishing for all those to get out alive.
The author has a fantastic style and voice, it is of great sadness to me that he still feels responsibility for some of his actions on the mountain when it is quite clear that he did nothing wrong, or nothing that any of the rest of us would do.
The descriptions of the snow and mountain scenery are very evocative, you will feel chilly even if reading this on a beach! I read this before going for a glacier walk in New Zealand, I would not recommend reading it before any snow sports as it will give you nightmares!
Standing on the roof on the world, atop the summit of Mount Everest, there is around one-third of the oxygen available at sea-level. Not enjoying this, the body responds by shutting down all but its most essential functions, making sleeping, eating and even thinking clearly all but impossible. The top thousand metres or so of the mountain is known as the "Death Zone", and not without good reason - over two hundred lives have been claimed by the world's highest peak, and whilst more accidents may have been due to falling accidents, it is here that climbers' lives are sapped by the minute.
Eight of these deaths occurred in one tragic series of accidents on May 11th, 1996, and Jon Krakauer's account, Into Thin Air, chronicles the events from his first-hand perspective. Joining guide Rob Hall's expedition with the intention of writing a piece on the commercialisation of Everest for Outside Magazine, Krakauer ended up in the midst of the unfolding tragedy. Into Thin Air, the author concedes in his introduction, was written unusually quickly after the incident - lacking something in critical distance, perhaps, too saturated with raw emotion, but released as something of a cathartic exercise for Krakauer, still haunted by the mountain.
The narrative weaves together the account of the expedition with a history of the climbing of Everest; an approach that gives the book a nice balance and readable, varied pace. Although Krakauer doesn't go into extensive detail in summarising past attempts to reach the summit - he doesn't have space to - what he does provide does a good job of placing the '96 bid for the top in context, giving background and depth to the story.
A book about an attempt to scale Everest is always going to have an intrinsic drama and intrigue about it; an account of one that went wrong even more so. The author, though, is able to add plenty to this through the calibre of his writing, and manages to manipulate the tension within the story with great skill. Krakauer is an exceptional writer, and combining his talents with such an essentially dramatic subject makes for an extremely effective book. His greatest attribute is the knack he has for taking factual, real-life stories and turning into something that feels much more fictional, with all the multi-faceted plots and twists and turns of a blockbuster movie.
His previous book, Into The Wild, made great use of this halfway-house method of storytelling, with Krakauer mixing known facts and educated guesswork together to create a rich narrative; the background to Into Thin Air is slightly different, of course; the author was not only present to witness the events, but inextricably entwined in them. There are still holes in his knowledge, however; moments where no-one was present - however, he resists the temptation to fill in the gaps with more speculative versions of events, as he did when relating the tale of Chris McCandless (Into the Wild). Perhaps this is because he came to know the people involved in a way he didn't in his earlier work, and felt obliged to stick to the facts - despite this, though, Krakauer is able to spin a tale that feels like it could be fictional, whilst at the same time injecting it with all the potency that comes with relating real-life events.
Though dealing with extremes few of us are likely to encounter, this is an account that is as accessible to climbing novices as it is of interest to those more familiar with the pursuit. Krakauer uses technical terms where appropriate, but generally offers a brief explanation or places them in a clear context. Likewise, his descriptions of altitude sickness, extreme cold and disorientation are not conveyed simply by mentioning their existence; the author's narrative is rich with descriptions that pull us into the story and almost have us shivering in empathy. When the characters are suffering, their every laboured breath and shooting pain is conveyed with sharp, concise insights - this is an exceptionally involving account, and the emotions Krakauer invokes in his readers only make us feel more keenly for those involved in the disaster.
Into Thin Air has come in for some criticism for its portrayal of events, most notably from other climbers, especially the Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev. Reading Krakauer's account, however, there isn't any apparent agenda - certain facts may be up for debate, and doubtless there were strained relationships on the mountain that may have resulted in some differing perspectives. That said, though, this comes across as a fairly balanced account, in which the author both praises and criticises the choices of others, but also takes a share of the blame himself.
Krakauer's book is likely to appeal pretty broadly; it's an account of the human desire to overcome nature, a tale of endurance and disaster, a exploration of the allure of Everest and other towering peaks, and a treatise on the dangers of commercialising what is an undeniably lethal place. With the author's fine written abilities and a narrative bursting with inherent, tragic drama, Into Thin Air is a captivating, breathless read that both draws awe and admiration and makes the reader glad they're experiencing events in a much more comfortable environment.
In the spring of 1996, fifteen expeditions set out to climb Mount Everest, two of which were the Adventure Consultants Guided Expedition, led by Rob Hall of New Zealand, and the Mountain Madness Guided Expedition, led by the American Scott Fischer. The basis of such a guided expedition is that seemingly ordinary people can climb the highest peak on Earth, based not on their climbing skills, but how much money they have. Suffice to say, people with almost no climbing experience can climb Everest. A recipe for disaster? Jon Krakauer, an author, journalist and mountaineer from Seattle, was sent to Everest in 1996 as a part of the Adventure Consultants team to report on the commercialisation of Everest, and the growing popularity of such guided expeditions. He was sent there by Outside, an American mountaineering magazine, who payed for his expedition. For Krakauer, it was an offer too good to resist - he'd had a strong ambition to climb Everest from a young age. What resulted from the expedition was utter disaster - eight climbers died from various teams, and many were left badly injured and frostbitten. It was the worst single-day death toll in Everest's history. Krakauer, having been sent to Everest to write a report for his magazine Outside, felt such a disaster cannot be reported on a few glossy pages, and hence he wrote Into Thin Air. The book was written in November 1996, only six months after the events, so as he admits himself in the preface, "readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here." Into Thin Air opens literally at the top - Krakauer has just reached the summit of Everest, and although he's been dreaming of the moment for as long as he can remember, he's "too tired to care." Not surprising, after weeks of climbing at high altitude, where the air is oxygen-starved, and you're breathing freezing cold air laced with ice particles. As he wr
ites, he explains that so little oxygen is reaching his brain that he has the mental capacity of a slow child. And on that basis, he has to descend back to Camp IV, over 3000 feet below. As the chapter ends, he is trying to descend as quickly but as safely as he can, but is being held back literally by "traffic jams" of climbers still ascending. To add to the troubles, it's starting to snow, visibility has vanished, and a severe storm is on the way... Chapter 2 takes us back in time, to 1852, when surveyors studied Peak XV, known as Sagarmatha - "goddess of the sky" - by the Nepalis, and Jomolungma - "goddess, mother of the earth" by the Tibetans. Through calculations with a theodolite and plenty of trigonometry, they discovered that Peak XV was in fact the highest point on the planet, at 29,002 feet above sea level (more recently, it has been re-calculated to 29,028 feet - 8848 metres). Peak XV was officially named Mount Everest, after Sir George Everest, the previous Surveyor General. Moving up through history, from the earliest summit attempts, to Mallory and Irvine in 1924, and Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. Then the first ascents without supplemental oxygen, wider challenges such as climbing all the 8,000m+ peaks, and the uprising in guided expeditions, which gained heavy criticism from people like Hillary. True, Everest was being devalued and commercialised, with aluminium ladders and fixed ropes making highways to the summit. And then to the present day, Jon Krakauer sitting on the Airbus A300 soaring above the Himalayas on his way to join the expedition. The next few chapters introduce the reader to all the expedition members, and the birth and growth of the Adventure Consultants company. Meanwhile, the team are making their way up the valleys, onto the glaciers, and onto Base Camp at a mere 17,600 feet above sea level! For people like me who prefer to read about the mountain and the climbin
g, some parts of these early chapters get tedious, being more about the personalities of Krakauer's companions, but luckily he also writes about their climbing experiences. If they have any, that is! There were some inexperienced climbers on the team, but also plenty of accomplished climbers, several of which had attempted to climb Everest before but had to turn back befoire reaching the summit. By the way Krakauer introduces the people, you get the picture of who will be an asset, and who will cause trouble. Also as a bonus, the book is written with the non-mountaineers in mind, those who wouldn't know a jumar, piton, cam, or any other piece of hardware, if someone showed them one. Whenever there's a bit of technical speak, there's a footnote at the bottom of the page explaining what it is and what it does. The same goes for other items and procedures which wouldn't be common knowledge, such as the Buddhist prayer flags and holy shrines. Through the weeks of acclimatisation, climbing up and down the icefalls, Krakauer draws out the bonds between the expedition members : who is a strong climber and who will hold the rest of the group up. The way he writes makes it feel as if you are there, on the mountain, clipped onto the rope, hanging onto your ice axes. He shows how they change from arriving at Base Camp and feeling how thin the air is, then through acclimatisation it becomes the norm. Although he still writes about personalities, it is a very good read. Eventually the push for the summit comes around, where it really gets serious - around here, the book gets "unputdownable". As well as the climbing, rifts start to appear in the team. Especially with the two main expeditions, Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness, working together and Sherpas having disputes - neglecting to set up fixed ropes, "oversleeping" when they had been ordered to go out earlier to se
t up the routes, and so on. This all led to the summit push being delayed, and as depicted in the colour photographs in the centre of the book. There is a picture of the notorious Hillary Step, a vertical rock face on the ridge, swarming with climbers in red down jackets. This not only slows down those climbing, but those who have already reached the summit and are returning have to stop and wait, using up valuable time and oxygen reserves. Mistakes were made up on the mountain, such as Rob Hall seemingly ignoring the "turnaround time" - the time at which it is too late to continue to the summit and they must return. Then came the storm, and the start of the tangle of events ending up as the disaster. Here comes a major criticism of Into Thin Air - Krakauer is very quick to dish out blame, and picks out particular Sherpas and guides as the villains of the story - mainly to guide Anatoli Boukreev and Sherpa Lopsang Jangbu. This stands out clearly when you do your own research afterwards - the Outside magazine's website, www.outsideonline.com, is a particularly good one. Find your way to "Scott Fischer returns to Everest" section and there you'll find press releases, addendums from Krakauer, and "letters to the editor" from those who were unfairly criticised in Into Thin Air. One particular example is on the descent, when things were going seriously wrong. Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev, an accomplished climber from Russia, went ahead and returned to Camp IV on the South Col, leaving clients up on the summit ridge in serious trouble. What Krakauer doesn't tell the reader is that Boukreev was sent down by the leader Scott Fischer to rest, prepare hot drinks and collect extra oxygen cylinders in case he was required to head back up to rescue climbers. Krakauer is quick to hand out blame to those he thinks caused the disaster, but in the effects of high altitude, everyone's mind had gone n
umb, including Krakauer himself who did make serious mistakes (he does admit this in the book). Nevertheless, the description of the events is riveting. Struggling down to the South Col in a hurricane and zero visibility, with oxygen cylinders empty, you're there. No matter how warm you are while reading it, you can feel the cold and the effects of high altitude - too tired to stand up, never mind descend Everest in safety. It really is a riveting account of the disaster. With Krakauer in relative safety, down at Camp IV at the South Col with food and hot drinks, all he can do is wait for the rest. Boukreev, despite what Krakauer does (and doesn't) write, becomes the hero by returning to the summit ridge in an effort to rescue the standed climbers. Climbing the summit ridge is hard enough just the once, but to return to it a second time takes some doing. Eventually they have to come to extremely difficult decisions - is it worth rescuing those who are barely alive? They may still be just about alive but there's no way they will survive getting back down to base camp, so as hard as it is to decide, they will be a burden and jeopardise the safety of those still alive. They literally have to leave friends to die on the mountain. With the decisions made they descend back through the camps and back to the "normality" of Base Camp and finally back to civilisation, upon which the sheer scale of the disaster sinks in - the high standard of writing continues as Krakauer fights the oncoming depression once he is back home in Seattle. Overall, Into Thin Air is a superb book in the way it is written and the way the the events are portrayed. Other similar books I've read describe the situations clearly, but never so much that it felt like I was actually there. The only problem with the book, and it's a big problem, is that it is flawed. Maybe it is because Krakauer wrote it so soon after it all happened. Indeed, r
eading on the Outside Online website, there are numerous key elements which he only found out months after the book was published. As he said himself at the start of the book, a reader is poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis. Inaccurate and incomplete facts written in the book have caused a great deal of distress for relatives of those killed. So, do read this book, it really is unmissable, but do realise that it's not the full story. Further Reading: "The Climb", Anatoli Boukreev (Macmillan; ISBN: 0333907159) Outside Online - Scott Fischer Returns To Everest : http://www.outsidemag.com/peaks/fischer/index.html
This is the true story of a 24-hour period on Everest, when members of three separate expeditions were caught in a storm and faced a battle against hurricane-force winds, exposure, and the effects of altitude, which ended the worst single-season death toll in the peak's history.