Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace.
Ever since the idea of conquering Mount Everest rose in the minds of adventure-seekers, there have been countless number of people who have either attempted or even climbed this Hulk among mountains. Many have died too, chasing this risky dream. But among the many tragic incidents that happened up there, one of the most infamous was that which happened on May 10-11, 1996 when eight people died during summit attempts under worsening blizzard conditions. There were multiple expeditions attempting to climb the summit during those couple of days - one of them being Rob Hall's, whose clientele included the author Jon Krakauer, and another being his chief competitors', Scott Fischer. Into Thin Air is Krakauer's account of what happened during that climb and after.
I had heard about Jon Krakauer and some of his works, most principally his response to the Mortensongate and his following piece, Three Cups of Deceit. I had also vaguely heard about his Into the Wild, which I plan to read soon. But Into Thin Air is my first exposure to his writing. It was Kim's review that made me want to read this one, but from experience, I know that my attention waxes and wanes while reading some nonfiction books. Because of my now longer commute to and from work, I used this opportunity to listen to books I want to read but am not quite sure of.
Into Thin Air is a pretty quick listen, all things considered. Moreover, this narrative nonfiction was very intriguing that I actually loved taking my time to reach office/home (well, maybe not home). Krakauer sets the tone of the book right from the prologue itself when he mentions running out of oxygen shortly after reaching the summit. There was never a dull moment in the book, even when he spends a whole chapter giving a detailed history of Mount Everest and some of the historically important summit attempts. I was initially confused by this history lesson, but I saw its relevance later when Krakauer talks about the rivalry/friendship between Rob and Scott, the two expedition leaders, and how much scaling the Everest meant to any serious climber. Moreover, it also set the foundation for understanding the many bad decisions, some fatal, that a few climbers made.
Not only does Krakauer narrate the events leading up to the tragedy, he also gives a very good insight into many aspects of mountaineering - the do's and don'ts, the rules set forth by expeditions and their guides to ensure their clients' safety, and also the many technical aspects of this sport. Mountaineering is not for the faint of heart or for someone who isn't fit enough. Krakauer describes so many possible risks associated with this sport that although I feel immense respect for mountaineers and their mental strength, sometimes I think they are just plain crazy!
Before starting this book, I didn't read up about the tragedy - therefore, I got attached to a few characters who eventually died. Krakauer takes the time to introduce a lot of the people who were climbing with him. It did become overwhelming as I tried to keep the names straight but it didn't matter - I was able to follow along fine. The journey was occasionally fun and invigorating, but mostly stressful and tiring. Everyone suffered from something or the other most of the time, but they were all determined to make the summit. Some were climbing Everest for the first time, some had already conquered the peak. There were however a few who had attempted and failed previously and were hoping that this will be the one. It was sad reading the stories of those who still didn't make it, and even sadder to hear accounts of people who didn't stop to help the almost-dead but continued on their quest to greatness. But amongst this gloom, there were many stories of valor. There was a man who could have been as good as dead, only to make a full recovery. Many of the Sherpas who were involved in the expedition were also crucial to the recovery efforts as they weathered dangerous elements looking for missing people.
All in all, I was very impressed with this book. That's a weird thing to say about a disaster but Krakauer writes and reads the book so well that it left me feeling a whole lot of emotions - intense sadness, laughter, triumph. Some of the back-from-the-dead surprised me but then I cheered for them. He also doesn't hesitate to talk about some of the criticisms he received in the aftermath, but from what I understand and read post-Into Thin Air, there are some different versions also floating around, depending on what each surviving climber remembered or believed. Clearly, the summit is not where clarity of thought resides. Even three weeks after listening to this book, I know I'm still haunted by this incident. After finishing the book, I almost felt as if I lost some good friends.
I borrowed this audiobook from the good old library.