Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Into Thin Air
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.


16 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

When I went to see Amanda Padoan speak about her book, Buried in the Sky, there was a mountain climber in the audience. The discussion he had with Amanda was fascinating. Since then, I've wanted to read more about it so this book sounds great to me! I love that you got so attached to the people in it.

Athira / Aths said...

I have to read Buried in the Sky now! I know I will never go mountain climbing but Krakauer's book left me so awed. I still don't know how a person can manage so many days with so many different kinds of illnesses at that altitude and still feel so determined to make the summit.

zibilee said...

I have this one out from the library, after reading a few great reviews, but it hasn't arrived just yet. I find your comment about the fact that the peak is not where mental clarity lies to be very profound, and think that I definitely need to make some time for this one when I can. Excellent and very potent review today!

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you! I hope you will love this book. It is short too. I will be looking for your review.

Tina Reed said...

I have read a few of Krakauer's books and they've all been pretty good. I too, listened to this one on audio when I was training to climb Half Dome at Yosemite. I torn calf muscle and a sprained ankle prevented me from doing it, but it was good listening nonetheless.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm glad you like his other books too. This was my first book about mountain climbing and I hope it won't be my last. I hope you get to climb Half Dome another time!

Helen Murdoch said...

I liked this one too and did the same thing as you: I didn't remember who lived and died and didn't remember the prologue so was SO upset to discover who didn't make it. I didn't like Into the Wild as much, but not because of the writing. I just didn't like the story as much

Sam_TinyLibrary said...

I love to read books like this, as I like to think of myself as an adventurous spirit but really I would back down at the first hint of snow/discomfort. I've added this one to my wishlist :)

Athira / Aths said...

I know I'll definitely not ever sign up for risky sports. I'm too much of a chicken, lol. I hope you enjoy this book, Sam! :)

Athira / Aths said...

Of all the different ways to die, I feel freezing up on the mountaintops with barely any way to get your body to your family is one of the saddest or loneliest! I just felt so terrible reading the accounts.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Sounds excellent! And I'm always so happy when I see people listening to audios.

Athira / Aths said...

This was my first after two years I think and I'm glad it worked. :)

IntrovertedJen said...

I'm glad you liked it! This was my first pick in a conscious effort to read more nonfiction. Imagine my surprise when I found myself putting aside my fiction book to see what was going on up on the summit!

Athira / Aths said...

I was the same way. I couldn't wait to get into my car so that I could listen to the rest of this book!

Ryan Stonge said...

This is one of the few books I have read that has left a lasting impression years later. There are still moments in this book that I remember vividly. There are parts of this book that scared me more than anything Stephen King could possibly write.

Athira / Aths said...

That's how I still feel. This book was haunting, scary and had a huge impact on me.