Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

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If you had the money and the time and the necessary level of fitness, would you climb Mount Everest? Would you climb it “because it’s there”, in the famous words of George Leigh Mallory? I know I wouldn’t. Not just because its sounds like a painful process, but because I don’t understand–or perhaps just don’t have–the certain type of ego required to drive one to “knock the bastard off”. Reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer strengthened that vague impression into a fully-formed opinion.

Every year, hundreds of people from around the world pay thousands of dollars to expert climbing companies in Nepal to get them up Everest. It’s a significant part of the tourism economy of Nepal. But having lived in that country for almost a year, I know there’s a significant difference between the types of tourist who come to experience the mountain views and hiking trails, and those who come to climb Everest.

I first came to know of Jon Krakauer‘s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster (1997) when a British guy approached me outside my office in Patan Dhoka and asked if I wanted to be an extra on the documentary adaptation they were filming. (I couldn’t, because I had to work!) It’s one of those books that I should have read while in Nepal–and indeed, it’s available in all bookshops in the city–but didn’t get around to. It’s definitely required reading for any visitor to Nepal who’s heading to the mountains. (Other recommendations can be found on my Literature page).

Jon Krakauer–an American mountaineer and adventure/travel writer–had been commissioned to climb Everest with a guided expedition for Outside magazine in 1996. Until the avalanche of 2014 (which was itself ‘topped’ by the earthquake-related avalanche in 2015), 1996 was the single worst year on Everest. Eight people died in the single storm that Krakauer was caught up in as he was descending. Twelve people in total died on the mountain that year. Into Thin Air recounts the details of the expedition, and the decisions and failures-to-make-decisions that led to the enormous loss of life, both Nepali and foreign.

Into Thin Air was written very shortly after Krakauer returned from the ill-fated trip, later the same year in fact. The author’s grasping for catharsis is palpable, yet he still manages a culturally-contextualised, sensitive and intelligent account of the events. He admits throughout that his memory and judgment had been impaired by the high altitude, and recognises that he made mistakes on the mountain as well as in what he said about the events immediately after. Krakauer effectively builds suspense–even though we know what is going to happen–and does so subtly, without cheapening the story.

Into Thin Air
The sunrise over Langtang (not Everest) but with views like this from the ground, I can’t say I’m tempted to climb to the top.

The most fascinating part of Into Thin Air, I found, was Krakauer’s attempts to explain–or at least account for–the ego that drives mountaineers to tackle a monster like Everest. It is a notoriously challenging climb, even for experienced climbers. Krakauer is overtly critical of the wealthy American, Taiwanese and South African ‘climbers’ who buy their way onto expeditions, even without significant climbing experience. They are, in large part, pulled up the mountain by fitter and more experienced team leaders and Sherpas. He recognises that these types of people put everyone in danger. I believe in the author’s good intentions, but I wasn’t convinced by all of his explanations. Many others on the expedition are described as being driven to attempt Everest by an almost maniacal drive. Krakauer tells of one of his expedition-mates, Doug Hansen (who didn’t survive), who had attempted the summit the year before. Kiwi guide Rob Hall (who also died had turned Hansen around very close to the summit on that earlier attempt, and Hansen was ‘haunted’ by what he saw as his failure. Hall had persuaded Hansen to give it one last shot. Krakauer writes:

“‘I want to get this thing done and out of my life,’ [Doug’d] told me three days earlier at Camp Two. ‘I don’t want to have to come here. I’m getting too old for this shit.'” (p. 224)

Krakauer uses this anecdote in an attempt to explain why Hansen had been reported to behave irrationally on the mountain, and continue to push to the summit even after it became evidently unsafe. But I have trouble empathising with this attitude, which runs throughout the ‘characters’ in Into Thin Air. Why the urge to expunge Everest from one’s life, as if it is a human necessity? Why the talk of this ‘shit’, as if it’s a bad relationship or an overly-stressful job, that one must inevitably but painfully exorcise from one’s life? Krakauer repeatedly argues that people like Hansen weren’t the arrogant, spoilt brats that we might mistake them for. That they were just good men with strong ambitions. But just because somebody is well-intentioned doesn’t stop them from being arrogant, as far as I can see. The two traits aren’t mutually exclusive.

On a very, very clear day in Kathmandu–which is rare–it’s possible to glimpse the side of Everest. We had a spectacular view of the high Himalaya from my office in Patan, and my boss pointed out Everest’s flank one day. I wouldn’t have recognised it if it hadn’t been pointed out. That’s possibly as close to Everest as I will get. Although the world’s highest mountain clearly has a magnetic pull over many, I’m happy just to leave it be.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer. London: Pan Books, 1997. Various editions are available.

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