I was supposed to read Into Thin Air when I was a junior in high school, as one of a tripartite summer/fall curriculum about Man vs. Nature themes: the other two books were Junger’s utterly excremental A Perfect Storm and Norman McLean’s indefatigably maudlin Young Men and Fire. The curriculum was created by a man who, I have no doubts, is an excellent educator and human being1. I forgive his lapse in judgment w.r.t. reading material mostly because I didn’t read any of the assigned books, generally thumbing through them and faking/blustering my way through tests and class discussions. Either via my own research or the prolonged torture of English class, I later become more intimately familiar with the latter two, but never revisited the first. After thoroughly enjoying Krakauer’s Under the Banner Heaven, I thought it might be a good idea to read the book that I so studiously avoided many years ago23
There now, it seems I’ve written far more by way of exposition than I will for review.
Mountain climbing is a particular conceit that I understand intellectually, but will never, ever be able to understand on a visceral level. It takes a particular kind of constitution to purposely endure pain for a literally lofty goal that provides no other remuneration apart of self-satisfaction and maybe an endorsement deal. But climbing Mount Everest is the far end of a long spectrum of ridiculousness4 that falls indeterminately between a pissing contest, a magnum opus, and a prescription for Risperidone. It is in this mindset that I read about the (supposedly infamous) 1996 ascent of Everest that resulted in an inordinately large number of dead climbers, including several experienced and capable guides.
Jon Krakauer, an avid hobbyist at climbing, found himself on the team of one Rob Hall, a New Zealandder who provided services as a guide for prospective summiters. I should point out here that in writing this exposition, Krakauer himself takes great pains to detail the absurdity of the Everest climb: it’s something primordial and undeniable, he states, beyond any sort of rational explanation. It also represents about 2 months or more of absence from your real life (not to mention at least a year of conditioning), and thousands upon thousands of dollars in Chinese/Nepalese permits, guide services, equipment, and travel. Immediately, then, you will find yourself on one of two possible sides during the first few chapters: (1) you will sympathize with this “call of the wild,” and the unfortunate events of the rest of the book will be the inevitable tragedy that occurs in the pursuit of a dream; (2) you will view the events that follow as the only natural turn of events for a bunch of overzealous dumbshits on power trips who climb into the atmosphere and are surprised when they die of frostbite and cardiopulmonary conditions.
You might conclude from the previous paragraphs that I have a healthy distrust of thrill-seekers and adventurists, and you would be right, insofar as I have a hard time accepting Krakauer’s half-hearted sob story; that is to say, the prolonged mea culpa and blood-weeping tragedy that Into Thin Air morphs into ends up striking me as a bunch of Gore-Tex-clad manly men sitting around a frozen corpse and opining “Well there’s yer problem…”
Krakauer, under the auspices of Respectable Journalism™ accompanies a mountaineering team (one of many) to the summit of Everest during April and May of 1996. The author spends a great deal of time painting character sketches of everyone he meets (and, based on interviews, radio transcript, and likely some of his imagination, people he doesn’t meet5). He also makes summitting Everest sound like about as much fun as having one’s bowels messily ripped out through the mouth; whether it’s the squalid, infested Nepalese towns that line the trek to Base Camp, the frigid cold, the blazing solar radiation, the numerous altitude-related medical emergencies, or the near-constant hypoxia and exhaustion, the inexorable march up the vertical is narrated as a series of misfortunes, stations of a/the cross, if you will6, the final crucifixion of which is complete and total indifference when standing atop the highest vertical point on planet earth, and of course the continued misery and death of the descent.
I really wish that I had been more attuned to the news coverage of all this when it happened (I was probably busy watching Power Rangers and waiting for my auxiliary hair to grow), since I’d be interested in more context to this whole cluster of events, but am not quite passionate enough about mountain climbing to start reading more Everest accounts. Needless to say, I approached the Into Thin Air with the same credulity with which I approached Under the Banner of Heaven; I respect Krakauer as a journalist, and think most of his work to be excellent; the fact that he has a personal stake in the public perception of Everest ’96 is only a small grain of salt with which to take the book as a whole. I get the impression that he was more or less truthful and fair in his descriptions of people and events, even if some weren’t so happy with the unflattering tone.
I am not sure whether to recommend this book to a general audience; my impetus to read it was personal rather than literary, though I suppose Krakauer’s bona fides as a decent writer and journalist take care of the latter context. If you think you’d be the slightest bit interested in a book about Everest, give it a shot, since it’s probably a good deal more interesting and well-narrated than other accounts. Otherwise, might I suggest a different book by Krakauer?
- Though the man who taught us was not, in fact, the creator of the curriculum, and there were times when I firmly believed, and still do, that my teacher harbored about as much loathing for Junger as I do. Mark, if you’re reading this, hi.[↩]
- In my defense, this was the book that we were supposed to read over the summer, and write detailed journals for. I mean, come on, fuck that.[↩]
- Might I also add that the actual circumstances for my reading this book were that I was at my girlfriend’s house and she settled in for a 2-hour episode of Desperate Housewives, and, a desperate boyfriend, I grabbed this from her bookshelf and started it.[↩]
- Though if you ever want to wallow in how much of a wastrel and a pussy you are, why not imagine climbing Everest while, well, blind.[↩]
- Anatoli Boukreev, a guide whose character Krakauer gently impugns, had a rebuttal book ghostwritten in 1997, shorty before perishing in an unrelated climbing accident later that year[↩]
- Mark, if you’re reading, I think the idea of Everest as a march to the cross is more compelling than the one in Young Men and Fire; I’m almost sorry I didn’t think of it 7 years ago[↩]