Into Thin Air (1997)
Like the Titanic, the 1996 disaster atop Mount Everest has exerted an irresistable pull on the public imagination. Krakauer's book expands on his own piece from Outside magazine & it was subsequently made into a TV movie. To this day, charges and countercharges are still flying back & forth (see Salon Magazine)
At the time of the 1996 expedition that Krakauer accompanied, 130 people had died on Everest since 1921. That's about 1 in 4 of those making the attempt. However, in 1985 a professional climber escorted amatuer Dick Bass to the top & opened the Mountain to commercial exploitation by pros leading guided trips. As Weathers Beck, a 49 year old pathologist from Krakauer's group, says, "Assuming you're reasonably fit and have some disposable income (as much as $75,000), I think the biggest obstacle is probably taking time off from your job and leaving your family for two months." One of the guides tells Krakauer, "We've got the big E figured out, we've got it totally wired. These days, I'm telling you, we've built a yellow brick road to the summitt."
Of course, no God could allow such hubris to go unpunished & the rest of the book details that much deserved punishment.
But one question, & perhaps the most important one, goes unanswered; What business do these people have even trying to climb Mount Everest? Krakauer is 41 years old & his marriage has nearly foundered in the past because of his devotion to climbing. He says that he began to climb because "Achieving the summit of a mountain was tangible, immutable, concrete. The incumbent hazards lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life." One almost pities a person who finds climbing to be the most concrete thing in their life.
At one point, discussing Beck's desire to climb, Krakauer says that, "Selfish and grandiose though Beck's obsession may have been, it wasn't frivolous." This seems to me to be quite wrong. I side with Krakauer's wife, who stayed behind in Seattle & told him, "Saying goodbye to you was one of the saddest things I've ever done. I guess I know on some level that you might not be coming back, and it seemed so f***ing stupid and pointless." Well, he made it back, but for those who didn't, it's hard to call their deaths anything but pointless.
GUEST REVIEW by Andrew Geller:
Most of us have endured guided tours gone awry -- buses broken down, incompetent guides, promised attractions covered with scaffolding -- but rarely are the stakes higher than wasted time. When the tour guides are the world's best mountaineers and the object of the tour is Everest, the highest mountain in the world, the stakes are mortality.
Krakauer treats us to an autobiographical account of the horrendous combination of nature, technology, and hubris that lead to the deaths of eight people, including 2 guides. Like Krakauer's earlier work, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air is as much an examination of self and responsibility as a description of the personalities and events leading to the deaths. One of the most interesting aspects of this book and his previous one is the admission that climbing mountains and taking mortal chances are purely selfish acts. Oneself may be changed by the act; others in one's life would be affected more by the death of the climber than by the success of the climb.
The climbing season described in the book may be the best documented Himalayan season of all time. In addition to another account of the same event in Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, articles and columns by Krakauer in Outside magazine, and pieces in other magazines by the individuals involved, the brilliant IMAX presentation of Everest by David Brashears vividly shows the mountain during that season and touches on the tragedy.
GUEST REVIEW by Neil Goldstein:
"Into Thin Air", along with The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest (same story, different perspective) are two fascinating accounts of a high-altitude climbing expedition gone wrong. It's about heroes, goats, martyrs and the age-old question of what would you do when given the opportunity to risk your own life to save others. Further elements which come into question are how responsible is an individual to save another one's life in a life-threatening situation when the action is both caused by unforseen disasters and the sloppiness and fervor to achieve an impractical and insane goal.
Both books are expertly written, surprisingly, and had an absolute effect on me from page one to the end, and even now, two weeks later. I highly recommend each book on all your "must read now" lists.
GUEST REVIEW by David Sandberg:
Societal Decay at 30,000 feet: A Review of Into Thin Air
Having read this book over a year ago and therefore
having some time to reflect on its meanings has given me some considered
insight into the experiences of John Krakauer and his companions who sought
to scale the world's highest mountain, and into the disaster which followed.
Decadence in society does not happen over night. As Rome was not built
in a day - so it did not decline in that space of time. Into Thin Air has
an important societal message - one which compels all of us to stop, look,
amd reflect at length on the responsibilities of human beings to each other,
and to society as a whole. The group of mountaineers who climbed
Mt Everest were an interesting bunch to say the very least.
There is a real feeling of decadence in this book as well as misfortune.
Guest Review from Wingnut:
John Krakauer does two things well. He illustrates a situation in a way that makes you feel like you are there. He also empathasizes with his characters so much that, in many cases, the reader begins to share that empathy. In this case, though, he is misguided. Why should we identify with the real life people in ITA? We shouldn't, simply because they are/were morons. Having $70,000 does not make one an elite mountain climber. And lets face it, a mountain whos summit-to-death ratio is about 5:1 is an elite one. The reason there is a book is because there were plenty of bodies on the top of Everest, not because there was a storm. That kind of storm happens weekly and good climbers know when to get the fuck out.
On the other hand it was a phenomenal story. I sometimes wonder
if Dan Quayle could have written the story well, just because the
material is there. It's like a pass from Joe Montana--don't drop
it. Krakauer didn't drop it and may have gained some yards after
the catch. His technical expertise helped out immensely here.
Another writer would just have told
Overall I give it a B+ and an A for the Mountain. Also recommended:
"Everest" the Imax movie. You get a really good idea of
Ok, here's my take on your review.
I agree with everything you've said, and for
the last six years or so
That being said, given the crowds on Himalayan
peaks (mostly trekkers,
That being said, Juice, you didn't review the
book, but instead
PS--I'll be on K2 next year.
I agree with much your criticism of my review. But I started from
I actually didn't raise one of my biggest questions. If the point
Much of the cultish nature of the climbing fraternity seems to be based
-REVIEW: of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (Robert Wright, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (Laura Miller, Salon.com)
Book-related and General Links:
Salon Magazine--has an exchange of charges by Krakauer & Boukreev's co-author Weston DeWalt
The 1998 Mount Everest Expedition Cybercast
-ESSAY : My Journey Home from Everest : On May 10, 1996, Dallas doctor Beck Weathers nearly died on Mount Everest. His book, Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, reveals the true story about his dramatic rescue and his journey back to life. (Beck Weathers, D Magazine)
If you liked Into Thin Air, try:
Maughm, W. Somerset
how can you possibly pass judgements upon others' actions of what they did and did not do in an extreme, deadly situation that you will probably never be in. i mean, we would all love to be as heroic as you, but some of us enjoy thinking with our heads. if you're running out of ox. (or are completely out) in the death zone, with little or no energy left, with frostbitten hands and have the choice to save yourself, or remain there with someone else and probably both die, what would you do? though ox. deprived and their brains barely functioning, i think they most made intelligent choices. as to the beginning of the trip and some of the choices that were made then, i tend not to agree with. the ego driven choices, the money driven decisions, the 65k price tag as to which the richest, most inexperienced climbers can afford, but then have to be hoiseted up the mountain by someone else, i agree with you on all those. but when things got really bad and it was a matter of life and death, saving yourself or someone else, to pass judgements on them is just ridiculous and seems so "holier than thou". what about rob hall who refused to go down the mountain when told to but chose to wait with his friend (doug hansen i think his name was) who was completely incapacitated and because of that both of them lost their lives? what about anitoli and the sherpas who went back up the mountain several times, risking their lives during rescue attempts in the middle of the storm and ended up draggin two people all the way down the mountain to safety? my guess is that you didn't read the book at all.
- Aug-29-2004, 11:24
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