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Into Thin Air ()

Orrin's review:

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.
Societies in decay lose themslves in the unsavory and in thrills. They revert to gladiatorial combats, jackpot lotteries, overt and immodest sexual habits, and thrill sports which titilate andrenalin addicts. The climbers of Mount Everest certainly fit into that excitement-high addiction pattern. Mt Everest had been climbed many times before this party made their way up the mountain. Indeed, reading the book, one has the sense that the enterprise was a circus show with multiple teams climbing simultaneously and guide businesses established to insure that people be brought up the mountain and down again on a sight seeing  basis. What had been an awesome human achievement made by Sir Edmund Hillary
had been turned into a for-profit vacation package complete with email.  Mt Everest, like all of  North America, had been strip malled - turned into a commercial venture - the thrill of a lifetime for a few paltry thousands of dollars. One of the climbers, New York socialite and chatelaine Sharon Pitman, literally paid to have herself dragged up the mountain by sherpas replete with current Vanity Fair in hand. Many would say that it was the thrill of the challenge that drove these men and women up Everest. Perhaps.  Mt Everest had been turned into Disney Land. And Mt Everest hit back. Many died on the mountain needlessly and tragically.

     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
the human story and mentioned Everest in reverent yet obtuse terms. Krakauer mixed in the minutia of filling a backpack with the beauty and tragedy of the scene.

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
how big those hills are and how small we are, although if you know the story, they do an awful lot of over-explaining.


Greg Miller, a mountain climber & fraternity brother, responds to Orrin's review.
    (followed by Orrin's response)

Ok, here's my take on your review.

     I agree with everything you've said, and for the last six years or so
     have been a vocal opponent at American Alpine Club Board meetings
     regarding guiding rich folks--like Beck Weathers and Sandy Hill
     Pittman on Himalayan peaks.  Guided trips on Rainier, Shasta and in
     the Sierras is one thing, but in the Himalayas it's a much different
     endeavor because all humans--guides included--become relatively
     worthless as saviors (if needed) when in the Death Zone.  I actually
     had this debate with Scott Fisher, who I knew pretty well, back in
     1994 in Salt Lake City.  His view was that guiding was his livelihood,
     and who are others to pass judgement upon a legal way to make a living
     which had, until 1996, a reasonably good safety record.  Were they
     playing Russian Roulette, who knew/knows?

     That being said, given the crowds on Himalayan peaks (mostly trekkers,
     not climbers), I was and am still of the view that those who go there
     should first pay their climbing dues, as it were, such as by going on
     non-guided (or actually leading) expeditions into South America,
     Alaska, Mexico, and other 20,000 peaks (all, by the way, of which I
     did prior to my non-guided Everest trip).  Unfortunately, with
     Krakauer's book, Everest has been popularized as a trophy mountain,
     and the book is having the unfortunate effect of leading more people
     to go there who are better suited for a KOA campground, at best (and
     McKinley too, which had a dramatic increase in accidents this year
     over past years).

     That being said, Juice, you didn't review the book, but instead
     reviewed the wisdom of Jon and other clients going to Everest in the
     first place.  Your criticism of all of them seems to be that they
     strayed from your view of a Normal Rockwellian lifestyle they should
     have led (see the last two paragraphs of the review).  This may sound
     unbelievable to you, but as one who knows several hundred climbers,
     including all the household names such as Hillary and Messner, it is
     not surprising, let alone pitiful, that they put this as one of their
     top priorities.  Most climbers I know work in order to pay for
     climbing trips.  I agree it's sorta silly sounding, but then, it's not
     much different than a pro baseball player or a famous musician on the
     road year-round and training when not--just people devoting efforts to
     what they do best.  That's the problem with amateurs and guided
     Himalayan jaunts, it brings into the sport people into living a
     fantasy or legend that can get themselves killed.  A nit--at the end
     of the second paragraph summit is misspelled.


     PS--I'll be on K2 next year.

Orrin Responds:


I agree with much your criticism of my review.  But I started from the
assumption that it was well written.  What I wanted from the book was some sense
of why they were there & why it was worth it.  I didn't really feel like
Krakauer did a good job of conveying that & that leaves the feeling that it
wasn't worth it.

I actually didn't raise one of my biggest questions.  If the point of climbing
is to challenge yourself & face danger & work as a team to overcome enormous
obstacles & all that jazz, then how can you possibly justify leaving your fellow
climbers on the mountain to die, while you head for safety?    It seems like
part of the deal is that you risk your own life to get everyone down.

Much of the cultish nature of the climbing fraternity seems to be based on a
kind of macho risk-taker ethos, not unlike an elite military unit.  How do we
reconcile this machismo with the decision to bug out & leave the dead & dying


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Jon Krakauer (2 books reviewed)
Guest Reviews
Sports (General)
Jon Krakauer Links:

    -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,

Book-related and General Links:
    Outside Online
    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)

    -ESSAY : The Adventure Craze : More and more Americans are paying a lot of money to put themselves in mortal danger. Why? And why now? (Anthony Brandt, American Heritage)

If you liked Into Thin Air, try:

Easterman, Daniel
    -The Ninth Buddha  (novel of a young English boy kidnapped by Buddhist monks)

Halliburton, Richard
    -The Glorious Adventure (one of the great adventurers of the early Century)

Harrer, Heinrich
    -Seven Years in Tibet

Hesse, Herman
    -Siddhartha  (fictional account of the Buddha)

Hopkirk, Peter
    -The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Junger, Sebastian
    -The Perfect Storm (the other big adventure book of last year)

Kerr, Phillip
    -Esau  (a novel about a search for yeti)

Mathiessen, Peter
    -The Snow Leopard  (memoir of a search for the Himalayan Snow Leopard)

Maughm, W. Somerset
    -The Razor's Edge  (WWI survivor searches for himself in the Mountains)
    -ESSAY: 'Everest' Film Stays True to Real-Life Tragedy (History vs. Hollywood May 10, 2022)