Into Thin Air is Jon Krakauer’s personal account of the May 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that claimed a dozen lives from a number of different expeditions. Krakauer, a writer for Outside Magazine at the time, tells the entire story, beginning with the origin of his mountain-climbing career and the history of Mount Everest, continuing through to the development and composition of the various expeditions. Step by step he sets up the climb itself, comprehensively setting the stage. He does a fantastic job building suspense, casually mentioning a slight hiccup here, a minor problem there, all the while building towards the disaster itself. He follows this up with a fairly emotional breakdown of the aftermath of the disaster, in particular how it affected him personally. He concludes with a discussion of the controversies that arose surrounding the account, in particular the way it conflicted with mountaineering guide Anatoli Boukreev’s version of what happened, as documented in The Climb, which came out around the same time.
While this story starts very slowly, it picks up with blistering speed. Once the teams arrive at Base Camp and little things start to go wrong, you can sense that disaster is looming. As the climbs begin, the suspense builds. It’s made clear from the beginning that not everyone will make it back alive (statistically, 25% of all Everest climbers die in the attempt), and as the situation worsens, you begin to wonder who exactly will perish on the mountain. The story is gripping, emotional, and at times deeply personal (Krakauer believes to this day that at least a few of the deaths were primarily his fault, either due to negligence or his status as a journalist- a powerful message to all us would-be journalists). Krakauer does an excellent job bringing the reader into the world of commercial mountaineering, where organizations run the gamut from incredibly organized to dangerously unplanned. Groups of all shapes and sizes took on the mountain in May 1996, and the conflux of groups led to way too many people spending way too much time on the freezing, oxygen-thin mountain. You come away from the book with a grim understanding of just how dangerous mountaineering can be, especially when in you’re in the hands of an inexperienced or incompetent leader. Into Thin Air is nothing if not comprehensive. Krakauer gives you the whole story, in as much detail as he can, and he does his best to avoid personal speculation when he doesn’t have all the facts.
This is not to say the book is not without it’s faults. The first is that it’s not written for those who are not in the know for mountaineering. He is not afraid to use technical climbing terms or obscure geographic/topological descriptions of Everest. While he explains some of them, he could do a better job. Even at the end of the novel, I felt like I had neither a complete understanding of how one ascends Everest or exactly what the various parts of Everest look like. It seems to be composed of a variety of sections that are all markedly different, but I remain a little confused. A map would’ve been nice. Additionally, Krakauer certainly doesn’t sell you on mountain climbing. It may be impossible to pave an activity in a good light when twelve people (and these are some very good climbers who don’t make it) die doing it, but Krakauer doesn’t even try. This may not be his job, however. He wasn’t hired by an adventure company to advertise the product; he was hired by a magazine to tell an honest story. And at that he succeeds, even if the story is tragic.
The other major problem with this story is that it quickly becomes impossible to keep track of all the characters. The book begins with a Dramatis Personae like in a play, and there are a lot of people. Krakauer does a great job of giving each person a backstory, a motivation, and a characterization. But there are just too many to keep track of. When some of them start to die, you’re left with the feeling of “Oh, he died. That’s so sad. Who was he?” Interestingly, this may compare with Krakauer’s personal experiences with mortality while on Mt. Everest. He describes the first dead body he crosses as shocking, immobilizing. The second one he sees barely fazes him. Perhaps we are meant to interpret the deaths on the mountain similarly. Each death, while sad, becomes a little less meaningful. By the end the deaths are so common that you begin to wonder why anyone does this at all.
Overall, this is a fantastic story. Krakauer balances history with personal opinion and fact. It is well-researched from start to finish. The second half flies by, and Krakauer builds tension like a great dramatic writer. You feel the exhaustion and the sickness and the pain along with the characters. By the end, you’re as glad to have survived the reading as Krakauer was to survive the climb itself, but you feel as worn out as he does. His emotions transfer across the pages. Anyone with even a passing interest in rock climbing should tackle this at some point. For the rest of us, you just have to strap in and hang on for the ride.