Into Thin Air
a review by Roger Jenkins
"Into Thin Air" (Villard Books) is Jon Krakauer's best selling story of the so-called Everest Disaster, in which two teams of clients, each paying $65,000 for the opportunity to be guided to the summit of the planet's highest point, and their guides were decimated by a late afternoon storm in May of 1996. Four clients, three guides, and two sherpas perished in the storm or as a direct result of it, and the entire practice of commercial "expeditions" was called into question. Krakauer's trip was funded by Outside Magazine, who wanted him to write a story on these types of trips. Krakauer is an accomplished mountain climber in his own right, having several first ascents to his credit. But he freely admits that while he held a secret obsession for Everest his entire climbing life, he possessed little climbing experience above 20,000 feet. And Krakauer is really the only one of the members of the trip who, in this reviewer's opinion, could have written this book, not only because he was one of the few to survive, but because he had enough experience to accurately assess the situation. That is not to say that the book is without passion. Indeed, the manuscript was prepared as a catharsis for the guilt that the author felt for surviving when so many others died.
Krakauer is a good writer, and this book - not his first - shows it. It won't win any Pulitizer Prizes, but it is far superior to ones written by more accomplished climbers, such as Reinhold Messner. Krakauer spends not a word focusing on his personal triumph of successfully reaching the summit of the world's highest mountain, but instead weaves a tale of tiny mistakes and errors in judgement, some due to personality, and some to the oxygen starvation which accompanies high altitude climbing. It is clear from Krakauer's tale that these clients had nowhere near the skill or experience level necessary to do anything much beyond "follow the leader" to the summit. In addition, this type of a trip at this altitude did not afford the opportunity for the conditioning necessary to hone the clients (notice I keep calling them clients, and not climbers - there is a difference) to the task at hand. It is also clear that the pressure to get clients paying $65K to get a shot at the summit clouded the judgement of guides. They did not have the will or guts to tell the clients who had not summited early enough in the day to return safely to their last camp that they had to retreat. And the conditioning program and approach to climbing only permitted one try. In conventional expeditions, if at first you don't succeed, you can, if you have the strength, give it another go. The fundamental problem seemed to be that with commercial trips, there is an over-reliance on guides for what is inherently an individual achievement. This reviewer is an experienced wilderness traveler who has been on two guided trips, and my experience echos this analysis.
The clients and their guides got caught by a storm which cut visibility to near zero, and prevented many of them from successfully returning to camp. In some cases, clients were so exhausted from the climb that they could not go on, and simply laid down and died. The two chief guides elected to stay with some of their slow moving clients, and in doing so sealed both fates. In a remarkable sub-story, an unresponsive Beck Weathers is left for dead, wakes from a near frozen coma, and staggers in a howling gale into camp a day later. (He did lose his nose, all the fingers on one hand, and most of his other arm to frostbite.)
Despite knowing how the story comes out, the book approaches the page-turner status of many mystery novels. Read it, and you won't be sorry.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 1998