Greetings from Darjeeling, India! In a perfect world, there would be no clouds and I’d be able to see four peaks, including Mount Everest, from an observation point a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, I’m high up in the mountains during monsoon season and there are clouds everywhere — a few times a day, I’m even walking right through them. Oh, well…I still can’t complain! I get to drink locally grown Darjeeling tea whenever I want.
In spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial outfitters taking amateur climbers up to Mount Everest. Krakauer is a skilled climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he wanted to write a feature on commercial expeditions to Everest for Outside magazine. Such companies were still a relatively new and controversial concept at the time. But for those companies trying to entice new customers to pay upwards of $65,000 for the experience, getting featured in Outside was a publicity boon.
Rob Hall was a respected climber with an excellent track record of getting people up and down Everest safely; even other teams looked up to him. That year, after seeing the financial possibilities, many new commercial outfitters set up shop on Everest. Many of those groups tried to summit Everest on May 10, 1996 when the weather window looked best, and Hall’s team was no exception. After a brutal storm, the weather cleared and Hall’s team, Krakauer included, set out to summit Everest under ideal conditions. Many of them made it to the summit, Krakauer included, but a surprise storm rushed in when most of the oxygen-deprived climbers were making their way back down. Several people on the team, including Hall, perished. So did sherpas, guides, and climbers from other expeditions. It was the deadliest event on Everest to date.
Into Thin Air grew out of the article that Krakauer ended up submitting to Outside magazine, and considering the turnaround time for publishing books, it came out pretty quickly. A few significant errors were made in the original article, and Krakauer wanted to set the record straight, but you also get a sense that the book is an uneasy attempt at some kind of catharsis. Krakauer truly gives readers a sense of how physically and emotionally gruelling it is to attempt to summit Everest. His first person account of what it was like to try to get back through the storm is intense, and his descriptions of what happened to his fellow climbers are equally gripping.
I also appreciate his musings on what he was originally sent there to do: find out what it’s like to climb Everest with a commercial expedition. Though Rob Hall’s team was considerably more experienced than other commercial outfitters, the sheer number of people trying to summit at the same time undoubtedly caused problems, especially in areas where climbers had to proceed one at a time; it slowed everyone down.
Into Thin Air has a great balance of biographical sketches, controversy, ethical quandaries, and reality checks. And the writing is just great (in my case, since I listened to it on audiobook, it was made even more terrifying with Philip Franklin’s narration). It’s a haunting, compelling, and at times heart-stopping book that I ended up enjoying so much more than I thought I would.
Into Thin Air was originally published in 1997.