Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I picked up this book - about an attempt to summit Mt. Everest gone horribly wrong - while in the middle of two non-fiction books. I wanted a story to read before bed one night and figured I'd read a bit and then put it down until some more convenient time. But Krakauer's writing has tremendous gravity - I find it very difficult to put down. After three days of reading before bed, on the bus and between classes, I had finished it. For those three days, I felt like I was part of an Everest expedition.

I should have seen it coming. I remember when I was given Into the Wild, Krakauer's story of recent Emory Univeresity graduate Chris McCandless running away from society and into the Alaskan wilderness. I read that with a similar voraciousness, and then read it again, and then again.

I think the draw is largely in the subject matter - I identified strongly with McCandless in my college years, and I find it easy now to identify with Krakauer and the tourist-come-climbers in Into Thin Air. Even more alluring though is Krakauer's writing style.

Krakauer writes in a very compelling manner. His ability to put the reader in situations far from anything we've experienced is second-to-none. While reading, I felt a part of the climb, as though I were on the mountain struggling to breathe the thin air while ascending the Lhotse Face against gale-force winds.

The story started as an assignment from Outside magazine to cover the commercial expeditions that guide clients up Everest in increasing numbers each year. It is a controversial subject, and one that landed square in the lime light after the tragedy described in Into Thin Air.

Krakauer travels to Everest with Adventure Consultants, the pre-eminent high alpine guiding company (and at $65,000 by far the most expensive). The group is led by Rob Hall, among the world's most accomplished climbers and guides. At the time they began, there were over a dozen groups on the mountain, ranging from outfits as tight as Rob's to a team shooting an IMAX movie to a solo Swede who had traveled from Stockholm to Everest entirely under his own power (on a bike to Kathmandu, then walking) to groups at best marginally qualified. Many mused early on that the lack of high alpine experience among climbers could cause trouble high on the mountain.

Krakauer does a marvelous job of describing the process of climbing Everest. The reader feels what it might be like to cross the massive crevasses of a glacier's fall out on lashed-together aluminum ladders in mountaineering boots and crampons; how it might feel to breathe air with just a third the oxygen we are used to; and what it's like to enter into a situation in which you know your life is on the line under a hired leader with other clients whose abilities you don't necessarily trust.

The bulk of the book takes place on "summit day," May 10, 1996, when 34 climbers, guides and Sherpas departed from 26,000 feet just after midnight to try to reach the top of the world. Krakauer aims for an objective journalist's reporting of the facts and analysis of the causes of the tragedy, and he does an admirable job for someone so deeply involved in the events.

In the end the book pulls off a rather amazing feat: it represents an objective journalistic account of an event, and at the same time an emotive, evocative narrative of one man's experience of an incredible situation.

If you have any interest in mountaineering and Everest, the limits of human potential, or group dynamics in high intensity situations, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book. It is also just a fine read.

10/10 stars.

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