From the summit of Mt. Everest, Jon Krakauer saw nothing that “suggested a murderous storm was bearing down.” This storm, no matter how it seemed, claimed the lives of five climbers attempting to reach the summit in May of 1996. Into Thin Air details the events leading up to, during, and after the May 10, 1996 disaster and chronicles his experiences and his perspective on the events.
Overall Thoughts: I want to start by saying that I normally don’t read a lot of nonfiction work. I have nothing against it, it’s just not my preferred genre. With that in mind, I found it very difficult to put this book down. Into Thin Air hits hard when it comes to moral dilemmas and the consequences of action or inaction. What are you supposed to do when you know that trying to save someone else is more likely to end up with both of you dying while you have the ability to save yourself at the expense of someone else? It’s a tough call no matter what the situation. As someone who can only count mid-intensity whitewater kayaking in my list of extreme recreation experiences, I found myself able to picture what it must have been like, even in a sort of detached way, and able to feel the raw emotions that are sometimes hard to put to paper. Even having seen Everest and knowing the outcome of the book, I was always eager to reach the next page.
What I Liked the Most: It’s hard to use the term ‘like’ or ‘love’ when describing a book such as this because my main emotional state throughout was just grief. However, what I think the book does exceptionally well is how accurately it portrays the progression of time. It’s one thing to know that summiting Mt. Everest is going to be a long process but to realize that the guides plan to leave Camp Four (26,000 feet) at 11:00 P.M. the night before in order to reach the summit (29,035 feet) by 1:00 P.M. the next day is staggering. There is a lot of effort put into to really showing the reader just how long these climbers spent in conditions of sub-zero temperatures and minimal levels of oxygen.
I also found myself fascinated by his descriptions of his thoughts and actions, as well as the actions of others, in their hypoxic states. Being able to accurately describe hypoxia’s effects gave me a bit more insight into why some decisions might have been made and why some events played out as they did. As Krakauer points out, “Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired by hypoxia…lucid thought is all but impossible at 29,000 feet.” Now, while this is widely known as an inherent danger of climbing such a mountain, it doesn’t make dealing with the events any easier.
What I Didn’t Like: This is a hard one for me in this book. I normally don’t have a lot of trouble finding things that rubbed me the wrong way but I can’t think of many here. The biggest issue I can think of is that the way Krakauer sometimes meandered off on a bit of history dealing with others who had climbed the mountain in previous years. Sometimes it felt a little unimportant when compared with the events unfolding in the book. Certainly there were similarities but I feel like they maybe could have been covered a bit more succinctly. Again, that’s really just my opinion and, overall, it does not detract from the book at all.
Parting Thoughts: Even if you’re not overly fond of nonfiction (like me) or don’t care to find out the grisly details of the 1996 Everest Disaster, I still think this book is worth a read. The issues that it forces you to think about are real, primal, and heart-wrenching and it makes me hope that I never have to make the kinds of decisions that Krakauer was forced to make.
Next Book to Read: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan