If I compiled a reverse bucket list of the dramatic experiences I have no intention of achieving before I die, climbing Mount Everest would surely be on it. Barely a fan of snow, I can’t see myself willingly combining it with wind, upper-body strength and bottomless ice crevasses. (To say nothing of oxygen deprivation; I can barely catch my breath after a particularly steep set of subway stairs.) Which is all to say that Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s landmark accounting of the 1996 Everest disaster, is about as relatable to me as as a deep-sea diver’s description of the ocean floor, or an astronaut’s of the surface of the moon. I might as well be watching Interstellar.
I picked up Into Thin Air during last month’s blizzard: It seemed apropos to read about the extreme life goals of others while rendered inert by a mere foot of snow in Brooklyn. But Krakauer’s detailed relating of the Everest disaster—which left eight people dead after a blizzard that caught dozens of climbers on summit day—reaffirmed my snow-hermit tendencies in more ways than one. If this is as close to Everest as I ever come, I’m okay with it.
In what is now a much-rehashed series of events, Krakauer went to Everest to write a story for Outside magazine, joining nearly 200 other guides, sherpas and climbers from more than a dozen different expeditions. He was part of a team led by Robert Hall, known for having pioneered the idea of guided climbs up Everest, which opened the door to an increasing number of less-experienced climbers attempting the 29,000-foot summit. It was this perceived commodification of Everest, in fact, that was to be the subject of Krakauer’s piece.
One of the other expeditions on the mountain was led by Scott Fischer, whose Mountain Madness was a competitor in the guided tour business to Halls’ Adventure Consultants. Fischer’s climbing group that spring included socialite Sandy Pittman, immortalized in Everest accounts as epitomizing the type of wealthy client whose ascent would be impossible without the assistance of extreme handholding and an army of sherpas to carry, among other things, her espresso maker.
In his book, Krakauer takes great care to identify and track many of the dozens of people he encountered on Everest, and there are times when it can be hard to keep straight the many clients, guides and sherpas whose lives intersect in various ways over those weeks. Five of those people—Hall, Fischer, Adventure Consultants clients Beck Weathers and Doug Hansen, and Krakauer himself—were most recently the subject of Everest, a high-budget movie adaptation of the disaster starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin. In an interview in September, Krakauer called the movie’s portrayal of events “bull.”
Krakauer is a careful storyteller—Into Thin Air is as attentive to logistical detail as it is fastidious about reciting the whereabouts of key players—and he never fails to elaborate on the nature of climbing at high altitudes, an activity that renders one’s thoughts perpetually muddled. Still, Krakauer would later find himself at the heart of several controversies surrounding the Everest disaster, among them whether he fairly portrayed Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev. Critics of Into Thin Air also wondered whether Krakauer’s presence on the trip had distracted climbers, thereby making everyone less safe.
While Krakauer doesn’t paint a particularly forgiving portrait of himself in the book, he comes across as downright callous in the Everest movie. The Krakauer of the film, played by House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly (which doesn’t help) is self-serving and pragmatic to a fault, quick to ignore the needs of his fellow climbers if they stand in the way of his own ascent or descent. It seems likely that the screenplay (which wasn’t based on Into Thin Air) blurred details or conflated certain conversations in the interest of flow, but what might have been otherwise innocuous narrative tweaks take on weight when every decision on Everest can be the difference between life an death.
Though I haven’t read anything else by Krakauer, Into Thin Air possesses a certain vulnerability that seems impossible to replicate in any story less personal to the author, (who made waves last year with Missoula, about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana). Journalists are supposed to be emotionally removed, but Krakauer’s detachment in Into Thin Air doesn’t feel pointed so much as sincere; it’s less a testament to his journalistic integrity and more to the fact that he was writing while still in shock. The book’s impact rests in this accidental stoicism, in its implication that death is never far from life on Everest, that summiting is about refusing to let possibility of death undermine the persistent and aggressive efforts needed to survive. “Above 26,000 feet, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin,” Krakauer writes. “Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.”
TITLE: Into Thin Air
AUTHOR: John Krakauer
ALSO WROTE: Into the Wild, Missoula
SORTA LIKE: The Perfect Storm meets Wild
FIRST LINE: “Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.”