Where This Meets That
When I reviewed Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild back in February, several readers implored me to also read his book Into Thin Air. Into Thin Air gives Krakauer’s firsthand account of a tragic 1996 climbing disaster on Mount Everest that claimed the lives of eight climbers.
Everest has been in the news a good bit recently, following the deaths of 16 Sherpa climbing guides in an avalanche this past April. Before April’s tragedy, Into Thin Air had documented the single deadliest day in the history of the world’s tallest mountain, and it is a spellbinding tale.
Let me just say that I am no adventurer. Enjoying a daylong solo stroll on a well-trodden mountain trail is about as extreme as it gets for me. But I do have some admiration for mountain climbers. In some ways, their hobby is a very tangible manifestation of the experiences life serves up the rest of us in our less “extreme” pursuits.
Mountains are an archetype of the human psyche. Moses first met his God on a mountain. Jesus was transfigured on a mountain. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously proclaimed that he’d “been to the mountaintop,” I have enjoyed a few “mountaintop” experiences of my own.
These experiences typically represent a measure of glory, of climactic victory, and usually overshadow the parts of the stories that depict the climb and descent of said mountains, but they by no means tell the whole story. King, after all, was shot the next day.
My own mountaintop experiences didn’t require ice axes, crampons, or months of acclimatization as Krakauer’s did, but they’ve all been revelatory, which is why Krakauer’s opening lines are so striking:
“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 a the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.”
An enthralling introduction, but as Krakauer later quotes his seasoned guide, Rob Hall, “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.” By the end of the book, Krakauer’s mountaintop experience is little more than a footnote in a gripping tale of adventure gone horribly wrong.
Krakauer’s harrowing and surreal narrative is efficient and easy to read. As with Into the Wild, he does an excellent job of introducing key parties and framing context for the events described. Lessons of hindsight often become curses that play havoc with Krakauer’s conscience. His survivor’s remorse is at times palpable. At other times, it’s easy to see how some loved ones of the deceased have taken issue with his claims.
Nevertheless, Krakauer is careful to give context to some poor decision-making, due to the oxygen-depleted air on Everest’s high altitudes and increasingly problematic situations. Indeed, this is a book to read while wrapped in a blanket. The “thin air” and temperatures Everest climbers face are unimaginable. Throw in hurricane-force winds, blizzard conditions, and trails along which one wrong step can plunge you into a thousand-foot abyss, and I’ll read about it here from my nice warm couch, thank you very much.
And I’ll have a hard time putting it down.
Into Thin Air score: 4.0 Falcone Rings