Review: Into Thin Air

This is my first non-fiction review EVER and, I’m sorry to say, it might show.  It is hard to assess the work that so necessarily deals with a troubling and disastrous event without addressing the author’s views as well.  As is much the case with fictional works it seems as though one of the necessary questions a reader should ask themselves is, “What is the purpose of this book?”  That this is a recitation of the author’s first hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster does not make the question null and void, instead it seems more pointed and vital.

For those of you who don’t know, this work by Jon Krakauer recounts the guided expedition he took up Everest during the spring of 1996.  It was with a group called Adventure Consultants that Outside (a magazine) booked Krakauer for the summit climb in order to write an article about the experience.  The disaster, totally unknown to me at the time, refers to that summit climb on May 10 in which eight people died during descent.  Krakauer’s team alone lost four people; two out of the three guides perished as well as two clients.

This work was not simply about the deaths, but about the whole journey as well as the history of climbing on the mountain itself.  Krakauer takes an obviously journalistic approach to recounting the stop in a nearby village, seeing the resident lama, and then the onward journey to Sagarmatha (the Napalese name for Everest) and the boastful highest peak of hers measuring in at 29035 ft (8848 meters).  There are many flavors of the area introduced to us, how seemingly auspicious it was to be called directly to a meeting with the lama prior to the climb, as well as the friendliness of the people and the determination and competition involved in being a sherpa.

Unfortunately, where this could have been expounded upon well Krakauer can’t seem to get passed himself.  Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of piousness and “poor me” attitude prevalent through out:

Trust in one’s partners is a luxury denied those who sign on as clients on a guided ascent; one must put one’s faith in the guide instead.

(This is absurd to me on many levels, the first of which is that it doesn’t address the luxury of having someone take care of so much for you including that guide who usually charges $65k a person.)

It can’t be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia (high altitude sickness).

[When making a climb of this nature it is not a matter of force to make decisions under such conditions, but rather something that should be expected.  A given, as it were.]

Then there’s the matter of his absurd attempts at mathematical justification of how the summer wasn’t that bad:

Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp – which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent.  Or here’s another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times-a ratio of one in four.  Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit-a radio of one in seven.  Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year. [p. 274]  ** my notes:  Comparing decades, boiling them down to a ratio then comparing them to one year doesn’t work.  Measures have to be uniform for just comparison to be made.]

Still, my larger frustration with the work is the piousness with which Krakauer analyzes team mates and certain guides.  Anatoli Bookreev (a guide with Fischer’s group – another attempting to summit the same time Hall’s team was) climbed without oxygen and did not pander to the clients – this was a source of contention with Krakauer, just as another client getting (perhaps demanding) help from a Sherpa to reach the summit that was beyond prudence was.  That same guide later saved lives because he got up to the summit, then back down expeditiously before the blizzard hit, rested, then went out when the storm was in full effect.  Krakauer, however, admits that he should have spoke to Andy Harris, explained that he was reading the Oxygen canisters wrong, instead of merely grabbing one then going on his way.  Harris would later be with Robert Hall, both of whom would die on the mountain.

At times this was an interesting read, but for me it was difficult to come away from this and not harbor some hostilities against Krakauer.  He’s constantly judging others, pointing a finger and stating what they’re doing wrong (his notions of wrong are notably not fixed), and when it comes to his own culpability he blows it off, diminishes them.  I will say, however, it raises some very good points.

First, I now really want to read The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev about the same event; second, when taking on an endeavor that risks your life it is, perhaps, in your best interest to minimize how much faith must be put in other people to secure something so precious.

Anyone else read this book?



9 responses to “Review: Into Thin Air

  • Jan

    I haven’t read the book, but a journalist’s approach tends to be who, what, where, why and sometimes how. When I was taught journalism I was taught that it was “just the facts” but those can ever only be seen through the eyes of an individual.Every individual tends to see things through filters.
    I do highly recommend Three Cups of Tea instead. It is a recount of one mans story but it has a much healthier point of view.

  • Grant

    I think Krakauer’s marco-analysis of guided high-altitude climbing has a lot going for it, but I definitely agree that he holds grudges and shirks blame. I also can only imagine how difficult it would be to remain unaffected after such a tragedy and the media frenzy that followed. I wasn’t that impressed by Boukreev’s “The Climb.” His interviews for the book were conducted in English without a translator, and his English is not so great. Weston (the co-author) put the book together with limited resources and a quick deadline, and I don’t feel he did a good job of presenting his subject. For a translation of Boukreev’s diaries from the time of the disaster and to get to know who this guy’s motivations, see his “Above the Clouds.” These diaries were released by Boukreev’s girlfriend, and I’m not sure if she decided to leave anything out, but I think she ultimately provides a more reliable and interesting source.

  • Hart

    I’ve seen the movie that was based on the book, but I think it isn’t clear from that who the ‘author was’ so I remember people being stupid and people coming through. Interesting though–I can see how this might be somebody’s view. I will be interested to see how the other view presents it.

  • Shari Emerson

    I found your review very interesting, because I share some of your impressions of this book. When I first read it, I began by appreciating the journalistic approach – description and scene setting. However, the author’s attitude began grating on me in an intense fashion. Before reading the book, anyone would know that Everest is dangerous, and no one expects anyone to come out unscathed – so the second he started assigning blame, or acting put upon, or yes, ‘pious’, I was emotionally alienated from his point of view.

    Makes it really, really hard to finish the book.

    I will say that I was moved by his admission of regrets, but in general, I was troubled by this story, and mistrusted his version of events.

    The book, the horrific event, and it’s aftermath are all memorable. By comparison, “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, comes off as a tribute to the victims of the storm. No, Junger does not use a first person account, he was not on board any vessels affected by the storm. But Krakauers’ presence on the expedition almost seems to demand more, not less, sympathy for the various team members, victims, and guides than he demonstrates throughout the book as a whole.

    Next opinion? It’s been a while since I read it, so if someone can point out things I missed, I may give it a re-read. 🙂 Thanks for the forum!


  • litlove

    I think this was an excellent review, and I couldn’t agree more that the question, what’s the point of this book?, is very pertinent here. I think you imply an answer – it’s written to deal with the sense of guilt and failure that the author was suffering from, but that he could not resolve in a satisfactory manner. His finger pointing has to show that up, no? At the end of the day, climbing mountains is an unjustifiable activity – it’s pointlessly dangerous and often undertaken for alpha male reasons that we are culturally supposed to admire, but which, if they manifest themselves in women, occasion trips to the therapist.

  • Barb

    I read “Into the Wild” by the same author (and ended up not watching Sean Penn’s movie)… It’s been some time now (2009?), but I remember I was not very pleased with how men’s minds work when it comes to living dangerously! 😉 Even if that was the story of Chris McCandless, John Krakauer inserted some episodes of his own life-risking habits… which only reinforces my belief that men are crazy and self-destructive! 😉
    Not going to re-read it anytime soon, so sorry I can’t be more specific… but the way you talk about this one, I recognize Krakauer’s writing style! 😉

  • martha drummond

    Was this expedition led by people from Hartford/West Hartford. Seems like I remember reading commentary in the Courant about the trip and its leader. Three Cups of Tea is an excellent suggestion for readers. Mortenson has also written another more recent book ( a sequel) regarding his more current efforts to develop schools in Taliban territories. The peaks that Mortenson now climbs are more rewarding, less self centered and just as dangerous. He will leave this world when his time comes having done a tremendous amount of good. His efforts are what peace is all about.

    Martha Drummond

  • Smorg

    I have just been re-reading this book along with ‘The Climb’ and ‘Above the Clouds’ (both by Boukreev & DeWalt) again. Good review of the book. Must also compliment you on your healthy skepticism in questioning Mr. Krakauer’s depiction of other people involved in that 1996 tragedy even before getting to read other accounts of the event.

    Mr. K’s persistent self-pitying in this book wore on me, too, and I also found it utterly absurd how he claims that paying a guiding service $65,000 to climb Everest robbed him of the ability to have independent thought in the mountain. I’m also nagged by his insistence on finding fault with what every other teams were doing (basically everyone else were ill-prepared and/or didn’t have the correct (according to his own inexperienced view) mindset for the climb. Sometimes I wonder if he over-prosecuted Boukreev because he had let Hall off easy… A sort of over-compensated blame distribution?

    I find Boukreev’s account quite more sensible. He just tells what happened and his rationale for his decisions without embellishment. No blame game indulged. (His co-author, Weston DeWalt does heavy-duty rebuttal of Krakauer’s charges at the end of the book, though. He is compelling for his thoroughly well-documented approach, though seems a bit fanatical about Boukreev himself). And Boukreev’s point that he was concerned that his clients were going to run out of O2 too early in their descent makes sense. After all, Krakauer worried about the same thing (for himself. Krakauer worried that ‘he’ would run out of O2, Boukreev worried that others were) on his way down, so why does that make sense to him when he was doing it but not for Boukreev?

    It seems Mr. K really had it in for the Russian. He minimally mention Boukreev’s heroic rescue attempts, and took care to then downplay it as not as impressive as the 2 sherpas’ attempt to reach Rob Hall the next day. (The sherpas’ attempt was very impressive, too, though an objective person wouldn’t even try to compare apple with orange. Their attempt came after a night’s rest and in full day visibility — quite a different set of conditions from what Boukreev had to deal with a few hours earlier).

    My copy of ‘Into Thin Air’ is the 1999 paperback edition, and it comes with one of the most tasteless postscripts I’ve ever encountered. I first read about this tragedy shortly after it happened via Krakuaer’s Outside article, then I read his hardback book after it came out. I only read Boukreev’s books many years afterward. Thought the books both offer compelling points of view, though ‘The Climb’ is probably more accurate. After I read the paperback ‘Into Thin Air’ with this postscript, though, I’ve lost respect for Krakauer. Life is too short for such pettiness. :o(

    So, I’d definitely recommend ‘The Climb’ if you are interested in the 1996 Everest tragedy, though I think ‘Above The Clouds’ is a better book, a compiled translation of Boukreev’s Russian language notes and reflections from his many summits (it touches on the Everest event, too, but not in great detail). :o)

  • Maureen Thome

    I have just reread “Into Thin Air” after reading “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viiesturs. Mr. Viesturs seems to have had alot of respect for Boukreev. It was written by The IMAX Expedition experiences with also the help they gave to the other expeditions. I agree with some of the review of Jon K. but I truly believe he was desperately afraid for his life and I also believe there were “clients” ill equipped to climb Everest. I did not find him “petty” . I also read “Three Cups of Tea” and it is a completely different scenario.

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