Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think I am possibly the last person on earth who might conceivably be interested in this book who hadn't read it or seen the film. So, I'm slightly uncertain about the utility of reviewing it. But here goes...
In 1996, Jon Krakauer joined an expedition climbing Mt. Everest as a reporter for Outside
magazine. He ended up getting a bigger story than he bargained for, as a storm caught climbers on the mountain, resulting in 12 deaths, including several members of the expedition Krakauer had climbed with.
I've always found stories of high-altitude mountaineering fascinating, albeit in a way that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. They're always stories of extremes, both physical and mental. People perform amazing feats of strength and endurance, or suffer complete and total physical breakdown. (And sometimes do both alternately or sequentially.) People show amazing bravery, compassion, or quick thinking under nearly impossible circumstances, or exhibit unbelievable selfishness, apathy, or stupidity. (Again, sometimes the same people at different times.) I can't decide whether Everest stories reveal something important about human nature or are merely sideshows about people behaving freakishly under freakish conditions that humans were frankly never meant to endure.
Anyway, Krakauer has a talent for sketching out the personalities of his fellow team members in a way that make them very vivid. And he has a real talent for making a complex series of events clear - I've read some other accounts of mountaineering disasters, and many writers have a lot of difficulty juggling varied accounts of what happened on different parts of the mountain without creating a muddle. The book is a fast and gripping read.
Of course, this very vividness and clarity has opened up Krakauer to criticism. Some people have objected to the way they or their relatives were portrayed in the book. And Krakauer was not actually present for some of the most dramatic events of the book, and is able to document that for at least one incident in which he was present, his memory was faulty, fogged by exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. It's possible that of the differing versions of events in the 1996 disaster, Krakauer's may have prevailed just because it is the most compellingly written.
In Krakauer's defense, he seems to have tried hard to make the most honest account he could. The second edition of the book, which I read, includes a section in which he addresses some of the criticism of the first edition. Of course, he may be misrepresenting his critics, but in general he seems to acknowledge where they have legitimate points. View all my reviews