Seventeen years after the release of Jon Krakauer’s best-seller, the tragic tale is still as gripping as ever
After a recent snowfall, I watched the kids across the street climb on the snow piled at the end of their driveway. The wind chill was biting at something like -20°F, and though the kids looked to be having a fine time in their snow boots and hats, I was happy to be inside in my warm slippers, dreaming of Cancun and sipping on Bell’s Expedition Stout. Thick and velvety at 10.5% ABV, this intensely bitter beer is meant to be aged in that dark corner of your laundry room; unfortunately, I couldn’t wait too long before cracking one open.
It’s fair to say, however, that perhaps I waited too long to read this month’s book, Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air. Widely considered one of the best adventure books ever written, it offers Krakauer’s personal account of the events that claimed lives of eight climbers attempting the summit of Everest in a single day—the mountain’s deadliest disaster at the time. The book is also the basis for Everest, a major motion picture starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, and Josh Brolin, hitting theaters this September.
Sent by Outside magazine to report on the commercial guided expeditions that were successfully putting more and more inexperienced climbers on the world’s highest peak, Krakauer reached the 29,028’ summit of Mount Everest on May 10, 1996. He stayed only five minutes before starting his descent.
“Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation,” Krakauer writes of achieving his childhood dream. “But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.”
That sense of foreboding permeates the book—not only because this is a well-known story in which many people die tragically, but also in the many details that Krakauer meticulously examines in an effort to determine what went wrong.
He describes, for example, two nights spent early in the expedition at a smoky lodge in Lobuje, a village outside Everest’s Base Camp. While at this lodge, which is heated by burning yak dung, two climbers contract “some kind of virulent intestinal ailment,” the Base Camp manager suffers from an intense altitude-induced headache, and Krakauer himself picks up a violent cough that cracks two of his ribs and sticks with him for the rest of the expedition. Before the climbers have even set up their tents or strapped on their crampons, the harsh environment has taken its toll.
Later, Krakauer describes the superstition among the Sherpas on the expedition. “They fundamentally disapproved of sex between unmarried couples on the divine flanks of Sagarmatha, goddess of the sky,” he writes. When a Sherpa dies suddenly from altitude sickness, the more superstitious among them believe that two climbers who are engaged in a forbidden romance have angered Everest. By noting the presence of discarded oxygen tanks, abandoned climbing equipment, and frozen corpses up and down the mountain, Krakauer illustrates the real consequences—whether that anger is imagined or not.
Though poor acclimatization, bad health, and careless faux pas don’t guarantee a doomed expedition, their presence in Krakauer’s narrative exposes the diminished state of the climbers and contributes to an atmosphere of growing dread. By the time Krakauer, who is cold, tired, and low on oxygen, finally starts his descent, he sees storm clouds gathering in the distance while other climbers remain hours away from the peak, still ascending.
It is here where Krakauer abandons the book’s linear, chronological structure and instead attempts to piece together the actions likely taken by each climber, grappling through the night with the storm and the mountain. This narrative technique moves us forward and backward through time repeatedly, has a disorienting effect that artfully recreates the confusion and fear on the mountain, and produces some of Krakauer’s finest writing. Though he has admitted to making mistakes in the reporting of this book, his dedication to correcting those errors in subsequent editions has provided us with an exemplary work of nonfiction that explores the limits of human achievement.
Nearly 20 years later, exploring those limits remains as tempting—and dangerous—as ever. Just this past year, 16 climbers died in an avalanche on Everest at 21,000’, making April 18, 2014, the deadliest day in the mountain’s history.