March 06, 2015

Cliffs of Fall (Review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer)

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Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer 
Pan Books 1997

Edmund Mallory, one of the first and keenest adventurers on Mount Everest was once asked why he wanted to climb it.  He famously answered, “Because it’s there”.  And people have been climbing it, because it is there, ever since.  Not all with success. Mallory himself was killed before ever reaching the summit and his body languished on the frozen slopes for many years before it was recovered.  This may sound gruesome yet it is not uncommon.  Everest is veritably littered with bodies, lying frozen and forever inert their locations making recovery and burial nigh on impossible. Among these unfortunate souls lie several who met their end on the 10th of May, 1996. Of the many who attempted to summit Everest that day, Jon Krakauer was one.  A writer by trade and a keen and experienced climber, he was commissioned to write about the commercialisation of Everest and joined one of several guided expeditions heading to the summit.  Into Thin Air tells the story of several groups on Everest that season, primarily focussing on the tour Krakauer joined, Adventure Consultants and one other, Mountain Madness. 

Into Thin Air is incredibly compelling.  The story is constructed carefully, slowly even, with Krakauer expertly weaving mountaineering history, techniques and philosophy into the build towards the fateful summit attempt. His story is full of strong characters and the members of each group slowly come into focus from the leaders, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer to the hugely varied clients whose only common ground often seems to be their desire to conquer the mountain. However, those looking for a cut and dried explanation of a terrible tragedy will not find their answers here. High altitude and terrible weather don’t lead to exact recollections and while Krakauer clearly spoke at length to all the major players both on the mountain and in the aftermath he himself admits that the accounts vary sometimes  wildly.  Everyone, it seems, remembers events slightly differently.  Yet it all makes sense, in a terrible sort of way, and certainly it would be hard to reach the end of Into Thin Air without forming at least a vague opinion about why things went so terribly, terribly wrong.

Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air just six months after the events of 10th May and his account lacks any real objectivity.  His words are raw, often angry and he himself admits that (due, apart from anything, to the aforementioned effects of high altitude on actions and memory) he is a far from reliable narrator. He clearly has very strong views on certain aspects of the expedition he was part of and particularly focusses on Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide on the Mountain Madness expedition, whom he feels contributed in large part to the problems of May 10th.  It is worth noting that Boukreev co-wrote The Climb, his own account of the tragedy which gives readers a fascinating counterpoint to Into Thin Air. Jon Krakauer’s writing, though, is excellent.  He draws you into a stark and alien landscape planet and skilfully shows why it is so attractive to so many. He allows you to feel the biting cold, trudge through the endless ice and breath the failing air.  It’s a visceral reading experience.



Searing, brave and laden down with survivor’s guilt, Into Thin Air is a paean to the lost, a desperate plea to those left behind and the compulsive storytelling of a man for whom the tale will never end.  I came to this book a mountaineering novice but since finishing it have read many more explorations of that intangible drive that makes us lift our eyes unto the hills and particularly towards Everest. I understand now, I think, why people look to that height of all heights and dream of ascension.  They do it because they are alive; they do it because they can; they do it because they are looking for something regardless of risk; they do it because they are foolhardy; they do it because they long to dichotomously illustrate man’s dominance and insignificance.  But mainly they do it because it’s there. Read Into Thin Air and I defy you to feel otherwise.  Highly recommended.


This review was brought to you by Splendibird who is, by the way, now totally considering a trek to Everest Base Camp.  Not UP the mountain. Well, probably not.  Well, maybe... She also highly recommends The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.  

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