Beyond the Clouds
Into Thin Air
By: Jon Krakauer
Reviewed by: Jesse Ruderman
Into Thin Air is Jon Krakauerís engrossing account of the spring 1996 "Mt. Everest Disaster" and the events leading up to it. Krakauer masterfully describes the events leading up to the deaths of two team leaders and three other members, both from his delusional perspective at the time and in hindsight.
Jon Krakauer is a journalist for Outside magazine and a mountain-climber. He has written two other well-known books, Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild. Outside sent him to Everest as a client on Rob Hallís commercial expedition so that he could write an article on the commercialization of Everest. The story he returned with was not at all what had been expected.
The climbers are extremely vulnerable near the top of the mountain, which is higher than 29,000 feet. Not only does the insubstantial oxygen at that level slow them physically, but it also impairs their ability to make decisions and even to feel emotions other than fatigue and cold. Despite the climbersí attempts to make crucial decisions such as turn-around times before the summit assault, they make critical mistakes, leading to five deaths.
Krakauer begins Into Thin Air with the climax of the story, when he is racing against time to descend Everestís summit before he runs out of bottled oxygen. He then tells the entire story from beginning to end. He continually foreshadows the impending disaster, skillfully maintaining suspense: "Nobody discussed Fischerís [a guideís] exhausted appearance. It didnít occur to any of us that he might be in trouble" (265).
Krakauer incorporates many lucid descriptions into the book, including a depiction of his mental state while descending the summit without bottled oxygen: "Entire sections of my cerebral cortex seemed to have shut down altogether. Dizzy, fearing I would black out, I was frantic to reach the South Summit, where my third [oxygen] bottle was waiting. I started tenuously down the fixed lines, stiff with dread" (244). Another method he uses to convey the feeling of oxygen deprivation is describing an event as he remembers it, and later writing that he finds out that the event was different in some fundamental way.
Krakauer uses a complex vocabulary in Into Thin Air, but the more challenging words are placed in such a way that the reader can generally discern their meanings based on context. For example, he describes Everestís summit as the "apex of the world" (9). His lexicon may slow down some readers, but I found that it made the story more interesting.
The book leaves several open questions: Why did the accident occur? Who is to blame? These open questions make the book more interesting and provocative. Krakauer is careful not to blame specific people for the mistakes that were made, acknowledging that clear thought is in short supply high on the mountain.
Even though I do not like to climb mountains myself, I like the way the book is written and enjoyed the psychological aspects of the story. I recommend this book to anyone interested in mountain climbing, adventure, or psychology.