A Journalist's Archive

Into Thin Air
John Krakauer
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Climbing Mount Everest is not for the weak or faint of heart. Neither is reading John Krakauer's first hand account of the deadliest season on the mountain.  But if you want to read a true adventure story, Krakauer's brilliant writing will take you on an incredible journey best experienced from a chair in your living room.

          Krakauer, a skilled mountain climber and journalist, wrote for Outside Magazine.  So when the magazine offered to sponsor him on a guided expedition to Everest in 1996, he was thrilled.  Everest is the Holy Grail to mountain climbers, the final challenge, and a lifetime accomplishment to which few people own the bragging rights.

          The costs of those bragging rights are incredibly high both financially and physically.  Today joining an expedition to climb Everest costs about $65,000.  Physically, the thin air clouds the thought processes even at Everest's Base Camp, located 17,600 ft. above sea level, where climbers spend about a month struggling to acclimatize themselves to the lack of oxygen.  As adventurers advance higher to four additional camps before the final push to the summit, their bodies are subjected to high altitude sickness and muscles atrophy because of the lack of oxygen.

          Historically, members of the first expeditions made the ascent without supplemental oxygen, and they carried their own supplies, but very few people do so today. Krakauer explains that clients on guided expeditions rely on Sherpas, inhabitants of Nepal, hired to carry food, oxygen, and other supplies.  Sherpas also install ropes, cut footholds, arrange ladders over the crevasses, and stash oxygen bottles at strategic points along the trail.

            Climbers carry a few personal items and supplemental oxygen.  Krakauer's expedition was led by Rob Hall, a guide from New Zealand.  Two additional guides, a base camp manager, a doctor, plus 11 Sherpas were all intent on seeing that their eight clients made it to the top of Everest.  Krakauer said climbers who haven't made the trek often express disdain for Everest expeditions because of all this assistance.  But in spite of the help, there is one death for every four people who make it to the top of Everest.  While Krakauer knew that statistic before his journey, nothing prepared him for the conditions he faced on Everest in May 1996. 

          During their weeks at base camp, Hall repeatedly told his group that on the day of the finally ascent, they had to make it to the summit of Everest by 2 p.m., because they needed to make it back to their tents at Camp 4 before nightfall.  So he said a turn-around rule would be enforced for their own safety.  No matter how close to the summit, or how disappointing it may be, all climbers must begin their decent by 2 p.m.  Hall knew lives would be at risk if this procedure was not followed, Krakauer claims.

            Perhaps it was too difficult for guides to deny their paying customers a few extra hours to accomplish their goal, or maybe the clear sky lured guides with weakened cognitive abilities into a false sense of security on the final push for the summit.    Undoubtedly, the lack of oxygen at 29,028 ft. clouded everyone's judgment.   

          No one will ever understand the real cause for the disaster that took place that day, but the tragic blunder of staying too long at the top of the world cost nine people their lives and others were left permanently disabled after they lost limbs to frostbite.  It is a miracle anyone survived the horrific night they spent on Everest in hurricane force winds with wind-chill factors below -70F.   The experience altered Krakauer's life, forcing him to admit that "to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act - a triumph of desire over sensibility." 

          "Into Thin Air" is his account of the events leading to that conclusion and it is well worth the read.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved