The Book Jacket Blurb:
When Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996, he hadn't slept in fifty-seven hours and was reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion. As he turned to begin his long, dangerous descent from 29,028 feet, twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly toward the top. No one had noticed that the sky had begun to fill with clouds. Six hours later and 3,000 feet lower, in 70-knot winds and blowing snow, Krakauer collapsed in his tent, freezing, hallucinating from exhaustion and hypoxia, but safe. The following morning he learned that six of his fellow climbers hadn't made it back to their camp and were in a desperate struggle for their lives. When the storm finally passed, five of them would be dead, and the sixth so horribly frostbitten that his right hand would have to be amputated.
Into Thin Air is the definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Everest by the acclaimed journalist and author of the bestseller Into The Wild. On assignment for Outside magazine to report on the growing commercialization of the mountain, Krakauer, an accomplished climber, went to the Himalaya as a client of Rob Hall, the most respected high-altitude guide in the world. A rangy, thirty-five-year-old New Zealander, Hall had summited Everest four times between 1990 and 1995 and led thirty-nine climbers to the top. Ascending the mountain in close proximity to Hall's team was a guided expedition led by Scott Fischer, a forty-year-old American with legendary strength and drive who had climbed the peak without supplemental oxygen in 1994. But neither Hall nor Fischer survived the rogue storm that struck in May 1996.
Krakauer examines what it is about Everest that has compelled so many people -- including himself -- to throw caution to the wind, ignore the concerns of loved ones, and willingly subject themselves to such risk, hardship, and expense. Written with emotional clarity and supported by his unimpeachable reporting, Krakauer's eye-witness account of what happened on the roof of the world is a singular achievement.
What Hooked Me:
The author wrote this book as an act of catharsis soon after the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing disaster, and as such, it is highly compelling and very emotional. It is remarkably written and includes enough background information to understand the sport of climbing and climbing the Everest, in particular.
'Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.'(opening lines)
'And climbing provided a sense of community as well. To become a climber was to join a self-contained, rabidly idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large. The culture of ascent was characterized by intense competition and undiluted machismo, but for the most part, its constituents were concerned with impressing only one another. Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.'(20)
'The ink black wedge of the summit pyramid stood out in stark relief, towering over the surrounding ridges. Thrust high into the jet stream, the mountain ripped a visible gash in the 120-knot hurricane, sending forth a plume of ice crystals that trailed to the east like a long silk scarf. As I gazed across the sky at this contrail, it occurred to me that the top of Everest was precisely the same height as the pressurized jet bearing me through the heavens. That I proposed to climb to the cruising altitude of an Airbus 300 jetliner stuck me, at that moment, as preposterous, or worse. My palms felt clammy.'(30)
'I didn't doubt the potential value of paying attention to subconscious cues. As I waited for Rob to lead the way, the ice underfoot emitted a series of loud cracking noises, like small trees being snapped in two, and I felt myself wince with each pop and rumble from the glacier's shifting depths. Problem was, my inner voice resembled Chicken Little: it was screaming that I was about to die, but it did that almost every time I laced up my climbing boots. I therefore did my damnedest to ignore my histrionic imagination and grimly followed Rob into the eerie blue labyrinth.'(77)
'The slopes of Everest did not lack for dreamers in the spring of 1996; the credentials of many who'd come to climb the mountain were as thin as mine, or thinner. When it came time for each of us to assess our own abilities and weigh them against the formidable challenges of the world's highest mountain, it sometimes seemed as though half the population at Base Camp was clinically delusional. But perhaps this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.'(88)
'People who don't climb mountains -- the great majority of humankind, that is to say -- tend to assume that the sport is reckless, Dionysian pursuit of escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour. ... Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became almost a Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.'(136)
'Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate seal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.'(177)
'Climbing along the blade of the summit ridge, sucking gas into my ragged lungs, I enjoyed a strange, unwarranted sense of calm. The world beyond the rubber mask was stupendously vivid but seemed not quite real, as if a movie were being projected in slow motion across the front of my goggles. I felt drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli. I had to remind myself over and over that there was 7,000 feet on sky on either side, that everything was at stake here, that I would pay for a single bungled step with my life.'(179-180)
'Confronted with this tally, my mind balked and retreated into a weird almost robotic state of detachment. I felt emotionally anesthetized yet hyperaware, as if I had fled into a bunker deep inside my skull and was peering out at the wreckage around me through a narrow, armored slit. As I gazed numbly at the sky, it seemed to have turned a preternaturally pale shade of blue, bleached of all but the faintest remnant of color. The jagged horizon was lined with a coronalike glow that flickered and pulsed before my eyes. I wondered if I had begun the downward spiral into the nightmarish territory of the mad.'(245)
'I'd always known that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game -- without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not it spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.'(270-271)
'In the midst of all the postmortem ratiocination, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that climbing mountains will never be a safe, predictable, rule-bound enterprise. This is an activity that idealizes risk-taking; the sport's most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. Climbers, as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence. And that holds especially true for Everest climbers: when presented with a chance to reach the planet's highest summit, history shows, people are surprisingly quick to abandon good judgment.'(275)
a Villard Books edition
Book qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge