Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air fittingly begins with this quote. The book tells the story of a group of people who, in May 1996, attempted to climb Mt. Everest. It unfortunately became the deadliest day in the history of Mt. Everest.
Normally, this would not be news. It is the undercurrents within the book that are more entertaining than the surface news of the tragedy. People climb mountains often, and there are often accidents and deaths. What makes this different is that the groups were part of a wave of clients who essentially paid big money to ‘get’ up the mountain. Some weren’t experienced climbers, some were experienced (as Krakauer was), but none were what any experienced mountaineer would call ‘prepared’ for a climb such as Mt. Everest.
Krakauer diligently details the parameters of the trip, the high cost in time and money, and his constant doubts about the whole enterprise. His ability to foreshadow disaster while keeping reader interest is unparalleled. Each character is introduced in such a way that I wanted to know how it turned out for each one, even though the list of people who didn’t make it is in the front of the book.
Krakauer is understandably wary of the whole enterprise of guides, for large sums of money ($15,000 to $75,000), essentially pulling up Regular Joes and Janes up Mt. Everest. Postal clerks, social butterflies, photographers and airline pilots seem miscast among the sherpas and the tour guides. Because of the worst storm in years, the inherent weaknesses in the guides, the plans, and the clients were all exposed, all at once. May 10th 1996 was a day of intense tragedy on Mt. Everest and the story is fascinating.
While reading about the book, I found out that Krakauer took a lot of abuse after writing the book – enough to warrant his issuing a rebuttal in the 1999 version of Into Thin Air. The criticism is unwarranted. It seems that people are unwilling to admit mistakes, that no one ever is guilty of overreach, as the guides both were. No one should tell the truth, or admit that people screw up, or get into situations where they had no business being. Krakauer actually admits serious wrongdoing on his part in the book. Yet, he was accused of unfairly attacking one of the assistant guides. I did not see it that way at all nor did I get that impression while reading it.
Ortega y Gasset was right. It is the ‘civilized’ world where the tragedy is. At least one can see why people will go into the mountains and play at tragedy to escape it all.
Ken Kamler, who was on Everest that day, recounts some of the horrors: