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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster » User review

So-so story of a disaster on Everest

  • Nov 15, 2009
Pros: The story is an exciting one

Cons: Lack of perspective, structure is a bit spastic

The Bottom Line: I like Krakauer's work, but this book is weak despite the subject matter.  For reasons explained in the review, I am lukewarm about recommending, but I won't dismiss it either.

The bookstore I use (and it isn’t alone), puts Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air in the travel section. A goodly portion of Mr. Krakauer’s journalism work has been in specialized travel magazines (so the placement isn’t just random), but none of his books belong there. A travel piece would essentially be a lengthy Epinions review explaining the best, worst, and mediocre aspects of a particular adventure.

Into Thin Air is a history covering several teams intent on summiting Everest. As a quick thumbnail: Twelve people on these teams died due primarily, but not exclusively, to a gale-strength storm trapping them and a few others before they could make it down to the nearest base camp in May, 1996.

If it were a travel piece the upshot would be that you should part with $65,000 and six weeks only if you want to be miserable much of the time and have no problems watching others die while you aren’t too far behind (Wish you were here!!!!).

In 1996, Outside magazine paid for Mr. Krakauer to go to Everest and write a piece for the journal. His stipulation was that he be on a team led by Rob Hall, one of the premier climbers on the planet. Mr. Hall owned and operated an adventure company that took paying customers and led them up any of a dozen difficult peaks. His team shared the mountain with a team led by Scott Fisher, owner of a rival travel company; a team of anti-social, even hostile South Africans; and a group of Taiwanese climbers led by someone with an unproven record of getting clients safely up (and particularly down) the planet’s higher mountains.

Though not a “travel” book, the first half is a travelogue. In this respect, Mr. Krakauer explains the personalities of about two dozen people instrumental in getting the teams to the top (the expedition leaders, their guides, and the sherpas), and of the score of climbers directly affected by the fatal storm.

The second half of the book contains what would drive most to read it, I imagine. This part presents as detailed an accounting as possible of the events and of the people stuck in the storm and the emotional impact it had on those who survived it. It also contains a fairly large amount of finger-pointing, which is normal given the nature of the story. Of course this would cause controversy.

Before going further into the problems with the story, I must admit that it is an exciting read.

Objectivity is always called into question when a survivor tells the story of a disaster. This skepticism increases significantly if the recounting happens soon after. Mr. Krakauer states from the beginning that it may have been unwise for him to write Into Thin Air when he did; he started writing it shortly after he returned from the disaster and it was published prior to the first anniversary.

It was unwise, but not for the stated reason that the book was an attempt to exorcize the welter of emotions he was trapped in. It was unwise because he makes suppositions on what would have happened had events been handled differently and ascribes motives to people under circumstances he did not understand well enough. There was plenty of human error, mostly poor judgment. When these poor decisions lead to fatalities the blame game reaches almost to dog whistle pitch.

Mr. Krakauer explains that Everest’s base camp is at 17,000 feet. Oxygen at that level is around half what it is at sea level and it only gets thinner the higher up you go, naturally. The less oxygen you breath, the slower your mental faculties. Stories told by survivors of a hurricane, flood, fire, accident at sea may be harrowing and their proximity to the truth is foggy, fighting for your life narrows your frame of reference. But when you admit that your mental abilities were not stable, the fogginess reduces metaphorical visibility to very short distances.

Briefly, as the percentage of oxygen decreases, the blood thins to a dangerous level that can cause pulmonary or cardiac embolisms as well as cranial bleeds. The lower oxygen levels get, the less food your body can metabolize, so there is a wasting effect.

These extreme conditions led to a specific form of unreliable memory that caused Mr. Krakauer to misreport the manner of death of one of the guides. His mistake angered and embarrassed the guide’s family since the implication is that the guide neglected his responsibilities thereby adding another ingredient in the recipe of the disaster. He apologized publically and adjusted the story, and to my mind, he did it the correct way: rather than just redact that part of the book, he explains that he made the mistake why he made it—I trust and respect this method of reporting/recounting because it maintains authorial responsibilities. Still, had he taken just a wee bit more time in interviewing his fellow survivors, he may not have made the mistake (yes, I know this is supposition, but it is something Mr. Krakauer explains himself, so I’m kind of off the hook here).

Another example of attaching motive caused an intransigent hostility between Mr. Krakauer and an inimitable Kazak climber Anatoli Boukreev. Mr. Krakauer reports what he sees as recklessness on Mr. Boukreev’s part that potentially added yet another ingredient to the mess. Into Thin Air was published just a few months before The Climb, Mr. Boukreev’s account of the events as told to Weston DeWalt. This book presented totally different perspective and impugns Mr. Krakauer and his possible missteps.

The edition of Into Thin Air under review (1999) contains a postscript detailing the publically heated exchanges between Mr. Krakauer and Mr. DeWalt. Despite trying to sound professional, the postscript still comes across as another punch in the fight.

I wanted to like Into Thin Air because I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Krakauer’s other books. The style he used in Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven is careful and engaging. In those books, the main story is woven in with events in Mr. Krakauer’s life and historical events that further illustrate the main story. Since he wrote and published Into Thin Air so shortly after the emotionally wrenching events, he could not take the time to research parallels as he did in his other tales. I can’t call the book sloppy, just that it is a weak book by an otherwise careful writer.

The main review is over, but I want to make a couple of personal comments..

I watched and reviewed Storm Over Everest. I got supremely angry by the way it was presented and the way the “protagonists” presented themselves. I was in the process of writing a screed when I realized I needed to get another take on the events. This is the primary reason for reading Into Thin Air.

I am still going to write the essay that I’ll post in the writer’s corner—when I get this ticked off, I tend to want to write about it.

Several Epiners reviewing this book mentioned the self-serving nature Mr. Krakauer used when telling his version of the disaster. To a very large extent, this is the nature of a first person telling. However, it also points to a form of extreme selfishness and sense of entitlement the climbers had. Though this may seem totally out of left field, but the sense of p¡ss¡ness I got from the survivor tales was very close to the reaction I had when Ken Lay’s wife (Ken Lay was the CEO of Enron when that company imploded) cried no national television explaining that she and her husband were broke. This form of clueless, thoughtless self-pity is jaw dropping and something I can’t ignore.

This compulsion is my own form of selfishness, admittedly.

For reference, here is my review for .


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More Into Thin Air: A Personal Acco... reviews
review by . June 16, 2010
No one recounts adventure disasters better than Jon Krakauer. After reading this account, I felt a deeper understanding and appreciation of the difficulties of climbing Mt. Everest.  Mr. Krakauer was on this trip, but because of oxygen deprivations, he admits he can not be sure what actually happened at times.      
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
Krakauer's classic. He is an incredible journalist, and does a great job chronicling everything his interest draws him to.
Quick Tip by . June 19, 2010
very good
Quick Tip by . June 18, 2010
To get the most out of this book, please read the January 1981 edition of the National Geographic magazine or the December 1980 editions of Time or some other national magazine to get an idea of how catostrophic this diaster was.
review by . December 29, 2009
This review is to help people understand the differences between the paperback version of Mr. Krakauer's book and the 'illustrated' version. (So much has been written about the content, that it hardly seems worth putting down my own paltry thoughts about Jon's Everest adventure.)    The first difference, of course, is the size. The 'illustrated' version is 9.1 x 8.8 inches, and is about 1 inch thick. Hardback, the book weighs 3.5 pounds, which is to say it's pretty hefty.     …
review by . November 01, 2008
Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer takes you for a front seat ride up the deadly slopes of Mount Everest, during the notoriously deadly expedition of May 1996. Barely escaping the mountain with his own life, journalist Krakauer remembers the team members and friends left on the mountain. Four out of eleven members died on the fatal mountain.     Inch by weary inch, step by shivering step, Krakauer takes us on his journey up Everest and introduces us to the members of his team. This book is so well …
review by . June 05, 2003
Perhaps timing is everything, but don't tell that to Jon Krakauer, an outdoors writer and mountain climber who was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to climb Mount Everest; only to find himself in the middle of the most notable catastrophe to ever strike the mountain. With the 50th anniversary of the successful assent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, there is renewed interest in Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for the mountain. Previous to the second half of the twentieth century, Everest …
review by . January 09, 2000
Pros: The glory of it all     Cons: The loss of it all     I gotta tell you the truth, I never real books like this. I am a King/Koontz fan. Blood and guts, that's my style. I buy books by the cover only so naturally "Into Thin Air" equaled kidnapping to me!       Boy was I surprised!      I usually have two or three books going at the same time (talk about plot confusion) so when I opened this one up and started …
review by . September 27, 1999
Pros: Reads like a childhood adventure book, has an ending     Cons: Self-indulgence paraded as heroism, nauseating      This is what one of my grandfathers referred to as an 'aeroport book' -- buy it while waiting for your flight, read it on the plane, pitch it or lose it or just pass it along when you reach your destination; not something worth keeping on your shelf. You know, like magazines.      In this case, a weirdly self-indulgent …
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About this book


Into Thin Air is a riveting first-hand account of a catastrophic expedition up Mount Everest. In March 1996,Outsidemagazine sent veteran journalist and seasoned climber Jon Krakauer on an expedition led by celebrated Everest guide Rob Hall. Despite the expertise of Hall and the other leaders, by the end of summit day eight people were dead. Krakauer's book is at once the story of the ill-fated adventure and an analysis of the factors leading up to its tragic end. Written within months of the events it chronicles,Into Thin Airclearly evokes the majestic Everest landscape. As the journey up the mountain progresses, Krakauer puts it in context by recalling the triumphs and perils of other Everest trips throughout history. The author's own anguish over what happened on the mountain is palpable as he leads readers to ponder timeless questions.
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ISBN-10: 0385494785
ISBN-13: 978-0385494786
Author: Jon Krakauer
Genre: Nonfiction, True Accounts
Publisher: Anchor (October 19, 1999)
Date Published: (October 19, 1999)
Format: Paperback: 368 pages, Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 1 inches
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