Krakauer Trilogy: Into Thin Air

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November 4, 2013 by carlywont

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Here we are at the third Krakauer book and the culmination of my inaugural Three Books in a Tub series! Thanks for sticking with me, dear readers. I’m more than a little happy to be moving beyond Krakauer and I’m guessing you are too. Needless to say, there were ups and there were downs. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the epoch of belief and it was the epoch of incredulity. Etc.

So. Into Thin Air. First things first. I love the title. It’s definitely my favorite title of Krakauer’s. Perhaps “into” is my favorite preposition? I also love the term “thin air” since we don’t typically think of our air as particularly viscous, but of course, it is (comparatively).

I was a little wary starting this book—partly because of my lingering distaste forWhere Men Win Glory and partly because my sister-in-law had a less than stellar review of the book. (To quote, “They do shit that’s probably going to kill them and then it does…These people should go get jobs and join a chess club for their thrills.” Yeah, she’s a badass.)

Plus, considering the biggest physical accomplishment of my life has been a measly 5K (shout out to the BKW Cross Country Team! Go Bulldogs!), I can’t exactly relate on a personal level to ultra-athletes.

I think the highest I’ve been is Saksayhuaman outside of Cusco, Peru at 12,142 feet (Yep, I can Google) and the most I climbed was Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu stands at 8,924 feet and the ascent is 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu—an elevation that felt incredible to me. And that’s a pebble compared to Everest’s 29,028 feet.  (For a vertiginous view of the Huayna Picchu climb, check out this Youtube video of the “Stairs of Death”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ezgkaRyVe8)

Into Thin Air is the self-proclaimed definitive account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster—an event so called because eight people died after they were caught in a blizzard while descending the summit of Mount Everest on May 10-11, 1996. In total, fifteen people were dead by the end of the 1996 climbing season, making it the deadliest Everest year ever. Krakauer was on assignment for Outsidemagazine and was on the team that suffered the most casualties (Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants expedition).

Photo of Rob Hall’s team from the back cover of Into Thin Air:

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Krakauer has experienced a huge level of guilt over his own culpability in the ordeal and in the death of one of his teammate’s in particular. He writes in the Introduction about how the book might be crap since it was written as a way to expunge his guilt. He writes, “…I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment.”

I didn’t get the sense that Krakauer was using the book as a tool to assuage his guilt until the end of the book. There, he put into writing all the little things that went wrong and what might have been done differently to prevent the disaster. This was agonizing to read since the whole time I was imagining how magnified this ruminating must be in his head. If it was this bad in an edited book intended for a trade audience, imagine the endless spinning that must be going on in Krakauer’s mind.

One nitpicky thing I want to complain about: Krakauer provides date and elevation stamps at the beginning of his chapters. All of these chapters take place on Everest in 1996 EXCEPT for a single maddening chapter at the beginning, which is set in 1852 India.  WTF?? Surely an editor should have said something about that. Who else is there to watch out for us neurotic readers??

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book for me were when Krakauer would touch on the commercialization of Everest and how the avarice of various institutions there are putting climbers, Sherpas, and local culture in danger. The desire (by the government) to grant as many $10,000 climbing permits as possible gravely undermines the safety of climbing and also fills the mountain with trash and overflowing sewage. The competition between expeditions puts undue pressure on guides and Sherpas to get as many people to the summit as they can—regardless of their skills and climbing qualifications. (This competition directly contributed to the 1996 disaster).

An interesting quote from a “Sherpa orphan” excerpted in Into Thin Air:

“I am a Sherpa orphan. My father was killed in the Khumbu Icefall while load-ferrying for an expedition in the late sixties. My mother died just below Pheriche when her heart gave out under the weight of the load she was carrying for another expedition in 1970…my sister and I were sent to foster homes in Europe and the US.

I never have gone back to my homeland because I feel it is cursed. My ancestors arrived in the Solo-Khumbu region fleeing from persecution in the lowlands. There they found sanctuary in the shadow of ‘Sagarmathaji,’ ‘mother goddess of the eart.h’ In return they were expected to protect that goddess’ sanctuary from outsiders.

But my people went the other way. They helped outsiders find their way into the sanctuary and violate every limb of her body by standing on top of her, crowing in victory, and dirtying and polluting her bosom. Some of them have had to sacrifice themselves, others escaped through the skin of their teeth, or offered other lives in lieu…”

Try as I might to understand the motives and justification behind these dangerous endeavors, I just can’t wrap my mind around the selfishness of these climbers or relate to that desire. For now, I’m going to keep getting my adrenaline fix over at the “Adrenaline Porn” subreddit.

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^^ My personal tub Everest (which I summited today, by the way!) I would have had a bubble avalanche down the side but that’s a library book on the bottom and I can’t afford replacing any more of those guys.

[This is an archival post. It originally appeared on booksinatub.tumblr.com before Three Books migrated here.]

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