I really wanted to read this book for two reasons: I liked Into the Wild a lot, actually my first post on this blog was about this book, it was a lot better than the movie, and I have huge respect for Krakauer as a writer and journalist. The second reason is a bit more complex – when I was five Jerzy Kukuczka (the second man after Reinhold Messner to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders aka The Crown of the Himalaya) died attempting to climb Lhotse, three years later Wanda Rutkiewicz (the first woman to climb K2) died while climbing Kangchenjunga, as I was a kid and both deaths have been widely discussed in Poland it made an impression, but with me being super-lazy and preferring heat to cold it also always left me wondering why do people feel this urge to climb, to risk everything only to get to the top. I’m sorry, but I don’t find George’s Mallory ‘because it’s there’ a satisfying answer. I hoped Krakauer’s book will help me understand why.
Krakauer gives us an account of a 1996 Mount Everest expedition in which he participated as a journalist and which resulted in the death of eight people. He wrote the book only six months after the events, when the trauma was still fresh. I got what I hoped for an account by a diligent journalist, eyewitness, with the emotions and anguish that only a direct participant can pass to us. The book was fantastic.
Krakauer starts with a brief chapter describing his own ascent to the top and the subsequent ‘traffic jam’ at Hillary Step (which coincidentally on 21 May 2017 has been confirmed to have collapsed). Right after that he takes us back to he beginning, giving brief history of Everest ascents, his own career as a mountaineer, how he got the assignment for the Outside, to write about the commercialization of the Everest expeditions and how he convinced the magazine that he should go a year later, but then to the top not only to Base Camp as was initially planned. He described the travel to Base Camp, I found it quite funny that while on a plane he realized that he is about to attempt climbing to the same altitude as the plane. He then describes the Base Camp and the acclimatization process, all the time also describing people from his own and other expeditions, giving us their history, building them as fully fleshed characters. It is a tale of pain, suffering, exhaustion, but also about very different people driven to the same place, with the same goal. Krakauer describes how the world of Sherpas has changed and how Westerners shouldn’t judge it, or despair the loss of idyllic, simple life, because it never was what we imagine it to be. He writes a lot about the rubbish people leave behind and talks about expeditions undertaken to clean the Everest from empty oxygen tanks.
Towards the middle of the book the reader and the participants of the expedition have all acclimatized, so it’s time for the ascent. It is a dramatic and harrowing account of desperate fight for survival of oneself and others, full of human errors, some pettiness, but also heroism and selflessness and miracles (how else can I call the fact that a man taken for dead twice has survived). In my 2011 edition included was also an epilogue in which Krakauer refuses the accusations G. Weston DeWalt made in his book The Climb, but he also admits some mistakes in his account. An honest, thorough journalism.
The book has made me laugh, made me think and made me cry (descriptions of last conversations are heartbreaking). It is well paced, well written, a gem. It didn’t do only one thing – I still cannot understand why people feel the need to climb Everest and it’s not for lack of trying on Krakauer’s part to explain it. I think I’m just wired differently.
It is one of those books that I’ve been talking about for days, almost making my Bigger Half cry with frustration of hearing about Everest from breakfast till dinner. I also already succeeded in pushing my copy into unsuspecting hands of my friend. So be on the safe side, get a copy and read it before I jump out of your fridge with a copy.
Do you climb? Would you climb? Why?
Quotes from Into Thin Air