Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that "suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down." He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more--including Krakauer's--in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer's epic account of the May 1996 disaster.
By writing Into Thin Air, Krakauer may have hoped to exorcise some of his own demons and lay to rest some of the painful questions that still surround the event. He takes great pains to provide a balanced picture of the people and events he witnessed and gives due credit to the tireless and dedicated Sherpas. He also avoids blasting easy targets such as Sandy Pittman, the wealthy socialite who brought an espresso maker along on the expedition. Krakauer's highly personal inquiry into the catastrophe provides a great deal of insight into what went wrong. But for Krakauer himself, further interviews and investigations only lead him to the conclusion that his perceived failures were directly responsible for a fellow climber's death. Clearly, Krakauer remains haunted by the disaster, and although he relates a number of incidents in which he acted selflessly and even heroically, he seems unable to view those instances objectively. In the end, despite his evenhanded and even generous assessment of others' actions, he reserves a full measure of vitriol for himself.
This updated trade paperback edition of Into Thin Air includes an extensive new postscript that sheds fascinating light on the acrimonious debate that flared between Krakauer and Everest guide Anatoli Boukreev in the wake of the tragedy. "I have no doubt that Boukreev's intentions were good on summit day," writes Krakauer in the postscript, dated August 1999. "What disturbs me, though, was Boukreev's refusal to acknowledge the possibility that he made even a single poor decision. Never did he indicate that perhaps it wasn't the best choice to climb without gas or go down ahead of his clients." As usual, Krakauer supports his points with dogged research and a good dose of humility. But rather than continue the heated discourse that has raged since Into Thin Air's denouncement of guide Boukreev, Krakauer's tone is conciliatory; he points most of his criticism at G. Weston De Walt, who coauthored The Climb, Boukreev's version of events. And in a touching conclusion, Krakauer recounts his last conversation with the late Boukreev, in which the two weathered climbers agreed to disagree about certain points. Krakauer had great hopes to patch things up with Boukreev, but the Russian later died in an avalanche on another Himalayan peak, Annapurna I.
In 1999, Krakauer received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters--a prestigious prize intended "to honor writers of exceptional accomplishment." According to the Academy's citation, "Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer. His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general reevaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport; while his account of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, who died of starvation after challenging the Alaskan wilderness, delves even more deeply and disturbingly into the fascination of nature and the devastating effects of its lure on a young and curious mind."
summit of Everest, May 12. Descending from Camp Four after the storm, at 25,000 feet, Krakauer turned to look back at the upper reaches of the peak, where his friends Hall, Harris, Hansen, and Fischer had lost their lives. Namba had perished on the South Col, just twenty minutes from shelter.
gregarious man with a blond ponytail and a surfeit of manic energy. As a fourteen-year-old schoolboy in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, he had chanced upon a television program about mountaineering and was enthralled. The next summer he traveled to Wyoming and enrolled in an Outward Bound–style wilderness course run by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). As soon as he graduated from high school he moved west permanently, found seasonal employment as a NOLS instructor, placed climbing at the
out of reach: they’d turned around below the Hillary Step. Between the weather and the Montenegrins’ defeat, it didn’t augur well for our own summit assault, scheduled to get under way in less than six hours. Everyone retreated to their nylon shelters the moment they reached the Col and did their best to nap, but the machine-gun rattle of the flapping tents and anxiety over what was to come made sleep out the question for most of us. Stuart Hutchison—the young Canadian cardiologist—and I were
howling blizzard. Gau was nearly as debilitated as Fischer and was likewise unable to descend the difficult bands of shale, so his Sherpas sat the Taiwanese climber beside Lopsang and Fischer and then continued down without him. “I stay with Scott and Makalu one hour, maybe longer,” says Lopsang. “I am very cold, very tired. Scott tell to me, ‘You go down, send up Anatoli.’ So I say, ‘O.K., I go down, I send quick Sherpa up and Anatoli.’ Then I make good place for Scott and go down.” Lopsang
oxygen, intending to rescue Hall. They faced an exceedingly formidable task. As astounding and courageous as Boukreev’s rescue of Sandy Pittman and Charlotte Fox had been the night before, it paled in comparison to what the two Sherpas were proposing to do now: Pittman and Fox had been a twenty-minute walk from the tents over relatively flat ground; Hall was 3,000 vertical feet above Camp Four—an exhausting eight- or nine-hour climb in the best of circumstances. And these were surely not the