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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

This was one of those paperbacks that I picked up on one of my used books expeditions, and I added it to my vacation arsenal, which is a stack of trade paperbacks that I can pick up, read on the plane or the beach or whatever, and then pass on to fellow readers. For my recent trip out to Denver (you may remember my posts on Capitol Hill Books, Innisfree Poetry Cafe, and the Tattered Cover), I grabbed Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, because I thought it would be crazy appropriate for my trip to a higher altitude.

In the spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer sets out with a team of climbers on an expedition to summit Mount Everest from the Nepalese side. He was an experienced climber in his own right, and he joined a team led by Rob Hall who was known for his diligence, care, and safety in getting his clients to the top. That spring, several other teams were trying to summit as well, and May 10 was the chosen date for two of those teams (and an additional rogue team) to make the last push for the top. What they couldn't have known, however, was that something had angered the mountain, and by the end of the climbing season, twelve climbers had lost their lives and many others were scarred by their experiences on the mountain. 

Wowza. What a book. I've been a fan of Krakauer's since picking up Under the Banner of Heaven, and there has yet to be a book of his that hasn't astounded me. He is arguably one of the best narrative non-fiction writers of his generation, and I look forward to picking up any of his books that he wants to release. (I will also post on Missoula soon, which was a very difficult if not vitally important piece of work.) This, which I believe was one of his first of the genre, written when he was a journalist for a magazine yet had to put his whole story down to help himself understand it, was just an outstanding 350 pages of madness. I never would have guessed that an adventure book would have kept me on the edge of my seat, but it did. I found myself in it to win it in the craziest way possible, and putting this book down was not a negotiable point. 

What makes this book so much more poignant than any of Krakauer's other books is that this is his own story, not just one that he is researching and reporting on. He always feels completely invested in the work he is writing, but this one felt so much more personal, for obvious reasons. The man almost lost his life, so you can't blame him for being all in. It does, though, lend itself to a certain investment from the reader as a result. I obviously know that he makes it down from the mountain (spoiler alert: he wrote the book), but the book becomes completely about the process, not the product. I became invested in the players in a way that doesn't often come even in non-fiction, but I was on the team with Rob Hall and Yasuko and Beck and Andy and Doug and Jon. I wanted them all to win, to succeed, to make it off the mountain, and I found it so incredibly unfair when not everyone did. If only we could turn back time and know what we know now, but we can't and we won't and, unfortunately, it has been seen that not many others have learned from this. Summitting Everest is still a popular, and desired, project. 

Nature, however, is a fickle beast. As is made clear in this book, it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether or not the chosen summit day will be brilliant or if, as Krakauer experienced, a sudden and violent, though common and normal, storm will swoop in and trap even the most prepared and practiced climber. While I wouldn't wish Krakauer's experience on anyone, he has taken that difficulty and given us an account that needs to read, one that respects the elements for the unpredictable experience it can provide and honors those who lost their lives in the process.

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