Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I distinctly remember when the Everest disaster of 1996 took place. The newspapers covered the drama that unfolded over the days and weeks, and when Reader’s Digest published an excerpt of Into Thin Air, I devoured it. I have never been one for outdoorsy activities, and absolutely was not a climber. Yet there’s something about the way Jon Krakauer writes that makes you feel like you are right in the midst of the disaster. He connects you to the individuals involved, he tells their stories, foreshadows the disaster and flashes back to key events, to make you feel like you have become swept up in the tragedy and drama.
Into Thin Air is the story of a news reporter sent to write about the commercialized expeditions to Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, which turns tragic in the face of a routine blizzard on the mountain. As part of an expedition called Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall, Krakauer reports on the process that takes you to Everest and the careful procedures set in place to keep clients safe. He develops the controversy of people either skilled or unskilled, as well as the usage of bottled oxygen on the slopes. And then he prepares you for the inevitable tragedy that unfolds on the mountain over the course of hours.
It’s not a spoiler to say that people die on the mountain, because Krakauer himself hints at it several times throughout the beginning of the book. But it’s tragic, nonetheless. People make a series of small choices that seem inconsequential in the moment, but turn out to be staggering. Krakauer himself struggles with the choices that he made and has had to make peace with the decisions that he made on Everest. His postscript for later editions of the book also responds to claims made in Anatoli Boukreev’s book The Climb. It’s a fascinating and difficult story, one that ultimately asks us to examine how we interpret events and make decisions, just as we build narratives around people and then judge them by our own standards of interpretation.