Krakauer: Into Thin Air

March 18, 2009

Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer (Villard, 1997)
317 p.  First reading.

“Because it is there” was the reason George Mallory gave for wanting to climb Everest.  He perished in the attempt, as have many others after him, which makes me suspect that, in prudence, more compelling reasons are needed.

The conditions an Everest climber must endure are almost unbelievable.  The upper slopes and peak are routinely blasted by hurricane force winds, and the wind-chilled temperature can drop to below -100 degrees.  Building-sized ice blocks sometimes topple onto climbers, avalanches sweep down and smother them, visibility can drop to just a few metres, and giant ice crevasses lie in wait to swallow those who wander off course. The worst of all perils is the oxygen deficit: at the top, the thin air contains only one-third of the oxygen at sea level, and, even when one’s lungs and brain don’t fill with fluid in response to the low air pressure, physical strength drains away and brain function is much impeded.  Krakauer describes how even he, an accomplished climber, had to pause after each step to take three or four deep breaths. When he finally reached the top, he hadn’t slept in nearly 60 hours, and had lost 80 lbs of body weight.  Climbers can be subject to hallucinations, inability to recognize one another, and severely impaired judgement.  In some sense, it’s a wonder that anyone succeeds.

The first successful summit of Everest was made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 — but even they had to rely on bottled oxygen.  It was not until 1979 that the first ascent without supplemental oxygen was made, by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler.  Since then the number of attempts, and successes, have increased steadily, and in the 1990s a number of expert climbers started businesses to guide less experienced climbers to the top.  It was as a member of one of these expeditions that Krakauer made his ascent.

The story of what occurred during his climb is fairly well known, both because of this popular book and because an IMAX crew was filming on the mountain at the same time. The bulk of the book is a narration, pieced together from interviews and Krakauer’s own memories, of what transpired.  Krakauer and his companion climbers were set to summit on 10 May 1996, and though several successfully reached the top, a sudden storm arose during their descent, trapping fifteen climbers high on the mountain as night fell.  Five of them, including Krakauer’s accomplished guide Rob Hall, who stayed on the mountain with a faltering client, perished in the storm and its aftermath; others suffered severe frostbite and eventual amputation.  The same storm took the lives of three other climbers on a different face of the mountain.  1996 remains the deadliest year on record, with a total of fifteen deaths over the course of the climbing season.

Krakauer wrote the book to confront his feelings about that day, and his role in it.  He grapples with the question of why things went so badly awry.  Obviously the unexpected storm played a major role, but other factors also contributed.  There were over thirty climbers attempting to summit on that day, and the high traffic led to delays.  Krakauer’s guide had defined a time by which all climbers must turn around and descend, but he failed to enforce it.  Was it just poor judgement, or were commercial pressures at work?  The presence of several high-profile clients on that day may have tempted guides to take undue risks in the hopes of gaining good publicity.

Commercialization has made the climb safer: before 1990, the fatility rate on Everest was 37% (!), but since then it has dropped to around 4%.  Nonetheless, in the wake of the 1996 disaster various proposals were made to improve the safety of climbers. Krakauer himself proposes a remarkably simple measure: stop supplying bottled oxygen to climbers.  The result would be a sharp decrease in the number of people able to reach the highest and most dangerous parts of the climb.  However, the Nepalese government has little motive to reduce the number of climbers as long as there are clients willing to pay upwards of US$65K to make the attempt.

As I said, “Because it is there” seems a feeble reason to venture one’s life in such fearsome conditions, yet the lure of Everest persists.  I myself don’t experience the strange attraction that compels people to undertake this challenge, but I think I can partly discern it: a desire to pit oneself against the elements, testing one’s determination and sheer physical strength to the limit.  It may be fool-hardy, but it is also more.

After finishing the book I watched the IMAX film which was made at the time of the 1996 disaster — the IMAX crew was ascending just a few days behind Krakauer’s group.  It was worth watching for the imagery and the interviews with several of the people who play a role in the book, but for an account of what it is really like to climb Everest the book is better.

Krakauer prefaces each of his chapters with short excerpts from other books.  My eye — or, rather, my ear — was caught by a book called Everest: The West Ridge, by Thomas Hornbein.  In 1963 Hornbein, together with his partner Willi Unsoeld, was the first to reach the summit via the west ridge, and, if I may judge from these excerpts, his book is beautifully written.  I hope someday to track down a copy.

9 Responses to “Krakauer: Into Thin Air”

  1. One thing that always strikes me about this–and this may sound a bit stupid–is the relative shortness of the distance travelled, and therefore the huge impact of up. I mean, Everest is roughly 6 miles above sea level, somewhat less than that from wherever climbers start (I assume). I drive 5 times that distance each way to work each day. People routinely run that far in an hour or two, and not quite so routinely run several times that far. And yet if you take the line connecting points A and B 6 miles apart, and turn it to point more or less straight up, traversing it becomes a challenge which would be daunting even aside from terrain and weather. You’re in a world where moving a hundred feet can become a very big deal. Before the invention of the airplane few people (apart from those who lived in places like Nepal) had seen anything from a height of more than a few hundred feet.

    Same for distance under the sea, maybe more so. A hundred feet under water is really deep unless you’re in a submarine, and a thousand feet is deep if you are.

    • cburrell Says:

      When I’m in an airplane I often think of the historical rarity of such a view. Above the clouds! Who, in centuries past, would not have been astonished at it? This is why I have a personal policy to always request a window seat and never to sleep on airplanes. You’re in a metal tube in the sky. Wake up!

      I also think there is something to be learned from looking down from an airplane, or from any great height, at towns and cities. The most obvious lessons are (a) people are social and like to group together, but (b) they want their own houses. One could unfold a fair bit of sound anthropology just based on those two observations.

      I remember reading once, when I was a teenager, that “the modern world” began when Petrarch went out walking, left his town to climb the neighbouring mountain, and then looked down on it. There it was: small and local. I’m not sure if that story is true, but it makes a decent point.

  2. Janet Says:

    Once when we went to California to see our daughter, we flew over the Grand Canyon. I could only get an aisle seat on the wing, but when we got the GC, I was standing up in the aisle leaning over people, SLEEPING people so I could see out the window. What was the matter with those people?!? They were sleeping when they could have been gazing into the abyss!

    It was great.


  3. Janet Says:

    Of course, it was less embarassing leaning over them that it would have been if they had been awake.

    AMDG, Janet

  4. “You’re in a metal tube in the sky. Wake up!”

    Exactly. But I’m ashamed to admit that in the past few years I’ve gotten jaded enough to depart some from my window seat rule. I don’t fly all that much–probably averaged once a year over the past 25–and the whole thing has gotten to be such a hassle that a few times I’ve asked for an aisle seat in hope of escaping more quickly.

  5. Christina A. Says:

    Window seats all the way!!

  6. Baker, Land Says:

    heey i dont mean to inturept but umm.. you should list all the details next time such as the phyiscals names.!and more informance like that. So if it helps you find out any more informance about this book!

  7. Baker, Land Says:

    But you really did a good job.!Thanks.!

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