As I’ve mentioned before, Jon Krakauer is a fine adventure travel writer (see my review of “Into the Wild’). But he’s something else too - an experienced mountaineer, and 'Into Thin Air" is his first-hand account of a tragedy on Mt. Everest, in 1996, that claimed the lives of 12 others. This is truly one of the most ‘unputdownable’ non-fiction books I’ve ever read - I read it in one sitting, in less than 12 hours and so, without a doubt, it has to go on my recommended reading list here.
What is particularly good about this book is that Krakauer isn’t writing with the usual journalist detachment. On that terrible day - May 10th 1996 - he was there on the mountain (in fact he conquered the summit), when a freak blizzard hit, out of the blue. Having survived the expedition, he decided to write the story - not just to document the tragedy but also as a personal catharsis (“…what happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out. I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life).
Krakauer is also meticulous in detailing the build-up to that fateful day, including the weeks of training leading up to the expedition, daily life at Base Camp and acclimatisation at altitude. He talks about the personalities of his fellow climbers, and the tensions that exist amongst them, before tragedy struck. The section dealing with the blizzard itself is utterly gripping - more nightmarish than most horror films, and the tension you feel as a reader is astonishing. (At one point, I felt as if I were actually holding my breath!)
Krakauer is a fine storyteller and doesn’t shrink from difficult questions in this book - including asking whether anyone who puts themselves in such danger to stand “on the roof of the world” is actually rational. Because, let’s face it, climbing Everest isn’t for your average thrill-seeker - you’ll need $65,000 minimum and, quite possibly, a death wish. After all, climbing at that altitude makes clear thinking extremely difficult. The fact that many questionable decisions were also made surrounding the climb, which quite possibly contributed to the eventual loss of life, is also a subject he doesn’t dodge.
Reading ‘Into Thin Air’ raises many pertinent questions about the 1996 disaster - were events that happened misfortunes or outright mistakes? Were some climbers on the mountain more concerned with saving themselves then looking out for their colleagues? And, if it were not for the terrible blizzard that hit, would anyone have lost their life? Krakauer fesses up to shortcomings and praises heroic deeds.
I can only conclude that this is a real-life thriller; a book that is guaranteed to hook you from its earliest pages. Magnificent.