People that have been around me know that when I find someone doing something I find interesting or inconceivable, I immediately corner them like a terrier and assault them with a battery of questions.
Mountain climbing is inconceivable to me.
At least part of it is cultural. Whenever I see mountains, or oceans, or even animals in the wild, I appreciate them but have no desire to interact with them. To me they are in their own environments, and messing with them means trouble. Maybe that’s how I completely missed the story of the 1996 disaster that took place on Mount Everest when everyone else seemed to know it already.
Jon Krakauer was on that climb and was part of that disaster, and as traumatic as it was for him, it is extraordinarily fortunate for readers that he was. Krakauer is a master of the language, it really has been a while since I’ve read a book this well written. Krakauer also seems to be unflinchingly honest, which is a rare trait in a narrator. There was death on the mountain, and he doesn’t flinch away from his contribution to what happened. I’ve read a lot of material relating to the book, and while there are some participants that demonstrate antipathy to details in his account, their narrative tends to seem far more self-serving. He also indicates where he speculating or has made a previous mistake.
What makes the book even more extraordinary is that Krakauer makes an attempt to understand every contributing factor in the entire affair. Miscommunication reigns supreme, but ego, culture, and bad luck all take their turns.
In the end, this is about people accustomed to dominating nature with sheer will, and the circumstances in which will just doesn’t cut it.
Into Thin Air begins on a cargo plane headed to Nepal. Getting to the top of the mountain has become a big business, and Krakauer is there to write about the commercialization of Everest. He is part of a guided team, who is dealing with a new direct competitor, and other international groups of varying competence. Since climbing Everest is time-consuming and expensive, the people who tend to do it have quite a bit of money and are accustomed to getting their own way.
They make their way from one camp to another, simply trying to get their bodies adjusted to the tremendous strain they are about to undergo, but along the way they get sick and injured. After a while, the travel starts to add up.
Above them is Everest, a blunt monolith, with a crown of clouds. Each step takes them closer to the Death Zone, an area littered with dead bodies of those with one obstacle too many. The air is thin, the blood thickens, potentially pushing fluid into the lungs or the brain. To advance requires preparation, co-operation and incredible willpower. But somehow it all went wrong.
It is the ultimate testament to his writing that by the end of the book I was stunned, and moved for reasons I couldn’t discern. I didn’t intend to care about the people that climbed that mountain but I did. This was a great read.