Into Thin Air recounts the story of a disastrous day on Mount Everest in May 1996. When a storm rolled through the high mountain, 8 people lost their lives in a span of 72 hours. Four more would lose their lives by the end of the Spring climbing season. (Sorry for the spoiler, but this is a well-known outcome and mentioned on the book description itself)
Jon Krakauer is a journalist and mountaineer who took on the tallest mountain in the world as part of a writing assignment for Outside magazine. After writing the article he felt compelled to expand the piece into a book. This task was partially to explain what happened in more detail through research and interviews as well as, it seems, to process everything himself.
Unfortunately, this book read very much like a report of the expedition for me. It was a slow start that I struggled to get into. He weaved in the back stories of fellow teammates and lots of history of the mountain into his narrative early on. I was grateful for this because it allowed me to connect with these people and learn about what draws humans to this mountain. However, it didn’t really grab me until the latter half of the book.
Despite the slow start, it was a compelling read in the latter half of the book. His descriptions of the treacherous journey, particularly near the summit, are incredible. There were a few times I just had a sinking feeling in my gut while reading.
As someone who doesn’t know anything about mountain climbing and next to nothing about climbing Everest, it was quite an eye opener. I had no idea climbers spent almost two weeks just getting acclimated to the thin air before making a push for the summit in a single day. I knew of Sherpas but had no idea they actually did most of the work — hauling most of the gear, setting up your tents, cooking your food.
It was also interesting to hear from the perspective of an experienced climber. All this time I figured climbing Everest was what serious climbers ultimately strive for as their final adrenaline fix. Actually climbing the tallest mountains in the world, and particularly Everest was primarily about enduring pain, not adrenaline junkies chasing their fix. Mountains like that take a huge physical and mental toll on you in the high altitude. Seeing his teammates power through this pain and suffering changed his opinions on them. Where he once saw in a teammate a cocky doctor who was likely grabbing for a small piece of fame, he now understood was a strong man willing to push through everything the mountain threw at him.
And all of this for just a few seconds on top of the world.
The most compelling parts of the story were when he added his personal feelings and reflections on what happened. Especially when he talks of how it deeply affected his life and the lives of others who journey up the mountain even long after they’re safe at home. Lives are poisoned by lost relationships, nightmares, and survivor’s guilt.
An incredible journey filled with pain, suffering, and crushing agony. But I have to give it 3 out of 5 stars for not gripping me sooner.