Into Thin Air — Jon Krakauer

This article and some of the commentary around it inspired me to get Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which was a blessing and curse; I read the first page, then another, and then found myself still reading six hours later, to the detriment of other responsibilities. It was one of these addictive, incredible books.

Was it worth it shirking the rest of my life? Maybe: but once I began, it was hard to stop. Into Thin Air is probably the kind of book people mean when they say “page-turner,” although that term is usually applied to badly written slop. Qualifying exactly what that means on an individual level eludes me: I look for a place, a word, a sentence, a paragraph that I can reproduce and say, “There! That’s a perfect example of what I’m describing.” But Into Thin Air resists such a reading; the sentences are good but seldom noteworthy. At times there are cliches: “Neal Beidleman […] remains haunted by a death he was unable to prevent,” as we’ve heard from a million melodramatic, sentimental cop books. In the context, however, Krakauer both transcends and reaffirms the cliche: we see that Beidleman, with his heroism and impotence on the face of the mountain, is haunted, perhaps most of all because the death could have been prevented by not climbing the mountain in the first place. But it’s a price for the chance at transcendence, the moment when you’re at 29,028 feet and have achieved a quixotic goal that means nothing and everything. After Into Thin Air, I have a new appreciation for the descriptions of Caradhras and Moria in The Lord of the Rings, where the mountains gain an ominous, almost palpable malevolent darkness.

Krakauer was a journalist and (mostly former) climber who wanted to try Everest, and when he found that Outside magazine would send him, he went. Climbing Everest isn’t a simple task, even for those experienced with high altitudes; it takes at least six weeks of time acclimating as well as north of $50,000 to go. As of 1996, about one of four people who reached the top of Everest died on the way down. Judging from this, the percentage hasn’t changed much, since 881 people died on Everest in the 1990s and 327 did in 2000 and 2001. He went with a “commercial” expedition and was assigned to write about commerce and the mountain.

Instead, he wrote about disaster and the mountain.

At such extreme limits of what the body can accomplish, Krakauer experienced the mind-body problem in what might be its purest form, when he sought the shelter of Camp 4 after summitting. Camp 4 is the last human refuge before the peak, and Krakauer had been fighting Everest for almost two months. In this state he describes himself:

I was so far beyond ordinary exhaustion that I experienced a queer detachment from my body, as if I were observing my descent from a few feet overhead. I imagined that I was dressed in a green cardigan and wingtips. And although the gale was generating a wind-chill in excess of seventy below zero Fahrenheit, I felt strangely, disturbingly warm (193).

I know the sensation from running cross country, but the difference between a half marathon and a near-death experience on Everest gives me only the faintest ability to imagine his circumstance, like comparing a toe stub to cutting off one’s foot. Some of the others are familiar too, but not from climbing; Krakauer writes that the rubber oxygen mask he wore made him “[feel] drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli.” Morphine has, in my limited experience, the same effect.

But the greatest lessons from Into Thin Air come from the group mistakes that so often mark human foibles: vanity, competition, status, and monetary incentives combine to push everyone just past the point of safety in a place where the margin is almost non-existence. Bad communication hampers the effort: radios are not where they should be; firm plans for where ropes should be placed aren’t created and follow. I can’t help but think of Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail and Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. The last deals with the Challenger disaster, while the other two deal with disaster in other circumstances.

What the three have in common with Into Thin Air is a general algorithm for how disasters tend to happen among well-meaning, otherwise cautious people: signs are missed and safety precautions ignored; communication breaks down; other goals slowly supersede the goal of making sure everyone is safe; and numerous, relatively small problems combine to create a situation that shouldn’t but does become disaster. With Into Thin Air, no one noticed the thunderstorm clouds building below Everest’s peak; the firm turnaround time of 1:00 p.m. (or 2:00 at the latest) was ignored; few of the teams on the mountain knew what others were doing; the rivalry between guided groups grew; one guide made a decision to go up and down the various camps too many times; and all this was exacerbated by the altitude and the way a lack of oxygen impairs cognition. One Sherpa, Lopsang, decides to “tow” a client, which essentially means hauling the client up by rope, like a human boat traveling vertically. To Krakauer, this “didn’t seem like a particularly serious mistake at the time. But it would end up being one of many little things—a slow accrual, compounding steadily and imperceptibly toward critical mass.”

The above paragraph is relatively dry, almost scholarly or lawyerly, and it lacks the visceral impact of some of the book’s telling details: passing bodies on the way up, left or forgotten because they’re so difficult to carry down; the sensation of looming ice towers; the terrible realization that some people won’t make it; the fact that virtually every person going up that mountain was, on some level, implicated in the deaths that occurred. Krakauer has a disarming way of reminding us of climbing’s sacrifices, great and small. On April 29, 2006, the group makes it so high that “for the first time on the expedition the vista was primarily sky rather than earth. Herds of puffy cumulus raced beneath the sun, imprinting the landscape with a shifting matrix of shadow and blinding light.” That’s one of the smaller: the greater have already been mentioned.

This talk of sacrifice raises an obvious question: why climb? The answer is elusive, like asking the meaning of life or what the wind feels like as it caresses your face: you can give an absurdly simple answer or an equally absurdly detailed answer and still never answer. George Mallory’s famous answer concerning why he wanted to climb Everest—because it’s there—is as good as any and as good as anyone is likely to get. Nonetheless, I would speculate that maybe there is something to being utterly, inalienably alone; Krakauer writes about in this book and Into the Wild, while others—ranging from Thoreau in Self-Reliance to innumerable adventure stories preach the virtues of being cut from the societal network that envelops most of the world, and envelops us with particular force in the West. If this aloneness comes at a cost, it’s the cost of knowing that, out there, you’re not five minutes from a hospital and chinese takeout, and that if things turn ill you’ll die. I mentioned Lord of the Rings before and will mention it again here because in that book, the wilderness has the sense of loneliness and danger that few others can impart: the wild truly feels wild and dangerous—and free. I’m tempted to make grandiose generalizations about how “a society where coddling is the norm,” but I can’t, not and stick to the truth, as the way we think of society says as much if not more about us than it does about the society we comment on.

Regardless of the lessons imparted, what stays with me about Into Thin Air is the sense of foreboding and of empathetic terror at impending death. Those things are beyond the ability of words to describe, but Krakauer gets as close as anyone, and that is why, whatever the sins of Into Thin Air‘s writing style, I kept reading.

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