Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air published in 1997 is Jon Krakauer's account of the ill-fated attempts on Mount Everest in 1996.  Krakauer, already an accomplished climber and author (Into The Wild) was given an assignment by Outside magazine to join one of the teams making the ascent in May.

The experts say that even at 29,028 feet, Everest is not the most challenging mountain in terms of actual climbing skill.  What it lacks in difficulty, it makes up for in frequent gales,white-outs, numbing cold (leading to frostbite) and worst of all, lack of oxygen.  After reading the book, you ask "Why?" The age old answer is "because it is there".  However, given the number of times it has been conquered, how unique is the feat and is it really worth it?  Most of those that make it to the top these days are not battle tested climbers, rather they are passably fit and more importantly can afford the $60,000 or so to pay professionals to, in some cases, literally drag them to the summit.

And therein lies the risks.  The professional climbers are paid handsomely but sometimes take extraordinary risks in getting their client a successful ascent. Others take the money put out a sub-par effort - just as bad. When Krakauer went up in May 1996, he was in a party led by New Zealander Rob Hall, a 35 year old who had scaled Everest four times previously.  Hall perished on that expedition, leaving behind a wife and child.  His troupe of weekend (weakened?) tourists clad in the latest North Face gear cost him his life.

Granted the 1996 climbing season was short, therefore jammed with climbers and beset by weather that turned bad very quickly.  Five died on and around May 10, 1996.  In all, fifteen people died on Everest that year.  They casualties seem to fall into two groups: the driven professional climber and the self-centered moneyed type.  Not a good combination.  The book gives a good account of the build-up, the effects of low oxygen, intestinal issues, the garbage at the base camps and of course, the Sherpas.  One of may favorite passages described a climber who after reaching the summit, could only last a minute or so and snapped a few pictures.  Cold and disoriented, the climber began their descent but perhaps hallucinogenic from lack of oxygen, began to descend down the wrong way - into China rather than Nepal.  He was saved from certain death by a Sherpa who spun him around and pointed him towards Nepal.

Into Thin Air is a very good read.

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