15 May 2011
Into Thin Air was the perfect book for a 17-hour flight to the Marshall Islands with an eleven-month old: fascinating, engrossing, but not too complex or with much moralizing. I was able to read a chapter here and there while also working to keep my son relatively happy in a small space. Without diminishing the tragedy at the heart of the novel, I think I can safely say this book was an enjoyable way to pass the time.
Krakauer has the unique perspective of being both a journalist and participant in the saga. But he and his employer, Outdoor magazine, certainly got more than they bargained for as he was originally sent to climb Everest to chronicle the growing commercialization of the world's largest mountain. The author does his due diligence on this theme, providing the history of the mountain and the terrible costs it has demanded of those who wish to climb its heights. In the 1990s however, Everest began to appear less frightful, at least from the outside perspective. With enough money, any amateur could hire the necessary crew and equipment to make it to the top. Or so the theory went.
Everest is more than just another mountain; it is a different world. The novel does an excellent job detailing the equipment, logistics, planning, preparation, acclimatization, and acculturation necessary to get to the highest point on the earth. Simply put, it was never intended for man to be that high. Those who wish to summit Everest must be willing to sacrifice brain cells, memory, basic mental cognition, and every and any convenience known to man. Many have also sacrificed much more.
The bulk of Krakauer's novel details the history surrounding Everest as well as the climb up to the Third Camp. But, just as suddenly as the storm at the heart of the tragedy, Krakauer throws the reader directly into the unfolding crisis as a number of climbers were late coming down from the summit. Climbers hampered by the lack of oxygen and clear thinking made multiple mistakes. At those altitudes, there is simply no margin for error. All the money in the world couldn't help those climbers.
I was touched by the personal aspect of the novel. The author made it alive while others died. As he reviews his choices in getting down the mountain, the author reveals his own internal debate. Could he have saved a fellow climber? Was there something more he could have done? Most poignantly, was the presence of a journalist on the climb a compounding factor in the poor decisions of the others? He does not dwell too long on these unpleasant thoughts, but they are there all the same.
Who is to blame for the crisis? The novel casts a few glances towards particularly questionable practices: a guide who submitted without oxygen, others refusing to turn around at the agreed time regardless of whether or not they reached the top, too many groups seeking to summit at the same time, inexperience, and sheer selfishness. But I think at the end of the day, Krakauer would blame the mountain. It is Everest after all. Those who wish to climb it must recognize the inherent danger and uncertainty.