Book Club Spotlight – Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Mount Everest against a clear blue sky

It’s hard to feel fully in the holiday spirit when it’s supposed to be 52 degrees and raining on Christmas Day- so to get us in the “Let it Snow” mood, let’s visit a place where the weather is genuinely “frightful”. Standing at the China-Nepal border, at a ridiculous height of 29,031 feet 8 ½ inches, Mount Everest reaches airplane cruising height and skims into the stratosphere. Most of the year, monsoon winds and far below-freezing temperatures blast the peak, and with only about 33% of the oxygen level you’d find at sea level, it sounds like a reasonable place to visit! And one such visitor, journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven), ended up smack dab in one of the definitive tales from Mount Everest. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster is Krakauer’s first-hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster that would claim 8 lives before the night was through, the highest death count in a single day (at the time)

Lauded and controversial, Into Thin Air follows Krakauer as he joins the ill-fated 1996 Everest Expedition on behalf of Outside Magazine. As a journalist, his mission was to report from basecamp on the growing commercialization and traffic on Mount Everest, its toll on the Sherpa people and the environment, and the mountain’s unimaginable death rate. But as a mountaineer, the thrall of the peak was too strong, and he convinced his editor to let him make a push for the top. Joining an expedition team led by veteran climber Rob Hall, Krakauer notes due to the technical ease of the climb and the tireless (and thankless) work from the Sherpa guides, the over-commercialized ascent at times felt more like “paying someone to climb for me.” After summiting, Krakauer is waylaid on his descent, stuck in a traffic jam of climbers as they make their way to the top, far past the regarded safe time slot. As his descent continues, tragedy strikes. Small mistakes add up, while the egotism and greed of the expedition leaders and climbers lead to horrifying ends as a blizzard encapsulates Everest, trapping the enthusiasts and Sherpas in the Death Zone. Remember, reaching the summit is only half the journey.

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer 

Despite its great expense (anywhere from $30k – $60k) and the very real possibility of death- the mesmerizing top of the world worms its way into the minds of everyone from skilled climbers to middle managers who want a taste of beating the nearly impossible odds. Into Thin Air is breathtaking in that it even exists; very few people from Krakauer’s team survived, and he is lucky to be one of them. I find Mount Everest to be endlessly fascinating, and what is it about the human condition that drives people to climb it not for the sake of discovery or exploration- but for personal gain? Appropriate for Book Club Groups, Adults and Young Adults alike who don’t mind peril, Into Thin Air, and the enormity of Mount Everest can provide endless discussions into ethics and morality. What happens to a marvel of Earth and human achievement when it too falls to overconsumption and exploitation?

Excerpt from the article: Everest a Year Later: False Summit (May, 1997)

Krakauer: I don’t know why this tragedy has grabbed people with such force and won’t let go. Part of it’s the Everest mystique and part of it’s the absurdity and even perversity of people spending this kind of money chasing this kind of goal, throwing prudence and common sense to the wind. But in the final analysis I really don’t get it. I’m a victim and a beneficiary of it all at the same time. Everest has turned my life upside down. Nothing will ever be the same. Why did I end up climbing the mountain on that particular day, with those particular people? Why did I survive while others died? Why has this story become a source of fascination to so many people who ordinarily would have no interest in mountain climbing whatsoever?

I guess maybe we should think of Everest not as a mountain, but as the geologic embodiment of myth. And when you try to climb a chunk of myth – as I discovered to my lasting regret- you shouldn’t be too surprised when you wind up with a lot more than you bargained for. 

Further Readings: 

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston Dewalt

  • Another account of The 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster a critical response to Into Thin Air

To Watch:

Everest- IMAX Film (1998) (Free on Vimeo)

  • IMAX movie, filmed during the events of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster. Narrated by Liam Neeson. 

Dark Side of Everest (Free with ads or a lower quality is available on YouTube)

  • Follows the fated South African expedition that survived the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster, and their push on the summit shortly after

Death Zone (Free with ads)

  • “The dramatic self-documented story of 20 elite Nepali climbers who venture into the ‘Death Zone’ of Mount Everest to restore their sacred mountain and the contaminated water source of 1.3 billion people.” Narrated by Patrick Stewart

If you’re interested in requesting Into Thin Air for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 17 copies and 1 Large Print available. (A librarian must request items)

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. Anchor. 1997.

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