Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.
Journalist Jon Krakauer, an avid climber, jumps at the chance to join a guided tour to climb Mount Everest. However, the 1996 climbing season takes a terrible turn when a storm has three different expeditions trapped on the mountain. Into Thin Air chronicles the event of the 1996 Everest catastrophe.
Everest is not a mountain to be climbed lightly. The high altitude means the air is thin, deplete of oxygen. Humans are not made to spend time that high up. It makes you susceptible to altitude sickness and other scary conditions. Like your lungs filling with water or your brain swelling. It takes away your ability to think, leaving you dumber than you should be in a place where even a small mistake might kill you.
By the time he arrived at the tents late that afternoon Ngawang was delirious, stumbling like a drunk, and coughing up pink, blood-laced froth: symptoms indicating an advanced case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or HAPE – a mysterious, potentially lethal illness typically brought on by climbing too high, too fast in which the lungs fill with fluid.
Despite all that, people try to get to the top every year. I’m not a climber so at the start of the book I didn’t get why people would expose themselves to such danger just to stand on the top of a mountain for a bit.
This book made me understand why people would do something like that. There was an odd fascination, an appeal to climbing that got through the pages.
More stars than I had ever seen smeared the frozen sky. A gibbous moon rose above the shoulder of 27,824-foot Makalu, washing the slope beneath my boots in ghostly light, obviating the need for a headlamp. Far to the southeast, along the India-Nepal frontier, colossal thunderheads drifted over the malarial swamps of the Teral, illuminating the heavens with surreal bursts of orange and blue lightning.
But Into Thin Air also shows the dangers involved mercilessly.
Going into the book I already knew that there would be a disaster and in the end, some of the people I was reading about would not make it. It was incredibly difficult to read, particularly because I knew I was reading about real people. That it really happened.
And it was much more intimate than a newspaper article. I got to know the people over the course of the book. Admittedly, through the lense of Jon Krakauer and there are some people that he doesn’t mention much, but it was enough to really care about them.
A big chunk of the book is about the group of climbers trying to summit Everest. That in itself would have made a compelling story and Jon Krakauer tells it very well. As I mentioned, I started to get why people climb mountains.
But then it goes from adventure story to full on catastrophe as everything that can go wrong goes wrong. And it is heartbreaking. It is one of those stories that stayed with me long after I finished the book. To think about these people who started out in such a great mood to climb Everest and ended up dead, their bodies still there… Man that was difficult to read about.
I don’t think I’ll be ever able to fully comprehend what it is like to be that high up, in the freezing cold, mind numb and struggling to get enough oxygen. In the face of all these adversities, it was impressive what the people on the mountain did, not only to stay alive themselves but to save the lives of others as well.
Into Thin Air shows everything without mercy: what happens when small mistakes and bad luck combine to a terrifying situation. People who turn their backs on others with no consideration for any of them.
But there are also so many instances of people going out of their way, doing everything in their power to save others.
That deeply impressed me: The incredible resilience of humans. It was baffling to read how long they could stay alive in such circumstances. Just take Beck, one of the clients on Hall’s expedition. The man was given up for dead three times. Three times and he made it off the mountain alive.
As the mummy lurched into camp, Burleson realized that it was none other than Beck Weathers, somehow risen from the dead.
A heart-wrenching account of a summit bid on Everest gone horribly wrong.