~by Jon Krakauer
1996 has so far been the single deadliest year on Mount Everest in recorded history. While people die every year trying to reach the summit of the highest mountain on the planet, in 1996 twelve climbers died and many other climbers sustained significant injuries. This includes the eight deaths associated with what is now known as the Mount Everest Disaster which occurred in May of that year. Jon Krakauer--journalist, mountain climber, and survivor of the disaster--wrote about his experiences in Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Originally published in 1997, the book was based on his article "Into Thin Air," written for the magazine Outside in September 1996, a mere four months after the tragic event. Several books have since been written by other survivors but Into Thin Air remains the most popular and well known. Into Thin Air has received many awards and recognitions, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
When Jon Krakauer was asked by Outside to write an article on the commercialization of Mount Everest, a subject of much debate and concern among mountain climbers, he agreed under one condition: that he be allowed to make a summit attempt. Thinking that the cost involved would be prohibitive for the magazine, Krakauer was surprised when he was granted a spot on an Adventure Consultants guided expedition lead by Rob Hall scheduled for the spring climbing season of 1996. At least fourteen other expeditions were on the mountain during that time, including several commercial and guided ventures, which meant a relatively high number of relatively inexperienced climbers were also present. Many felt that the increase in the commercialization of mountain climbing was just asking for disaster to happen. That disaster finally struck in May 1996 when several groups, including Krakauer's, were caught unprepared in a storm during their climb to reach the peak of Mount Everest.
Nearly every year people die on the slopes of Mount Everest. Mountain climbing is a hazardous pursuit. High-altitude climbing is particularly difficult and quickly takes its toll on the human body. Even small mistakes can have profound consequences at a height where decision making is already impaired. But despite the risks and dangers involved, people continue to climb, often driven by reasons that can't be readily explained. In Into Thin Air, Krakauer not only describes his own experiences on Mount Everest but also attempts to put the Adventure Consultants expedition into historical context. Excerpts from mountaineering literature are often incorporated into the beginning of chapters. Krakauer shows that mountain climbing, although it tends to be romanticized in popular culture, is anything but glamorous. Even when everything goes perfectly, which is exceptionally rare, there is a significant amount of personal suffering involved.
It is important to remember that Into Thin Air is Krakauer's own personal account. His experiences and understanding of the events are necessarily different than those of the other survivors of the disaster due to their individual backgrounds and knowledge. (Krakauer admits to not being an expert on high-altitude climbing.) Another notable account is The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest written by Anatoli Boukreev, one of the head guides on the mountain during the disaster, with the assistance of G. Weston DeWalt, partially in response to Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Even Krakauer's own recollections of the disaster changed between writing his article "Into Thin Air" and the book. Because he couldn't be everywhere on the mountain at once, Krakauer must rely on second-hand, and sometimes even third-hand information to piece together as complete a story as possible. In some instances he is forced to speculate, but I never felt he was being deliberately malicious. Krakauer recognizes these types of criticism and includes them in his book. Keeping this in mind, Into Thin Air is a tremendous and engaging account of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster.