Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
© 1997 Jon Krakauer
When Outside magazine dispatched Jon Krakauer to join an expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1996 to investigate its commercialization, the opportunity allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream of climbing to its top — but in May 1996, that dream turned quickly into a nightmare, as Krakauer was intimate witness to one of Everest’s greatest climbing disasters. Into thin Air is his record of the experience, written less to fulfill Outside‘s hopes for an examination of profiteering and more as a way of coming to terms with the loss of so many people he’d spent nearly four weeks with. It is at first exciting, then harrowing; an inspiring, longer climb up to the heights of human endeavor that crashes quickly, sliding down a boulder-filled crevasse into the abyss.
Mount Everest stands as the highest above-ground mountain in the world, being part of the Himalayan mountain range that forms the border of Tibet and Nepal. The difficulty in ascending it lies not merely with the frequent winds, biting cold, or the fact that parts of the approach are icy, narrow, or so steep that they require technical skills with ropes to surmount. Nor is the difficulty limited to Everest’s status as a natural gauntlet resembling an old-school video game, in which climbers must dodge falling rocks and ice missles from above while simutaneously hoping the ground underneath them doesn’t give way. The greatest obstacle to human ascent is the fact that much of the peak towers so high that oxygen levels are but a third of what they are at sea level. Even ordinary respiatory requirements would find that amount insufficient, and a person dropped onto the peak by magic or a transporter would find himself unconscious in minutes. But climbing nearly 30,000 feet — the cruising altitude of a transcontinental jet, like the Airbus Krakauer took to Nepal — requires considerably more. Even when relying on canisters of bottled oxygen, those who near the peak are operating on mental and physical vapors; their bodies find the effort of digestion so hard at that height that they prefer to consume muscle tissue for fuel. Physically exhausted and mentally handicapped at the peak, the difficulty in scaling Everest is returning to the ground safely. This proves tragically true with Krakauer’s expedition.
In spite of the difficulty, Mount Everest is enormously popular both among serious mountaineers as well as rich would-be outdoorsmen who are anxious to prove their manliness by subduing the world’s greatest physical challenges. When Krakauer joined a commercial expedition — Adventure Consulants, run by an enthusiastic mountaineer named Rob Hall — he was among nearly fifty people intending to climb up at once. That number included not only another commercial group, Mountain Madness, but various teams from Taiwan and South Africa, and a few enterprising individuals like a young Swede who bicycled from Europe to Nepal before hoofing it up the mountain. The price for trying is enormous; even before equipment and plane fare are factored in, Nepal requires licenses to climb that start at $10,000 a head — or $25,000 for individuals working alone. Commercial guides like Hall and his nascent rival Scott Fischer (of Mountain Madness) charge even more, up to $65,000 in Hall’s case. That cost overs not only the guides’ expertise, but their prepatory work; not only had Hall made the summit seven times prior, but he employed a crew of local Sherpas to establish ropes and create caches of supplies for his clients. For all their experience and preparation, however, humans high upon the peak of Everest are very subject to the wrath of Nature.
Though Jon Krakauer — an experienced mountaineer — was the first of his group to make the summit, and returned safely to one of their staging camps before nightfall, few of his team were as lucky. A fantastic storm hit the mountain as dozens of individuals were in the middle of climbing or descending, and it would be their undoing. Fierce winds not only destroyed physical guides, like the ropes, and flattened tents, but they prevented climbers from making progress at all; on narrow ledges and icy paths, any movement in the wrong direction could lead to death — and it did. They had to stay where they were, and every moment brough them closer to disaster, because once they exhausted their oxygen bottles, they would quickly become weak and delerious, if not not fatally hill; high altitude and low pressure are lethal to a human body unadapted for either. As their brains were deteriorating, their bodies were increasingly numbed by the cold. Even those who had found a secure place to rest were not exempt from dangers of low oxygen or prolonged exposure. Once the storm hit on May 10, a disaster was born and people began to die at rates unseen outside of a slasher film. Some were taken by the cold, others thrown into darkness by the wind. Those involved in the commercial expeditions were the most badly ravaged, in part because of their location and in part because they lost their leadership — and once the guides were gone, a team of mountain-climbing novices were no match for the fury of of an awakened mount. In a final chapter, Krakaurer — whose authorial voice loses its edge as the disaster waxes, becoming increasingly desperate — tries to explain what happened. Why was the 1996 expedition so lethal? He puts forth a few guesses; the sheer number of people on the slopes, practically inviting catastophe, and the fact that their guide had never encountered a storm before. His prior ascents had all been blessed with clear skies, so reliably perfect for climbing that Hall regarded May 10 as an auspicious day for himself: all of his summits were achieved on that day.
Into thin Air is a gripping look into what it takes — and what it can cost — to climb Mount Everest, though it leaves one wondering why on Earth anyone would do it after Sir Edmund Hillary. There is no reward for the hours of agony; the vista is barren and lifeless. Even Krakauer, who had dreamed of Everest, recorded that at the peak, he was too exhausted to care about his success.