Into Thin Air
A Personal Account of
the Mount Everest Disaster
by Jon Krakauer

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Villard: New York, 1997
291 pages

February 2005

Climbing & dying in the high thin cold

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer, describes in vivid focus several of the May 1996 climbing expeditions on Everest. It is close-up reportage by a participant. Krakauer is an experienced mountaineer himself, although not previously into the very highest altitudes.

The Himalayas and other truly extreme altitudes present challenges which are qualitatively different from even famously difficult-to-climb mountains at lower elevations. Mount Everest is cold, its slopes are windy and treacherous, and the air is very thin. This last — the thin air — is perhaps the challenge hardest to anticipate at the roof of the world, and the strangest to understand.

Krakauer tells his history with novelistic detail: the more-or-less professional guides and Sherpas, the paying climbers and their health and capabilities, the gear and its suitability, the camps and their discomforts (to put it mildly), and the massive mountain itself and the frightening ways up and down. There are maps and some photographs in the standard edition; a later Illustrated edition has more photographs.

With bottled oxygen; or without

It is surprising how many people have attempted to climb Mount Everest in the last century: over six hundred. And further: about a fourth of them died trying. Or died on the way back down. Everest may now be within the tourists' realm, rather than in the earlier travelers' or explorers' ranges, but it remains exceedingly dangerous.

Another surprising fact is how quickly the air pressure diminishes, even between Everest Base Camp and the summit. Climbing that high without oxygen is damaging to the brain and disorienting to the mind. But if you carry oxygen, that is another technical supply item to be managed in extreme cold and wind, with all the fatigue of the climb. The climbers' struggles with bottled oxygen remind me of Robert A. Heinlein's science-fictional account of Lunar survival hiking in Have Space Suit — Will Travel; Heinlein did engineering work on high-altitude suits during World War II, and understood the problems. These are real challenges to be faced in future Solar System exploration.

Jon Krakauer's account in Into Thin Air has been criticized for tone and detail by some of the other survivors, as well as by some relatives of those who did not survive. It is a gripping story to read; I am glad I was not there. In retrospect it is not surprising that deadly problems arose, and bitter disagreement afterwards.

Comparisons in cold & fire

I'd like to draw your attention to parallels in two other deadly disasters in Nature, which are perhaps not the ones that occur to you.

The first is the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1913, led by Douglas Mawson. During near-starvation circumstances, Mawson and two other explorers suffer from inadvertent overdoses of Vitamin A, in toxic quantities; in addition to severe physical effects, they undergo hallucinations while on the ice. Not until many years pass is the cause understood by science. — That history is told in Mawson's Will, by Lennard Bickel; and in other books.

The second is of firefighters, the Smokejumpers who parachute into the Mann Gulch, Montana, mountain wildfire zone in August 1949. My point is not the physical dangers of the fire and smoke, but the fact that the team had not trained together; in their crisis with the wildfire about to overrun them, they do not have a concerted plan for survival. — That history is told in Young Men & Fire, by Norman Maclean.

Leadership & air

Equivalent factors can now be seen as contributing to the Mount Everest disaster in May 1996, and even to the subsequent feuding. The guides and their paying clients are loose groups rather than organized and trained teams, so in difficulties they do not act optimally for mutual survival. And when the climbers' minds are dulled from lack of oxygen during awful exertion in sub-freezing cold, they make dangerous mistakes and later misremember what they saw and did.

Into Thin Air describes quite an adventure in an extreme environment. Please read it by your fireside or anywhere warm, safe, cozy, and well oxygenated.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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