Friday, December 10, 2010

review: Into Thin Air

This book, by Jon Krakauer, has been out for some time -- and sitting on my shelf for most of that time. I finally picked it up recently and wow -- it was great. It's about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster where several climbers lost their lives. Krakauer was along on one of those expeditions and four people in his party died, including his lead guide.
"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."
... So begins chapter 1. It was great writing to put the anti-climax of reaching the summit right up front in a brief first chapter that also talked about the deadly results of the climb. This isn't a mystery novel after all. These events had been much in the news.

From there the story goes back to the beginning, the very beginning. He gives some brief and fascinating background on the discovery of Everest and many of the earlier attempts to climb it. Krakauer then sets the scene of the expedition and includes many morsels along the way on subjects like the background of some of the guides and clients -- including himself and his wife's unhappiness about his decision to undertake the trip. Still, the ending, which the reader already knows, hangs over it all. It gives a special, sad fascination to the entire book.

The art and science of climbing Everest were especially interesting to me. It's a massive undertaking and the whole thing takes many weeks and involves many stays and moves back and forth between various camps at different altitudes. Every bit of this book is great, but the summit climb and the slowly unfolding disaster that followed it are riveting, though terrible.

I guess what really gets me about this story is that, while I could grasp the dangers, I still remained caught up in the excitement of the climb and impressed by the magnitude of the challenge. Even knowing the doom that lay ahead, I completely empathized with the climbers that pushed on to the summit though the planned time to turn back was past. I think that's a credit to the author's clear presentation.
"Attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act" -- Jon Krakauer


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