Thursday, May 27, 2010

Into Thin Air

I'm never really sure what to expect when I pick up a non-fiction adventure book. Granted, I haven't read widely in the genre, but what I have read leads me to believe it's a little hit or miss. The ones that miss, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones that assume all the reader cares about is the writer's experience, full-stop. A hit, on the other hand, weaves a personal narrative throughout a larger story; it offers historical details, comprehensive but succinct technical explanations and it pulls in other perspectives and/or characters to back up the main narrative. In short, it gives you enough information to draw you into the action and feel like you could have been there too.

In his book Into Thin Air, John Krakauer does just that. In early May, 1996, ten climbers died on Mount Everest, either in pursuit of the summit or during their descent from it. Krakauer was on the mountain, climbing with a different team. He summited earlier than the other teams and, as he begun his descent the other teams were still on their way up. But, a storm was rolling in - either unnoticed or ignored by the other team leaders. Krakauer's account of his climb to the summit, and his subsequent descent and the fierce weather they faced at 29,028 feet above sea level, is not one you're likely to forget in a hurry.

Krakauer is a climber as well as a journalist, which gives him the background to both explain all the different aspects of the climb and the equipment climbers use, as well as sufficient experience to put himself in the position of the other climbers and imagine what they were thinking. It's a bit of a grey area journalistically, but Krakauer is up front about his suppositions and often offers up more than one scenario, which helps an uninitiated climber understand how protocol and procedure can become lost on the mountain.

But this isn't a book that points fingers (or, not overly, anyway), rather it takes you through the tragedy of such needless death. Krakauer's ability to write emotionally about the devastation of the climb and the pain and guilt he and the other surviving climbers felt is beautifully captured. My copy of Into Thin Air has quite a few pages pocked with dry tear stains, not because there's anything gratuitous about the sadness, but because Krakauer's own feelings rub off the page and onto the reader so that you too feel the burden of the loss of life.

At times, Into Thin Air is a regular adventure story, in that you get caught up in the immensity of Krakauer's trek up the tallest mountain in the world. But the consequences of the climb lie heavy in the descriptions of the early days on Everest. Really, it is a beautiful book, which is not a way I would normally describe a book about the deadliest period in Everest's (recent) history. But Krakauer writes with great care for his subjects - himself, the mountain, his colleagues - and the riveting scenes are all the more exciting and devastating for their firm hold on Krakauer's reality.

Into Thin Air
by John Krakauer
First published in 1997 (cover image shown from Doubleday edition)

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