Book Review: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air - Everest DisasterI’m well and truly late to the party when it comes to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air which was first published in 1996, six months after the Everest disaster. I have never been interested in climbing or mountaineering or even trekking so anything do with Everest I completely ignored. Even when it came to movies or documentaries, I never wanted to watch anything Everest/mountain related. Now I’m really regretting that as Into Thin Air is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

A few weeks back, someone Tweeted about a story on Gawker which mentioned there are 200 or so dead bodies lying around Everest, many of them in plain sight, which are not able to be removed from the mountain for safety reasons. I had no idea that was the case. Even George Mallory’s body (the famous climber from the 1924 British expedition) is still up there, discovered in 1999 when a research team went up to look for him. A link from the Gawker article lead to a forum thread showing photos of a number of the deceased climbers, including Mallory. An interesting discussion follows about the risks of climbing Everest as well as accounts from people who have been there. Into Thin Air was mentioned several times in the thread which is what prompted me to read the book.

Into Thin Air is written by journalist Jon Krakauer who was on the mountain to write an article about the commercialisation of Everest. He was on the expedition with Rob Hall, a very experienced guide from New Zealand, along with Andy Harris (also a guide), Doug Hansen and Yasuko Namba, all of whom died on that expedition as well as Beck Weathers and a few others who survived. Others who didn’t make it include Scott Fischer, experienced head guide of the American expedition, three Indian climbers (one of which is still seen on the climb to Everest and is known as Green Boots), a Sherpa, a member of the Taiwanese team and a member of the South African team. A French climber and two more Sherpas died later in the season (including Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa who was on Scott Fischer’s team in May) bringing the total deaths in 1996 to 15.

Krakauer discusses the events of the tragedy in detail including how altitude sickness affected some of the guides, how neither of the experienced guides stuck to their planned turn-around times (a deadly mistake), how Anatoli Boukreev, the Russian guide on Fischer’s team, dangerously climbed without oxygen and went back to camp without his clients, and how Krakauer mistakenly thought he saw Andy Harris tumble down the mountain and then (also mistakenly) deduced he walked off the side of the mountain to his death. He also writes about the final conversation Rob Hall had with his pregnant wife in New Zealand where he told her not to worry and that he was comfortable and about the heroic efforts of Boukreev to go out into the storm to save two of the members of Hall’s expedition.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s completely enthralling and would recommend it to anyone, even if you have no interest in mountaineering. Anatoli Boukreev wrote a contradictory book about the climb which I’ve yet to read. Many other books have been written on the disaster including one from Beck Weathers which I’ll be reading next.

From a medical perspective, it’s incredible to see how the body reacts to a lack of oxygen. You can suffer from high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), hypothermia, and/or frostbite. Many people become incoherent which leads to making very bad decisions at crucial times. The story of Beck Weathers, who was twice left for dead, is beyond comprehension. Completely exposed to the elements during a terrible storm, left blind by the altitude, declared dead by passing climbers, he later walked into camp unaided, alive and lucid. This TED video by Ken Kamler, the only doctor high on the mountain that day in 1996, discusses the disaster and how he treated Beck Weathers.

In the spring 1996 season, when 12 climbers died, an IMAX team was also on the mountain. They put their summit bid on hold to help with the rescue but did reach the summit later in the May and the resulting documentary Everest can be seen on YouTube.  David Breashears from the IMAX team also produced Storm Over Everest which documents the disaster and was released in 2008. You can see an excerpt here. I would love to see the full documentary. If anyone has a link to it please let me know.

A National Geographic documentary on the disaster discusses the death of South African Bruce Herrod, the last climber to die in May 1996. He continued up to the summit even though he was way behind schedule, arriving at the summit at 5pm, 3 hours after the standard turn-around time. He died on the Hillary Step, not long after summiting.

Another interesting documentary I came across discusses another disaster on Everest, this time in 2006 when 11 mountaineers died. Check it out here if you’re interested.

So does this newfound interest in Everest mean I would like to summit the world’s highest mountain? No way! I am not good in cold weather and am absolutely petrified of heights so climbing any mountain is out of the question. What I would like to do though, is head to Nepal or Tibet and see Everest with my own eyes. That will be enough to satisfy my curiosity.