Brigette's Reviews > Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
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Jul 01, 07


I recently attended the Banff mountain film festival in Canada. One of the key speakers was Simone Moro, the close friend of Anatoli Boukreev, the climber who was killed in an avalanche several years ago on Annapurna and whom Krakauer pretty much vilifies in this book as not having done enough to save the lives of those caught in the blizzard on Mount Everest in May of 1996. Needless to say, the vibe in the room was chilly whenever the subject of Krakauer's version of events came up; he was accused of slander and some in the room even claimed that he had not done much himself to save the lives of those in danger during the Everest disaster.

Nevertheless, as a reader of climbing nonfiction, I stand by Krakauer. I have always found his account of the Everest disaster an intensely moving and thought-provoking one. Like Joe Simpson's books, Into Thin Air reveals its speaker to be a climber with a conscience. Kraukauer loves climbing but is completely honest about the fact that such a dangerous sport so often puts one in the agonizing position of having to make life or death decisions under conditions that make clear thinking nearly impossible-- the cold, the lack of oxygen, the immense strain on the body at that great elevation. One gets the sense while reading that he is trying to make sense of this crazy sport as he writes, that this book is his process of figuring out the answer to the question: with all of the dangers and fatalities that result from climbing Everest, why on earth do people actually sign themselves up for this kind of thing?

In the years since I first picked up this book, I have discovered many other great climbing books in the adventure genre, although Krakauer's remains one of my all-time favorites. For more accounts of the Everest disaster, see also Boukreev's The Climb and Beck Weather's Left for Dead. If you enjoy Krakauer's writing, you might also enjoy Nando Parrado's Miracle in the Andes, a true account of the narrow escape of some members of a Uruguayan rugby team that survived by any means necessary-- and I do mean ANY means necessary--two grueling months in the Andes after their plane crashed in the mountains on the way home from a game. In addition, Joe Simpson's Touching the Void is a similarly remarkable story of a climber who survives unlikely odds after breaking his leg on the side of the mountain Siula Grande in Peru. There are also movie versions of both (Titled Alive and Touching the Void, respectively.) In addition, a movie version is due out soon for one of Krakauer's other wilderness adventure books, Into The Wild.
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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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Forest I would suggest avoiding the sour sections of Krakauer and Boukreev's books. I had a sour note going into The Climb and it nearly ruined it for me. I was hoping there would be more literature out on what changes need to happen to avoid events like this on "Commercial Mountains." Göran Kropp had an amazing success that year, solo, unassisted, human powered from Sweden. The Imax "Everest," co-directed by David Breashears, is another positive outcome of the 1996 season.
I would suggest Ed Viesturs "No Shortcuts to the Top" for notes on "Moral Climbing." Viesturs is likely the most wise among well accomplished Mountaineers.
Reinhold Messner's "Crystal Horizon," Herman Buhl's "Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage," and another Krakauer book "Eiger Dreams" put you inside the mind of a climber.


Lisa Sadly, nothing seems to have changed if last season was an indicator. Still record numbers of novice climbers going up.


Jason Sinclair Long I wouldn't say, or even suggest, that Krakauer "pretty much vilifies" anyone, Boukreev included. That's a harsh simplification of one section of the book. Remember that he also tells of Boukreev's heroism (more than once), and he suggests that he (Krakauer) himself may have been responsible for some of the deaths.

And it's certainly selective (and lazy) reading to suggest "avoiding the sour sections of [either:] book." My God, that's an integral part of the whole story, one of the most interesting problems surrounding any disaster like this. That's like only watching selected scenes from Kurosawa's Rashomon. I strongly suggest reading all sections of both books, to understand the multiple perspectives.


Susan Jason wrote: "I wouldn't say, or even suggest, that Krakauer "pretty much vilifies" anyone, Boukreev included. That's a harsh simplification of one section of the book. Remember that he also tells of Boukreev'..."

I read both books 2 years ago starting with Boukreev's while in Nepal (I'm not a climber) and then read Krakauer's when I got home as it was on my shelf and I had intended to read it anyway. I found Boukreev's book very engaging and honest, as I recall, and although Krakauer's was also very engaging and comprehensive, I felt he was too negative about Boukreev's efforts and intentions and somewhat egotistical. I was sorry to hear of Mr. Boukreev's death.


Brigette In response to Jason's earlier comment, I would say that I agree that Krakauer tries his best to be fair in the book and I think he also does a good job of calling attention to his own misgivings.

That said, judging from the way he describes Boukreev's actions on the mountain, I definitely got the sense that, despite giving us scenes of Boukreev's extraordinary heroism after the storm, Krakauer felt overall that Boukreev as a climber and a guide didn't take more responsibility early on in the climb--a time when solid preparation and a sense of responsibility to the clients (including using bottled oxygen) might have prevented a lot of lives from being lost. This might just be my own reading of the book and of Krakauer's tone--and yet after seeing Simone Moro speak in person with a lot of bitterness in his voice and words toward Krakauer (not that I hold it against him too much, he was clearly still mourning the loss of his best friend), I do think that Boukreev's friends picked up on Krakauer's critical tone as well, subtle or not. Indeed, Boukreev himself certainly seemed to.

I am not in disagreement with Krakauer, however--as a journalist, he too has a right and responsibility to reveal the events as he witnessed and perceived them. If one does choose to believe he is being critical of Boukreev, this argument, in my eyes, is far from being a "harsh simplification" or a tendency isolated to "just one section of the book." Why? Because, as Krakauer suggests throughout, the actions taken by the climbers in the early part of the trip led like a chain of dominoes to each of the diastrous events that followed.

I believe that this is one of Krakauer's main points, in fact--that with a little foresight, and the willingness of each climber to take responsibility for himself as much as possible(and for the guides to act responsibly in a way that allows them to really be there for their team) disasters like the one in May of '96 might be avoided in the future. As such, this view of Krakauer's perspective in the book does not seem to me to be a harsh simplification at all-- his argument for responsible climbing and guiding seems to be a thread that carries throughout the book. I congratulate him heartily for drawing the layperson's attention toward the disaster and toward the world of climbing.

Like Jason, I would also discourage "ignoring" any parts of a book such as this one. Although I really appreciate Forest's excellent suggestions for more upbeat climbing fare and I respect his and Susan's choice to stick with those kinds of books, I think that the parts of Krakauer's book that are most uncomfortable to read (i.e. because they are emotional, or uncertain, or questioning) raise the most interesting questions about human nature--not only how we react under pressure, but also how we reflect on our own experiences in hindsight. It is also interesting to read the newer version of Into Thin Air, rather than the original because it contains an extra introduction from Krakauer addressing his own implication that Boukreev did not do enough on the mountain--a direct and straightforward response to Boukreev's own protests in his book The Climb, I believe. I hope the two men were able to smooth things over before Boukreev's untimely death, but I suspect they might not have been able to do so.


Neil my impression of Krakauer is a good writer/entertainer...I am a little skeptical of his facts. I read Climb shortly after Into Thin Air..good rebuttal. Unfortunately Bourkreev died in a climbing accident while I was reading his recently published account


message 7: by Robin (last edited Nov 17, 2009 07:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robin Whenever we lose someone we want someone to blame. I don't know how we take those feelings out of our attempts to be analytical in retrospect.


Tamika Caston I loved this book. I felt the account threw up many questions--rather than answers. It seemed to be an effort to respond to earlier hurt feelings after the Outside article, to honor those lost, as well as a climber's attempt to process disaster. Thoughtfully written, I was utterly engrossed in the story from start to finish. I had to put it down at times because it was too real for me. It is a rare and beautiful gift when a writer can bring an audience in as much as this one. Kudos to Krakauer for this book.


Mike Thank you for the book recommendations, I look forward to reading the Parrado book. You write reviews very well.


message 10: by Glen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Glen Moreland How cvan you say you stand by Krakauer...his book is self serving
he did a lot to help save people???
He would not even help beck weathers down the mountain when snow blind Beck
asked him for help!! He would not even come out of his tent to bang pots or shine lights to help the otherswhen asked by Stuart Huthison!! Rather than search the Col while his teamates lay lost and freezing to death he zipped himself into his sleeping bag. Boukreeev went out into the storm 3 times and saved 3 peples lives after sumitting without supplemental oxygen.No one under Boukreev''s care suffered any serious injuries and they all summitted. So you continue to stand by a guy who does nothing to help his teammates...I will honor Boukrev's efforts!!


message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Glen wrote: "How cvan you say"..."

You are very quick to blame. I wonder if you know anything about what you are talking about... Have you ever climbed high enough that cold and oxygen deprivation and exhaustion sapped your strength and mental clarity for weeks, where you couldn't eat enough to stop your body from consuming its own muscles, where you couldn't sleep enough to think clearly, where you couldn't stop shivering for hours at a time? From your comments I seriously doubt it. You might consider educating yourself more before dishing out blame so quickly, especially towards someone who suffered so much because of his experience. Every individual is different, that should be obvious to you if you are over 15 years old, and the capacity to climb without oxygen, or to deal with the cold, or to deal with any physical or mental stressor of any sort can vary dramatically from one individual to the next. I submit that if you take a good look at yourself you will see examples of your own behavior that show that others excelled where you failed, through no fault of your own, simply due to your psychological makeup or your biological traits. Even though you may make every effort and push yourself to the utmost, there will always be people who play better chess, run faster, run farther, take the cold better, climb higher without oxygen, dive deeper on one breath, put up with attempts to manipulate you emotionally or with outright brainwashing better, think more clearly in the heat of an argument, write better computer programs, show patience towards trying people, etc. etc. etc. I suggest that if spent just 1% of the energy climbing at high altitudes and doing some honest soul-searching as Krakauer has obviously done you would feel quite different. Ignorance is not always bliss.


message 12: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Byron Thanks for the excellent review..... and for the heads up about the other books. I am a priest and often use the film Alive as a discussion starter when training Eucharistic Ministers.


Robin I couldn't put this book down. It WAS a personal account. His perspective is not everyone's. This discussion is worthwhile and so is the book.


Stephen Gallup FWIW, the recent edition of Into Thin Air has a postscript that answers the DeWalt/Boukreev accusations, including specific reference to the Banff festival comments. I have no interest in taking sides, but my impression in reading his book was that Krakauer was as critical of himself as he was of anyone else. The objective for a responsible account is to follow the truth in whatever direction it lies, which I think is done here.


message 15: by Glen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Glen Moreland Krakauer did nothing to help people in need on the mountain..He did absolutely zero..!!


message 16: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike I don't believe he was overly critical on Boukreev. Seems commons sense that in the position of *guide*, you use supplemental oxygen.

Comparing the efforts of Krakauer to save people versus the efforts of ANY of the commercial guides/sherpas is ridiculous. One is a writer (and yes, I know he climbs), and the other group are the professionals that work on the mountain, who's job it is to get their clients up the mountain (and down) safely.

All that said, we're being critical of people who were in an extremely dire situation in the dead zone. I doubt anyone commenting on this has been in the dead zone, let alone above 6500m. In that situation, no one knows how they will react.


message 17: by Geoff (new) - added it

Geoff Krakauer does not vilify Boukreev at all. He raises only one major concern: Boukreev's decision not to use bottled oxygen which meant that as a guide Boukreev could not safely stay with his clients. Krakauer is much harder on himself and he is candid about all aspects of the trip. Indeed, he speaks of Boukreev's courage on numerous occasions and his genuine admiration and affection for Boukreev are clearly in evidence.


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