Notwithstanding my fascination with stories of human exploration and endurance in the roughest parts of the globe – the race to and for the South Pole in 1911 and 1912, for instance – Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” is a compelling read, on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster when 12 people died trying to reach the summit, one of the deadliest seasons on the mountain, because of its journalistic sensibilities to interview as many people as possible and to provide an accurate and balanced account as far as possible (a commitment to the facts, in other words), its intense first-person narrative of the physical and psychological difficulties associated with acclimatisation and scaling the mountain, as well as its raw, honest commitment to blame-assignment and responsibility-taking. In fact, even with the acknowledgement that the high-altitude environment renders climbers incapable of making the best decisions, Krakauer does not shy away from his mistakes or shortcomings.
Through the writing style too – and by taking his perspective – one experiences the thrill of ascending the mountain, the fear of descending in a blizzard, and the loss and helplessness of those who survived. That he did not shy away from his misinformation and inaction was impressive too, especially considering the fact that four of the six climbers on his expedition who scaled the summit died on the mountain: “My actions — or failure to act — played a direct role in the death of Andy Harris. And while Yasuko Namba lay dying on the South Col, I was a mere 350 yards away, huddled inside a tent, oblivious to her struggle, concerned only with my own safety. The stain this has left on my psyche is not the sort of thing that washes off after a few months of grief and guilt-ridden self-reproach”. At the same time, he pinpoints perceived faults of some guides and expedition leaders too.
And in a neat summary of what probably goes through the minds of climbers: “This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: In order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”.
“Into Thin Air” is overall a gripping read, as the reader is challenged to picture himself or herself in the exhausting, harsh, and cold circumstances of being above 8,000 metres. It was argued, in the beginning of the book, greater attention should be paid to commercial guided expeditions which encouraged climbers with limited mountaineering experience to ascend the tallest peak in the world – a practice supposedly reinforced by American businessman Richard Bass, the first man to climb the tallest mountain on each continent, or the “Seven Summits” – but in the assessment of what transpired in 1996 there was little, even with the complicity of the governments involved and also in a lengthy postscript, on how future expeditions should take shape. Considering that the 1996 disaster has since been eclipsed by the 2015 Mount Everest avalanches which killed at least 22 people, it would appear that little has changed.