Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Review: Into Thin Air

Title: Into Thin Air
Author: Jon Krakauer
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir
Rating: A

Summary (from "Into Thin Air is a riveting first-hand account of a catastrophic expedition up Mount Everest. In March 1996, Outside magazine sent veteran journalist and seasoned climber Jon Krakauer on an expedition led by celebrated Everest guide Rob Hall. Despite the expertise of Hall and the other leaders, by the end of summit day eight people were dead. Krakauer's book is at once the story of the ill-fated adventure and an analysis of the factors leading up to its tragic end. Written within months of the events it chronicles, Into Thin Air clearly evokes the majestic Everest landscape. As the journey up the mountain progresses, Krakauer puts it in context by recalling the triumphs and perils of other Everest trips throughout history. The author's own anguish over what happened on the mountain is palpable as he leads readers to ponder timeless questions."

Review: So, I had planned to read this book for last year's Modern Classics challenge, but never got around to it. Then, after my sister incessantly berated me, I picked it up. It started kind of slow, as did Into the Wild (one of Krakauer's other books), but it got really good.

Krakauer has this way of telling a story where you already go in knowing what happens; seriously, he tells you in the preface notes that a bunch of people died in a horrible storm, but you still keep reading.


Probably because in the "tedious" set-up of the book, he has laid out the meticulous nature of these guides (whom you know end up dying in the end) and you ask yourself, "What went wrong?"

The only problem is that you can't really read this book if you're looking for answers--there aren't any. Sometimes accidents happen and the people who were in the position to anticipate and/or prevent the "accidents" are all dead, so we can't know their motivations or thought processes. Also, the people who are still alive sometimes have conflicting accounts of their own experiences.

None the less, the book does open up discussions for interesting topics such as, "If there's a point on the globe that's so high that it's nearly impossible to reach it without compressed air or the assistance of hard-working, and perhaps under-paid, sherpas, should we be going there?" Granted, there are a handful of people who have summited Everest without using canned air or the assistance of sherpas (one guy in 1996 did it... he's an all-star in my book), and maybe this mountain (a sacred part of Himalayan culture) should be left alone except for the truly exceptional people. Who knows? That's not necessarily for me to answer, but I've definitely been thinking on this for a couple of days now.

This book was so fantastic that I'd recommend for everyone I know to read it (with the up-front disclaimer that it's worth plugging through the "tedious" part so you can really get it in the end). Also, several other people who were on the trip have written their own accounts (my sister read Beck Weather's book, Left for Dead, and I'm intrigued beyond belief to read this, also Mike Groom, a guide from Scott Fisher's team who lived wrote a version based on his recollection).

All in all, this is a dynamite, fantastic, should be read by everyone in the entire world kind of book. (I only marked it down from A+ to an A because I would have preferred the "tedious" part to be a little less tedious, but I'm not entirely sure that's possible.)

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