Not many books create as strong conflicting emotions as Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. The mixed feelings have nothing to do with the book itself. It is the topic and the famous mountain which evoke fear and desire.
Krakauer’s account of the climbing disaster on Mount Everest is a gripping story of the wildness of nature and the stubbornness of people. In May 1996, eight climbers were killed when the members of three expeditions were caught in a massive storm that shook the mountain. Krakauer was one of the climbers who survived.
His detailed description of the tragic event is enough to make you afraid of mountains. When the worst happens, people are weak. There is no room for logical thinking: it is about survival.
“We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” Krakauer writes.
You struggle with the exhausted climbers when they are dragging themselves towards the peak that cannot be seen, step by step. You can feel the desperation and horror when the freezing mountain wind roars and the blizzard wipes out the sense of direction. Where to go, how to live?
It is absolutely horrible.
At the same time, the excitement of the expedition makes you want to climb the lethal mountain. “There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument,” Krakauer writes.
He captures that illogical desire to reach the top of the world, the need to push the limits. Mount Everest is magnificent. It is amazing to reach the next camp. To tackle Hillary Step. To stand on the top. Of course you want to risk your life!
The book is based on Krakauer’s personal experience, interviews and facts. However, Krakauer admits that people on the mountain have a different understanding of what happened. Their memories do not match. Some of the other climbers have criticised Krakauer’s account of the events because they disagree with the fine details. In a way, the book shows how traumatising events twist the reality.
Even if Into Thin Air is not the ultimate truth, it is real. It is what Krakauer experienced. And through his book, we can all experience that.