By Nimish Dubey
For most people, ascending Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on earth, remains the ultimate travel fantasy. For years, Everest had been most travellers’ holy grail, notwithstanding the risks involved (many people died in their attempts to conquer the peak). A major accident in May 1996 that claimed the lives of eight climbers did shock many but was initially considered part of the hazard of climbing. Until Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air hit the stands later that year.By far the highest selling book on mountaineering, Into Thin Air blew the top off the mountaineering guide business, showing how trained mountaineers acted as “guides” to take totally inexperienced people on to the top of the world. For a massive fee, of course.
The problem with this arrangement was that the guides sometimes actually put money before safety in an attempt to ensure that more “clients” reached the peak. And that is exactly what happened on May 10, 1996, when a number of climbing teams were trying to ascend Everest on the same day. Two of these were headed by a couple of the most experienced moutaineers in the world, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. Krakauer himself was part of one of those teams, covering the climb for Outside magazine.
As schedules clashed, teams chose to ignore warnings about the weather, focussing instead on getting to the peak and getting photographed there. Little did they know many would not return. A fierce storm hit Everest even as the teams were on their way down and as most of the climbers were not experienced, panic set in. Fischer and Hall tried to get a grip on matters but were helpless in a zone where there was nothing one could against the fury of nature, in conditions of near zero visibility, sub zero temperatures and winds that literally blew people off the mountain. By the time things cleared, there were no fewer than eight climbers dead and one missing. Among the dead were Fischer and Hall – team leaders who had paid the ultimate price for putting their clients’ interests above safety.
All this in itself would have been enough to make a gripping work, but Krakauer makes it even better with his narrative skills. One of the problems with books about mountains has been the fact that they have been written by people who are better at wielding ice axes than pens. The prose has inevitably suffered as a consequence – even Sir Edmund Hillary’s account of conquering Everest for the first time is a relatively tame read, exciting only for the event it covers rather than the narration. Krakauer, however, is a different kettle of fish, being a thoroughbred journalist in his own right. And it shows. You actually feel the chill seep into your veins as he describes conditions on the mountain and I defy you to stop reading his account of when the storm hits the stranded mountaineers, many of whom are shocked at seeing their all expenses paid trip to Everest turn into a funeral march. This is no objective, cold analysis of a tragic event by a bystander but a full blooded account of what happened on one of the saddest days in mountaineering history, by a person who saw it all unfold in front of his horrified eyes.
The last moments of Fischer and Hall, the valiant attempts of the sherpas to save people, the controversial efforts of Anatoli Boukreev (whom Krakauer criticised so much that he himself wrote a book on the entire episode – yes, we will review that one too), the miraculous escape of Beck Weathers who had actually been left for dead but managed to make it back to safety somehow – all form an integral of what I must confess has got to be one of the travel classics of our time, right alongside Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.
Buy it. Read it. Everest will no longer have the same appeal for you again.
It may be the highest mountain in the world.
It is also the world’s highest graveyard.
And do join us for a coffee at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, India.