Mention Mount Everest, and most people’s minds get filled with visions of the highest mountain peak on the planet. Of standing on top of the world. Of clouds and serenity. Of a great sense of achievement. What almost certainly does NOT come to mind are crowds of people desperately pushing each other, trying to get to the peak to get a picture then and then get back to the comfort of their tents. There is nothing heroic here, only a bunch of tourists trying to get to a place to get boasting rights. And while this is the top of the world, it is also a very dangerous place. A place where death is ever far, because there is very little oxygen. You are literally stepping into thin air, with your life depending on the guides you paid to get you here.
And that is the narrative of Into Thin Air. It is a book about the Everest disaster of 1996. A disaster that happened purely because of human greed. Groups of climbers, most of whom were not experts, and had actually paid a fortune to guides (who were excellent mountaineers), found themselves stuck near the summit, as literally a traffic jam of people was built up. With news of an impending storm, they should have turned back. However, the guides ignored warnings and allowed people to go to the top, take pictures and then come back, even as the storm got closer. And then the storm struck with people still near the peak, instead of being safe inside their tents. Many died, and the casualties included some of the biggest names in the history of Everest climbing – the likes of Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. All because they wanted to help their “clients” reach a summit and justify their fees. So much so that they forgot something as basic as human safety.
It is a terrifying tale. And Krakauer – who has also written the bestselling Into The Wild – tells it brilliantly. You can literally feel the chill of the icy wind in your bones as you read. And it is not just about climbing, he also lays bare the politics and arrangements that guides and touring companies make to get people to the top, and how the tallest peak in the world is at times reduced to a mere photo opp. It is a grim, serious book and it shows us a side of mountaineering that many did not know existed. But thanks to Krakauer’s writing skills, it flows like a thriller. You will find yourself immersed in no time at all, and literally in the shoes of all those on that mountain. Yes, you know who is going to die and who is going to survive, but that does not lessen the grief or relief that you feel, or the outrage that all this actually happened. And irony of ironies, it has happened again in the years since.
Into Thin Air is perhaps the most readable book you will read about Everest and mountaineering. It is deeply disturbing, and de-romanticises the peak and perhaps even the activity itself. But it deserves to be read. Because, while nature is beautiful, human greed can effortlessly muck it up. And also because well, this is a brilliantly written book! And at around 350 pages, not too hefty either!