Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Villard, 288 pages ($24.95)
Last year, writer Jon Krakauer was assigned by Outside magazine
to find out firsthand if climbing to the top of Mount Everest, a
feat not accomplished until 1953, had become, some 600 ascents
later, such a pedestrian undertaking that it could now be done
by mediocre mountaineers. Krakauer joined an expedition headed
by a skilled New Zealand guide, Rob Hall, who had boasted of a
"100 percent success rate" for his Everest customers. Scott
Fischer, a U.S. guide who would lead a party alongside Hall's,
was even more dismissive of the dangers in scaling the world's
highest mountain. "We've built a yellow brick road to the
summit," he said.
That confidence proved fatal. In this movingly written book,
Krakauer describes an experience of such bone-chilling horror
as to persuade even the most fanatical alpinists to seek
sanctuary at sea level. Not that they're likely to do so. As
Krakauer observes, "Climbers, as a species, are simply not
distinguished by an excess of prudence."
Krakauer, an experienced mountaineer, had never climbed above
17,200 feet, an altitude comparable to base camp-level on the
29,028-foot Everest. Many of his teammates, as well as members
of Fischer's crew, were even less tested. Yet on May 10, 1996,
24 beleaguered men and women reached the summit. Krakauer was so
exhausted, sick, confused with hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) and
worried about the trip back down that he barely took in the view.
He was right to fear the descent: A rogue storm of hurricane
force brought the windchill to -100[degrees] and trapped most of
the climbers near the top. Eight, including Hall and Fischer,
were killed in the worst single-day catastrophe in the history
of the mountain.
Krakauer blames the competitiveness between the guides for the
debacle. He also cites his own culpability. "I knew better but
went to Everest anyway," he writes. "And in doing so I was a
party to the death of good people, which is something that is
apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time."
Krakauer's harrowing tale will linger in the reader's memory as