Book Review: Into Thin Air

Count mountain climbing off my bucket list.

Into Thin Air Front Cover


Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

293 pp. Villard $14.60

There’s something innately ‘cool’ about mountain climbing. I’m not sure if it’s the gear, the brands, the people (both real and fictional), or the mountains themselves. Maybe all of the above; unfamiliar, dangerous, beautiful, and for most of us unattainable.

I still remember the time I tried on a harness at an Eddie Bauer store and first learned what a carabiner was. If I had had money, I may have turned into a climber then and there. However, as it turned out, I’m not overly adventurous or strong, so other than that and a couple of rock wall climbing sessions with my church group over fifteen years ago, I know nothing about climbing.

Despite my lack of climbing experience and knowledge, this book has been on my reading list for a number of years. I’ve read several other Krakauer books and enjoyed them. Pairing that with a romantic notion of what climbing is, a love of uniquely tragic stories, and current Mount Everest events, this became a must-read.

About the book

For the most part, it’s written in language even us non-climbers can understand. I had to look up a few words, like col. It’s the ridge between two mountain peaks. In this case, the Sothern Col refers to the space between Mount Everest and Lhotose.

The book included a map and photos, which I referred to several times. It also included a list of names and titles grouped by companies. With so many people reported on, this was a must-have.

Aside from technical and geographical parts, the story was gripping. Told as a personal account from Krakauer’s experience climbing Mount Everest in May 1996 for a piece in Outside magazine on the commercialization of the mountain. We follow him and the other climbing groups through the tragic journey, starting in Katmandu, then up the mountain in unsanitary camps and minus 100-degree weather and then the descent down as a hurricane level storm sweeps in. He combines a good mix of memoir and journalism and includes other climbers’ accounts, gleaned from interviews.

I appreciated that he was upfront about his unreliable memory due to lack of sleep and his high altitudes oxygen depleted brain. Anyone who follows news about memoirs knows, they are often disputed. No two people ever witness and interpret the same events in the same way. But Krakauer acknowledges this and tries to even it out with research and other people’s views. He never shies away from his own faults.

The book is written as a way to deal with his demons and mistakes made on the climb and fallout from the article. He spends much of the book detailing the horrible conditions and suffering. It is this that takes away any romantic notion of climbing. It’s very much a reality check. Even after completing the book, I don’t understand why someone would put themselves through those conditions. You won’t find me in any place called ‘The Death Zone.’

What I thought about the book

Krakauer’s descriptions put the reader on the mountain. Vivid and candidly told, sometimes including embarrassing information, he opens our eyes to a world most of us will never see.

The best part for me was that my husband was familiar with the events. It made a great conversation starter. After every reading session, we’d talk about what I’d just read.

In a way, I hate that this book exists because it only exists because people died. I’m very sorry for the loss. But there was good to come from this, especially with the heroic actions and crazy endurance from several people.

Into Thin Air is an engaging, poignant read that will leave you feeling like you’ve been in a storm and survived.

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