Everest Demystified? | Into Thin Air Book Review

In June 1924, mountaineer George Leigh Mallory decided he wanted to climb Everest a third time, after two failed attempts to mount the summit. He and his companion, Andrew Irvine, set off from Advanced Base Camp and began their rapid descent up the formidable slopes. At 12:50 on June 8, the weather cleared momentarily, and teammate Neill Oden spotted the pair high up on the ridge, a mere few hundred vertical feet from the summit.

The pair were never to be seen again. At least not alive.

It would take another 75 years, in 1999, before the frozen bodies of Mallory and Irvine were discovered by another expedition.

To this day, Mallory is attributed with the three famous words in mountaineering history. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he simply retorted, “Because it’s there“.

“None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter”

“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.” 

–  Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

What does it take to climb Mount Everest? Not much, many would suppose.

It seems like with the right amount of equipment, nowadays, every John, Sue or Mary could climb Everest, even without any amount of mountaineering experience.

About a year ago, our university was struck with the news of tragedy high up on the slopes – one of our faculty’s teaching staff had succumbed to altitude sickness and tragically passed away during an expedition on Everest.

Many underestimate what it takes to climb Everest. If I could tell you the amount of times I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to climb Everest one day!” you would probably shake your head in disbelief.

No you’re not going to climb Everest. And it’s not just my word against yours. The odds itself are naturally impossibly high against you.

For starters, you’d need a massive amount of dough to do so.

Krakauer explains that the Nepalese government put in place a scheme to limit the number of people on Everest each year and therefore preserve the “safety, aesthetics, and impact to the environment” of the mountain and also boost the economy by requiring climbers to pay a fee and hold permits priced at a staggering $50,000 for a small group of climbers.

After paying for a permit, you’d need to hire a guide to help you up the mountain. Guides are seasoned climbers with years of experience who know how to navigate the terrain and presumably get a client up and down the mountain alive and safe – they also provide crucial logistical support for the expedition, and advise the client on whether it is safe to proceed up the mountain during certain weather conditions.

Even then, that does not guarantee that you will successfully reach the peak – if you don’t die on the way from altitude sickness – hiring a guide does not guarantee that one will reach the summit. Many climbers abandon their summit reach a mere several hundred vertical metres from the summit due to appalling weather conditions and fears for their safety.

Krakauer also reminds us that getting down the mountain is the harder part – having reached the summit is really the half-way point – in a mild contradiction, he expresses that “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill […] The trick is to get back down alive”.

Jon Krakauer does a great job of breaking down the myths associated with the world’s highest peak – one other major thing he explores in his recount is the mindset and psychology of other climbers. Many climbers fall prey to any ailment called “Summit Fever”, which is an obsession with reaching the summit at all costs, even at the expense of your own physical wellbeing and your comrades.

In summary, Krakauer tells us that only those who can afford to pay the price, have the right equipment, mindset and irrationality have the fortitude to ‘conquer’ Everest.

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Up to this point, I’d never read any mountaineering literature before – I knew nothing of the subject and Krakauer’s book was a great starting point for reading on a new genre and topic. His book is a gripping, harrowing and tragic recount of the 1996 Everest tragedy, detailing how he and the other climbers on his expedition were stranded on the mountain when a rogue storm hit, resulting in the death of eight of his companions.

Krakauer, a journalist by trade, initially joined the Everest expedition to write a commercial article on high altitude climbing for Outside Magazine. His recount is somewhat journalistic and detached from the reader, and appears mostly objective and descriptive, yet becomes critical of some of he actions of his fellow climbers, who he otherwise refers to as his friends.

Krakauer’s writing is magnificently crafted and highly descriptive – his account of Everest and its summit “washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky” and their “arrival at the apex of the planet” instils a sense of awe and amazement in the reader at the exquisite beauty of the mountain and the sense of invincibility and pride that conquering the highest peak endows on a climber. At other times in his recount, he reminds readers of the harsh, ugly, jagged landscape, plunging sub-zero temperatures and the cruel absence of air to show us how deadly Everest truly is and how perilous the sport of climbing is. His perception of Everest becomes increasingly soured throughout the text and readers pick up on his distaste for inexperienced and irrational climbers who attempt to scale the peak.

Into Thin Air is overall a gripping read and a definite page-turner. I personally found the book quite educational, thrilling, exhilarating and tragic. I would definitely recommend a read of Krakauer’s account to better understand the art of climbing and Everest, or even for a casual read.

If you are planning to read this book, you might want to consider Boukreev’s personal account as well – The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Boukreev and Krakauer were companions on the 1996 expedition and the two have conflicting recounts of how the tragedy unfolded.

Krakauer also has another book, Into The Wild, which I have yet to read, but which has also been recommended to me. I plan to read this soon and perhaps make another review on it.

Thank you for checking out my book review!

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