A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more–including Krakauer’s–in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.
I’ll admit, I was completely ignorant to the Mt. Everest disaster of 1996 until I watched Everest this past weekend. While I was alive during this time, I was only 11 and not much of a news watcher. So imagine my surprise as I started what I thought was a fictional adventure movie only to discover it was based on true events. Which I might add, tends to a personal weakness of mine. So while I was watching the movie unfold, I was also looking up all the information I could about the people and what happened. So when I discovered there were a few books written by a few of the survivors, I couldn’t resist checking them out. Unfortunately, this was the only one I could get my hands on at the moment.
Though I’m sure it was difficult for Krakauer to constantly relive what happened on that mountain, I think he does a fair job of trying to give to light as much truth to a very chaotic and tragic time. Before you assume I take his word for gold, I don’t. I’m sure there are things that were exaggerated, misconstrued and every misunderstood. It’s human nature and though he was wise to interview the rest of the people involved, let’s be honest, unless you are present everywhere with a video camera, it’s impossible to say everything is exactly as the book says it was. Do I believe Krakauer is trying to deceive the reader into believing so? Not at all. I think he makes it clear that the things mentioned in this book were his point of view of the events as they unfolded and that there are several unknowns.
Krakauer attributes hubris as the key factor that led to this disaster and in a way, I have to say I feel he is correct. There are countless instances that had they been different, could have possibly set different things into motion. For example, Scott Fischer was an amateur guide (though an experienced climber), who allowed his group the freedom to climb up and down the mountain at will during the weeks leading up to the summit push. Several times, he was forced to climb up to help these climbers when they got stuck and I feel it’s apparent that this probably compounded his physical well being on that fateful day. Was this wrong of him? No. He wanted to give his clients the opportunity to experience Everest in their own way. Another example of this is Rob Hall’s refusal to strictly enforce the 2 PM turn around for his group. He clearly wanted to help them summit and while it was admirable and any of the clients could have easily ignored him, maybe a few less climbers would have been stranded on that mountain top that night. But that’s the problem with all of this, there are so many what ifs and the blame game isn’t going to change anything. Besides, in the end, it was just the “perfect storm” scenario and you can’t put that kind of blame on any one person or even every person in charge on that day.
Also, look at Andy “Harold” Harris who was struck in the chest the day before the summit push. It’s impossible to know exactly how much this contributed to his physical well being on that day. Though I admit, I am concerned that every single guide and experienced climber passed by him without even considering he was clearly showing signs of delirium. Maybe it dawned on them later on as it did Krakauer. After all, to say that the climb to the top of Everest is not physically demanding, would be an understatement. Given the weeks of mental and physical deterioration these climbers, guides and Sherpas endured, I actually can understand how it could have been overlooked. But the real tragedy comes because Harris’ family believed he had safely returned to camp. And while it’s sad, I do believe it’s unfair to blame Krakauer for mistaking the person he saw return from camp, as Harris. Though the person he saw was smaller than Harris, even they didn’t realize who they had talked to during those moments before they almost fell to their death, just feet away from the safety of Base 4. So it’s not impossible to believe that Krakauer truly believed it was Harris and maybe subconsciously, he was hoping it was. Because something deep within him was finally realizing he had been showing warning signs that something was wrong earlier in the day.
The truth is, so many little things added up to the deaths of eight people on this fateful day. Some of who were left to “let nature take its course”, after they were abandoned over and over again. Some of who died trying to save others. I can’t even imagine the weight of that day has on the people who were there as well as the families of those who lost their lives. But what I think should be taken away from this book is that at the end of the day, there’s no controlling mother nature, it would be wise to physically prepare and gain adequate experience before trying to summit this mountain and that at the end of the day, a guided climb is only successful because of all of the people who help you get up there. It seems to me that without Sherpas and guides, many of the people who summit this mountain, would never make it. This streamlining idea of helping the “average” Joe make it to the top of Earth’s ceiling is a dangerous notion and maybe it’s time to start putting stricter restrictions on how many people can attempt a summit in one day and how many groups can go at one time. Perhaps if there had been, these eight people who lost their lives that day, would have made it back down. After all, when you are forced to spend countless hours waiting to get up and down a mountain in what is called the “dead zone”, that time is expending much needed time, energy and even oxygen.
Note to reader: Just because I enjoyed this book, doesn’t mean I am taking a stand on the Krakauer vs Boukreev debate. As I was not present, I find it is impossible for me to claim either account of how/why Boukreev abandoned his clients. All I can say is that I respect the fact he risked his life to save others and regardless of anyone else’s thoughts on the matter, only Boukreev knows if he was supposed to trek ahead or not and it was he who had to live with that knowledge every day for the rest of his life. Either way, he’s a hero and may he rest in peace.