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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I wasn't really sure what to expect from Into Thin Air, although in retrospect I should've known what I was going to get. It wasn't the first Krakauer book I'd read--I'd read Under the Banner of Heaven and Into the Wild, and each one was sadder and more terrifying than the last. Krakauer's books, I've figured out, have recurring themes--fanaticism and death, the ties that bind. Krakauer seems fascinated by radical faith, whether it's in a man who said he'd discovered ancient golden tables in rural New York state, in a country, in an ideal, or in a mountain. Into Thin Air, although it was the first (discounting his book of essays about mountain climbing, titled Eiger Dreams) book he wrote, is the most heartbreaking of all of these accounts, because it is the most personal.

Krakauer always loved climbing, and lived much of his youth the way Chris McCandless, the young man from Into the Wild, endeavored to live his--as an itinerant adventure-seeker, of the mountain climbing variety. It was a dangerous sport to be sure, and he was winding down after it was beginning to destroy his marriage, until an editor at Outside magazine proposed an essay about the commercialization of Mt. Everest. Recently, there had been a proliferation of agencies that would provide guided ascents to the mountain's summit, for a price. Krakauer agreed to write the story, if the magazine would pay to send him all the way up the mountain, instead of just to Base Camp. After a year of preparation, Krakauer set off to climb the South Face of mountain with a group of other climbers being taken up by Everest legend Rob Hall and his team of guides and Sherpas.

It was clear to Krakauer that not all of his fellow clients should have been there. Even he knew that he didn't have the high-altitude climbing experience that would have made summitting the mountain possible on his own. For two months, the group, along with several others, most notably one led by another respected guide, Scott Fischer, prepared for their final ascent, which began early in the morning on May 10, 1996. In twenty-four hours, eight people, including Fischer and Hall, would be dead or dying, and another would have risen from the dead.

I kept thinking how much different the book would be if Krakauer had written it a few years after the experience, rather than six months after. The guilt he felt for his perceived complicity in the deaths of a few of the clients, especially his friend Andy Harris, is palpable in these pages; his rage over all of the deaths is unshakable. Underneath it all there is a clear, unsettling question--why not Krakauer? Why did he live when others died? He was not a better climber than some of these people. His descent from the summit was neither elegant nor safe; delusional from the lack of oxygen and exhausted from the ascent, Krakauer narrowly escaped the blizzard that bore down soon after he arrived at camp. If he had let time pass before telling the story, would he have reached some sort of peace with the whole thing, the way some of his fellow survivors had? Probably not. The thing about extreme faith is that, when it is shattered, it haunts you.

The book hits hardest at the end. After one of the surviving guides from the disaster, Anatoli Boukreev, told his own story in The Climb, cowritten by a man named G. Weston DeWalt, Krakauer was encouraged to write an author's note defending himself against allegations that he intentionally slandered Boukreev in Into Thin Air. Krakauer, although recognizing Boukreev's skills as a climber and heroic efforts to save some of the stranded clients, which prevented more deaths, believed that Boukreev's decision to descend from the summit before all of his clients put many people in danger and, indeed, might have caused some deaths. He also disagreed with Boukreev's decision not to use supplemental oxygen while guiding. The accusations flew fast between Krakauer and Boukreev, culminating at a conference where the men shouted at each other across a crowded room, even though DeWalt, who was not on the mountain and indeed had never climbed Everest or any other high-altitude peak, was the main antagonist.

Krakauer's sucker punch comes at the very end, when he tells of a conversation he had with Boukreev after the conference. The men apologized to each other for what had happened, and hoped that they could soon put their feud to rest. Not long after, Boukreev was killed in an avalanche on Annapurna--they never resolved their dispute, and Krakauer is left carrying the guilt of another lost comrade on his shoulders.

I have never felt the call of Mt. Everest, or indeed the call of the wild in any capacity. I like my warm bed, my cheesy television shows, my books. I don't understand what makes people climb Mt. Everest or, having nearly died doing so, do it again. Sometimes I wish I was a little more adventurous, but in the end I'm happier knowing that I'm safe. I think that's why I'm pulled towards books like this, the ones that shred you from the inside out. I don't know what to do with Into Thin Air, which means it's a book I'll keep coming back to until I'm capable of understanding a little bit of what it's here to teach me.

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