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Book Review of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
reviewed on

I had wanted to read this book from the time I read an excerpt in Reader's Digest. At that time, the book was, of course, only in hardback, something I rarely purchase. By the time it was issued in paperback, I had forgotten all about it. When I joined Paperback Swap and began searching for books, it returned to my memory, and I'm glad it did.

While reading it, I was constantly checking for Google images of the various locations on Everest to get a sense of the difficulty of each portion of the climb. I also read other accounts on the internet of the tragedy of May 1996, including a multi-piece feature from Outside magazine done on the tenth anniversary. With all that, I feel that this is a very accurate accounting of the events that unfolded. I was disturbed to read toward the end of the book a scathing letter sent to Krakauer from Fischer's sister, in which she stated, "You have commented on what SHOULD have been done by the leaders, the Sherpas, the clients, and have made arrogant accusations of their wrongdoing. All according to Jon Krakauer, who after sensing the doom brewing, scrambled back to his tent for his own safety and survival..." She later says, "There are no answers. No one is at fault. No one is to blame." Really? Sounds like you're placing at least some of the blame squarely on Krakauer's shoulders, who was too wiped out physically to have been of help to anyone and probably would have died himself if he had tried. Letting out her anger was a good idea, but not at the expense of Krakauer's emotions after the fact.

I don't believe that Krakauer was making "arrogant accusations"; I believe he was simply reporting the event and trying to be as factual as possible. By his own admission, the large article he had written for Outside magazine shortly after those terrible events contained some inaccuracies, and the book was written partly to correct those inaccuracies. (The most serious mistake occurred because he had not received return phone calls from one trekker prior to writing the article, and at the time the incident occurred, he was confused due to hypoxia and fatigue, fairly common at that altitude.)

The tragic events of May 1996 occurred not because of any one big error on anyone's part, but rather due to a series of errors. I believe that Into Thin Air reports those errors without admonishment, leaving the reader to form his/her own opinion as to why so many died. However, I disagree with one of Krakauer's statements: that trying to learn from the mistakes is "for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception." There is a lot to be learned from this incident. It is obvious, though, that with the continued commercialization of climbing Everest and the other "seven summits," with little regard for the experience and ability of those willing to pony up the fees, it hasn't happened.

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