Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

My second reading of “Into Thin Air” was just as immersive and suspenseful as the first. Krakauer’s writing has momentum – even as he pauses for paragraphs or pages to ruminate on climbing tactics or historical precedent, the story falls forward as if it’s been pushed off a cliff. In the case of historical precedent, Krakauer spins each old climbing tale as if he’s sitting around a campfire, and draws those past examples to bear on the present day. In the case of climbing tactics – whether it be the use of oxygen, the mechanics of ropes and fasteners, or the practice of paying guides large sums to reach summits – Krakauer presents diverse arguments for each topic, making it clear where he stands on the issue but leaving ample space for the reader to make up their own mind.

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(Photo: Amy Attas)

Krakauer’s writing and storytelling was aided on this second reading by the fact that I was walking to Everest Base Camp while reading it. He describes his first glimpse of Everest from the plane, crouching over a garbage can next to the bathroom, transfixed by the rocky peak standing as tall as his 747. My flight’s passengers were mostly native Nepalis, but when the first mountains poked through a thick layer of calm stratus clouds, the entire plane was abuzz. Krakauer had made it seem like only climbers would care about Everest, but even on a flight of mostly locals, every nose on the right side of the plane was glued to the glass. Because good sight-lines are rare, and because the view is supernatural – it was hard to convince my eyes that these were in fact the Himalayas, and not just puffs of cumulus vapour rising up on a draft.

Krakauer’s descriptions of altitude clung particularly heavily as he fought to acclimatize on his way to base camp, as did his quick, colourful vignettes of the trail and villages along the way. In 1996 he remarked that “the trail was clogged with trekkers, yak trains, red-robed monks, and barefoot Sherpas straining beneath back-wrenching loads of firewood and kerosene and soda pop.” In 2018, I can only say that the hamlets are now towns, and though my trail was mostly clear because I travelled in the frigid off-season, there were indications everywhere that tourism clogged trails and hotels to overflowing during the spring/fall good weather.

This illustrates the most interesting tension in the book, as Krakauer’s writing about the commercialization of Everest has most certainly contributed to the continued commercialization of Everest. It certainly affected my route selection. He also bravely acknowledges the adverse effects of having a journalist high on the mountain, which, whether consciously or not, likely spurned the guides to push harder for the summit in their hunt for good press. Krakauer includes many harsh assessments of real people which I’d never have the guts to put in print. But then, if I’d survived the deadliest season in the history of Everest, perhaps my grief, rage and regret would force me to be more publicly opinionated. Krakauer left me thinking that summiting Everest (after so many people have proved it possible) is about the dumbest thing someone could choose to do with their life, while still somehow maintaining the spell and allure of the world’s highest peak.

The power of the writing is still a mystery. There’s no doubt that it’s good, but I couldn’t quite figure out how or why. Krakauer doesn’t often pause to meditate on ephemeral aspects of the journey, and thus rarely has need for poetic flourishes. But he is still an artist. More like a sculptor cutting away until the true form is revealed, than a painter piling on colours, adding more to get closer to the truth (though in the final reflective chapter his poetic skills shine as he grapples with life’s big questions). The prose also reveals a bit of his investigative style, writing mostly in his own voice but quoting from an extensive list of sources to prove that this account is not just his own. It reads as though he sat down at his desk and wrote whichever chunk he was in the mood for, and then worked out the transitions afterwords. But it also feels like he meditated heavily on the best order for all these chunks, and the transitions skillfully explain the logic of where we’re going next.

The biggest treat of the book remains that Krakauer is not just a writer who was dragged up a mountain, and not just a mountain climber who stumbled into a great story. Like William Finnegan in “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life”, Krakauer is top-tier in both writing and adventuring, and that is what makes this such a strong book.

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