Book Analysis: “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

into-thin-air-by-jon-krakauerOn May 10, 1996, four groups of climbers set out to summit Mount Everest – one group led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants, another led by Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness, an expedition organized by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and a Taiwanese expedition. The day would turn out to be the single most disastrous event in the mountain’s history, killing 8 and injuring others after an unexpected blizzard ravaged the climbers, trapping them high on the mountain. This analysis recounts the official accounts of occurrences between May 10, 1996 – May 12, 1996 and the telling of the events from two sides of the same tragedy written into two books: “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer and “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev – accounts that have remained controversial and conflicting in their beliefs of what and who was to blame for the tragedy. (Read on in “1996 Everest Disaster – The Whole Story“)

Be sure to see the cited films and articles of interest in the bibliography at the end of this piece, including the Descent Step by Step” article that notes the occurrences of that day by the hour. 

Abbreviations & People:

  • AC – Adventure Consultants
  • MM – Mountain Madness
  • Jon Krakauer – Journalist on assignment for Outside Magazine reporting on the commercialization of Everest… AC team.

Analysis of “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

“Into Thin Air” has received a plethora of praise and criticism alike, both stating the author poured his soul out onto the pages of the book attempting to portray a hopeless and inconceivable ordeal to readers or that he aimed to capitalize on the tragedy. Soon after its publishing, controversy ensued prompting Anatoli Boukreev (Head Guide for Scott Fischer’s expedition company, Mountain Madness) to fire back at Krakauer’s version of the events, and claims surfaced of a possible negative bias Krakauer had against the guide.

After reading “Into Thin Air,” I can neither say that Krakauer disliked Boukreev or tried to capitalize on the events. The book is written in a humble, expressive tone, simply aiming to explain the events as they occurred in the eyes of the author who was present in an attempt to bring some type of sense to this inconceivable tragedy. Krakauer also notes in the book that, either way, he was on assignment for Outside Magazine and was required to write an article about the expedition and the commercialization of Everest. He felt that the article alone did not give enough detail, thus his decision to write the book was an attempt to elaborate on claims he made in the article and to correct inconsistencies he initially wrote in the article, which he openly admitted to having written in error because he was still referencing from hypoxic memories – in my opinion, a noble thing to do.

On occasion, Krakauer makes references to Boukreev, stating once that he did not know much about the guide, but Rob, his expedition leader, came across as a very likable person, something most people who met him said. This is a clean statement, but some readers perceived this as a silent jab.

In other sections of the book, Krakauer made detailed statements as to how Boukreev ascended to the summit without supplemental oxygen, forcing him to descent before his clients to avoid high altitude sickness, leaving them to descend with only the help of their guide, Neil Beidleman, as their leader, Scott Fischer, was late ascending and lagging behind. Again, this was perceived as a jab, however, this is simply how it occurred. The author is explaining actions that possibly contributed to the endangerment of people on the mountain that day. Why Boukreev did this isn’t Krakauer’s job to defend.

Contributing Factors to the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster

According to Krakauer’s version of the events, Mount Everest was crowded that spring with expeditions from Taiwan, America, New Zealand, South Africa, and more. This is the first contributing factor to the tragedy. Second, the commercialization of Everest was noted to be a contributing factor, as competition to reach the summit increased with the pursuit of publicity. Both AC and MM had two public figures present that season, Krakauer on assignment for Outside Magazine and Sandy Hill Pittman, a socialite and journalist on Scott Fischer’s team.

A third contributing factor came with leaders, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, deciding to work together to reach the summit on the same bid day. In doing so, both decided that one sherpa from each team would be designated to set fixed ropes leading to the summit; chosen were Lopsang Jangbu of MM and Ang Dorje of AC. However, on Summit Day, Lopsang Jangbu did not begin ascending before the team to assist Dorje with the ropes, instead, he short-roped Sandy Pittman for the ascent, causing him to climb at a slow rate. Consequently, Ang Dorje refused to work alone. This was the major factor that Krakauer hints as being the catalyst to the proceeding catastrophe.

Later, Krakauer would interview Jangbu to ask him why he veered from the designated plan; he stated that at first, he thought he had short-roped another climber who was lagging, and when he realized it was Sandy an hour later, he unclipped her. Later, he would change his story to say that Pittman reaching the summit was important to Fischer, as it would come with publicity and increased clientele. Because she was not a significantly experienced climber, he thought short-roping her would increase her chances of reaching the top if he escorted her at a steady rate past the others – even though Fischer did not ask him to do so. Both Jangbu and Pittman stated that the short-roping did not last for more than an hour, however, various other climbers attested to it lasting up to five hours.

Ultimately, as a result of the fixed ropes not being attended to, a bottleneck of climbers accumulated towards the summit, slowing everyone down. A turn-around time of 2:00 pm had been established, and some climbers were delayed because of the bottleneck, including Krakauer who had been ahead of the team from the start. Eventually, Boukreev and Beidleman assumed responsibility of the ropes, and it took quite a while to set them.

By this time, a storm had been brewing below them. Instead of turning clients around, because the guides knew they would not reach the summit before 2:00 pm, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer’s guides (who were now leading their team without Fischer) chose to keep going, the fourth contributing factor. Those ahead of the line summited (Krakauer was one of them), turned around and began their descent, passing Rob Hall and the rest of the teams who were still on their way up. These descending climbers headed right into the storm.

So far, Krakauer simply states the events as they happened, while they may seem like they are placing blame, in the end, it is what happened. Krakauer’s reference to Boukreev’s early descent happened here, where after reaching the summit, he quickly descended before the MM team made it to the top, leaving them to descend slowly with little help. Ideally, if Boukreev had descended with the team and been carrying supplemental oxygen, he may have been able to assist them in descending mush faster, possibly making it to camp before the storm erupted into a fierce rage.

Later, Boukreev would state that he descended because he wanted to be fresh and reach camp so he could assist in a rescue if needed in case something happened to the descending climbers. Though this information made Boukreev seem like an incompetent leader, Krakauer does praise him for his rescue efforts later on, so I still don’t see how Krakauer can be portrayed as “not liking” Boukreev.

Close to 4:00 p.m., client Doug Hansen finally reached the summit with the assistance of Rob Hall, who remained behind to see his bid through. Shortly after, Hansen collapsed and Hall refused to leave him, setting the stage for a tragedy. Both were trapped on the South Summit by the storm, and below, members of the AC and MM team were also trapped by the storm 600 ft. from the nearest camp. As the storm raged on, Boukreev would attempt to rescue the lower lying members, saving Sandy Pittman, Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen – all members of his MM team; AC climbers, Yasuka Namba and Beck Weathers were determined to be “un-savable” and were left behind.

Over the course of the night, Doug Hansen would die, Rob Hall would tragically die on the South Summit the next day and his guide, Andy Harris, stricken with hypoxia, would also perish.

Due accreditation was given to Boukreev, noting him a hero for braving the storm to save the clients, credit was also given to Neal Beidleman, a guide for Scott Fischer, for getting this group of clients as far as he could down the mountain. Nowhere in the explanation of these events does it seem that Krakauer “hates” Boukreev or was attempting to capitalize on the situation. Instead, he openly details how Neal Beidleman singlehandedly dragged 3 members of his team and 2 members of the AC down the mountain until he couldn’t go any further and detailed how Boukreev bravely came through and saved 3 of those 5.

Jon Krakauer’s Invaluable Role as the Story Teller

Towards the beginning of the book, Jon Krakauer hints at the concept of readers not always being best served when a journalist directly involved in a situation is the reporting party. I personally believe that in this case, it takes a journalist to be immersed into this tragedy to bring light and reason to the situation for others to see. Had Jon not been there, the story may not have been told with as much detail or non-bias facts as it eventually was. The commercialization of Everest has become a notable controversy, and as history has shown, mountaineers are often reluctant to include facts that may impart blame or further compromise access to the mountain, thus resulting in incomplete stories and unintentional but deliberate omissions. This is no more evident than in the controversies surrounding the David Sharp incident and the 2008 K2 Tragedy, the latter still being referred to as a “mystery” because of its conflicting stories and careful telling.

Finally, I am in the camp that believes the 2015 film, Everest, did not do justice to the tragedy’s events. Many factors were deliberately omitted, most likely in an effort to eggshell the memories of those in charge that day. In doing so, viewers miss out on a lot of context – for example, the movie makes ambiguous body language hints that Andy Harris may have been confused, but never officially said that he was (he was). The movie depicts Scott Fischer as tired but did not give any reference as to why he may have been tired, like his liver disease and his various unscheduled trips to and from Base Camp aiding sick sherpas and clients, something he asked Boukereev for help with but eventually handled himself. The movie also leaves out the huge role Neal Beidleman played in aiding people that day; it also portrays Beck Weathers as an extreme asshole, for lack of a better word, when in fact, with the exception of a few incidents, he was a pretty good guy. Reading Krakauer’s book before watching this movie would explain much more. There is another made-for-TV film, Into Thin Air, which I feel covers the events much better. Granted, it is based on this very book, but even so, it goes into details and paints a much vivid picture. Into Thin Air can be watched on youtube.

My Final Thoughts on “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

My point is that many people urged Krakauer not write this book so close (in timeframe) to the tragedy. His decision to do so led to the most accurate and detailed account of the disaster by far. I fear that had he waited, guilt, remorse or other may have led him to also trek with the same eggshell nature everyone else ultimately did.

My analysis of this book shuts down the claims that Krakauer intentionally meant to capitalize on the situation, that he disliked Boukreev at the time of publication, or that he deliberately set out to issue “blame” to those in charge. This book is simply a vivid, fresh-in-memory telling of a tragic set of events that led to a disaster that cost eight lives. Perhaps, his decision to write the book so soon led to such claims, but perhaps if he hadn’t, this would not be the story we now know.

Analysis of “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev

Stay tuned for the analysis of “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev where he hits back at Krakauer’s claims and version of the story. Boukreev’s book was the National Best Seller when it published. – To be published separately.

Films & Television Programs of Interest 

  • Everest. Dir. Baltasar Kormákur. Perf. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin. Universal Pictures, 2015. Film.
  • Frontline: Storm Over Everest. Dir. David Breashears. Perf. Neal Beidleman, David Breashears, Guy Cotter. PBS, 2008. DVD.
  • Everest: IMAX. Dir. David Breashears, Greg MacGillivray, and Stephen Judson. Perf. Liam Neeson, Ed Viesturs, David Breashears. Miramax, 1998. DVD.
  • Everest: The Death Zone. Dir. David Breashears and Liesl Clark. Perf. Jodie Foster, David Breashears, David Carter. Nova, 1998. DVD. On YouTube Pt1. Pt2. Pt.3 Pt.4
  • Into Thin Air: Death on Everest. Dir. Robert Markowitz. Perf. Christopher MacDonald, Peter Horton, Richard Jenkins. Columbia TriStar Television, 1997. DVD.
  • Johnson, Gareth, dir. “Into the Death Zone.” Seconds From Disaster. 26 Nov. 2012. Television.

All movies and episodes have been linked to YouTube where available. We encourage you to purchase or rent the DVDs if possible.

Articles of Interest

 

Notice of Deaths During & After 1996 Expedition

2 responses to “Book Analysis: “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

  1. Pingback: Short Definitions for High-Altitude Sicknesses | Base Camp Magazine·

  2. Pingback: Everest2017 Marks 21st Anniversary of the 1996 Everest Disaster | Base Camp Magazine·

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