(12-19 September 2022)
Despite having ‘owned’ Into Thin Air on Kindle for several years, and despite the heavy acclaim surrounding it, it’s taken me until this year to get around to reading Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest expedition. What ultimately prompted this was a recent episode of Tim Harford’s very excellent Cautionary Tales podcast—not an episode about Everest, but rather a short series of episodes covering Scott’s infamously doomed expedition to the Antarctic. I came away from that fascinated by the extremes some people put themselves through and keen to read more. While I was unable to find a book about Scott and the Antarctic that sufficiently appealed to me I did eventually stumble across that copy of Into Thin Air waiting patiently in my library and thought ‘ah!’
Now, mountaineering and/or climbing is not something that’s ever appealed to me. Not even a teeny bit. I’m not a particularly physical person and I also have what may be either mild vertigo or a realistic fear of falling to my death from a great height. So, yes, climbing is generally off my hobby list. I can sort of understand how some people get satisfaction from pushing their limits and conquering the unconquerable, but the thing that genuinely surprised me while reading Into Thin Air is how absolutely fucking miserable it all sounds.
That said, the author does make it reasonably clear that climbing Everest is unlike most other climbing expeditions he’s embarked upon. There’s a long journey simply to get to the base of Everest (not base camp: just the bottom of the mountain). There are huge costs involved, starting with the visa you need to buy before you will be allowed climb the mountain. Then there’s the acclimatisation, which takes place over several weeks and, judging by its depiction in this book, is among the more gruelling and debilitating processes one can voluntarily put one’s body through. Finally, there’s the climb itself, which judging by this account seems like a constant gamble against time. Can you make it to the top before the weather turns on you? Can you make it back down again before your body grows too frozen and exhausted to move?
The origin of this book comes from a journalist (and experienced climber) being commissioned to climb Everest for a magazine article. The reason it ended up being a book at all is because of the events that took place on the mountain during that particularly brutal expedition. There is some element of retrospect, but this book mostly puts us in the midst of an unfolding tragedy and introduces us to many of the people that it will claim. The author outlines a lot of contributing factors (and doesn’t avoid pointing the finger at himself at times) but at the end of the day this is another strangely compelling story about humans challenging nature and losing.
While not an adaptation of this book, the 2015 movie Everest depicts the same events. I could probably do with watching it again as I recall it being a perfectly competent movie but maybe I’ll get more from it a second time around, having now read an alternative account.
Oddly enough, though, reading this book makes me want to rewatch a completely different and, admittedly, pretty terrible movie about mountaineering: Vertical Limit. It’s dumb and it’s good fun. I hate it and I love it.
One movie I did end up checking out in the wake of reading Into Thin Air was the documentary Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold’s bid to climb the 3,000 feet vertical rock face of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment of any kind.
As one of the reviewers on IMDB accurately states: “by far one of the best horror films I have ever seen.”
Considering this was an impulse read, it was an agreeably swift and engaging one. Jon Krakuaer delivers some fine writing to help convey the experience and the narrative comes with the grim compulsion to keep turning the page and find out what terrible thing is going to happen next. If it’s your sort of thing, then it’s an easy recommendation.