Book review: The Power of a Cautionary Tale

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

During our recent hiking trip though the Julian Alps I was amazed by the sheer beauty of rock. I have been an avid hiker and trekker as well as an occasional scrambler for about five years now, but walking on small ledges, climbing short rock routes and the very sense of accomplishment reaching a high vantage point gave me, has kindled my interest in alpine mountaineering. I think it has to do with the fact that climbing in such a way is very much a thinking man’s game: while hiking up a steep hill can be tough work, it takes nothing more than perseverance and stamina. Technical climbing is slower, yes, but that has to do with the fact that every step has to take into account the next one.


So since we came back from Slovenia I have done a few things: first, I have started gearing up for a Via Ferrata trip. It’s obviously not the most technically demanding form of climbing but I figured that would be the most logical next step. Also, as we saw in Slovenia, it adds just a bit of safety to otherwise very exposed sections of some trails. I have some experience using this type of gear and the rope work it demands so I think this should be my entry into the vertical world.

Second, I like to read, so I acquired a copy of Jon Krakauer’s mountaineering classic Into Thin Air.

Krakauer likes to go into detail – supposedly he is still obsessed with the exact cause of death of Christopher McCandless, the main subject of his other bestseller Into The Wild. That same amount of rigor is applied here.

Into Thin Air chronicles the writer’s own experience while taking part in a guided expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996. That year was a particularly unlucky one for Everest climbers.

As the highest mountain on earth, Everest was first officially summited in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Its peak is at 8848 meters above sea level. While there are more technically demanding mountains, the fact that it is the world’s highest point attracts many climbers – experts and relative novices alike. Especially since the advent of commercial guided expeditions and the invention of supplementary (bottled) oxygen, the technical capabilities of the climber in question have become less important to success.

Indeed, according to Krakauer, climbing mountains in that way has become exceedingly controversial in the professional mountaineering world due to the fact that to many purists, it takes the sport out of it. That may be a subjective feeling but the fact is that it has become much easier, and a lot more popular, to get into mountain sports in general. One of the negative effects is that this also attracts a fair amount of underprepared individuals – in the high alpine as well as your local hills.

At its core, Into Thin Air is a gripping personal account of a complicated disaster chronicling the terribly bad luck befalling the 1996 Everest Expedition organized by Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall. The writer was present for Outside Magazine, commissioned to report on the growing commercialization of high altitude mountaineering. During the expedition, extremely bad weather, slipping time frames, a number of underprepared or overzealous climbers, a short climbing season leading to a lot of traffic, some regretful decisions, and extreme altitude created a situation in which something, at some point, had to go wrong. At such great heights, even the smallest mistake may lead to complete catastrophe.

Even though the reader will have a rough idea how the book ends – it chronicles a disaster after all – Krakauer’s writing style and attention to detail grabs one’s attention and doesn’t let go. That year, Everest was inhabited by a group of colorful and often very different personalities. One of the book’s strong suits is that it doesn’t play the blame game – while some individuals made strange or bad decisions, this is always presented in the context of the extreme environments they were made in. Most importantly, Krakauer is not above second-guessing his own actions – were they slightly different, maybe the events would have been less disastrous.

While the book is not exactly new, it was an interesting read for me personally. To me, it read as a cautionary tale. Mountaineering at any height is an inherently risky pursuit. A 40-meter drop has the same effect at 4000 meters, as it has at 1000 meters. But at extreme altitude weather gets worse, temperatures drop and most importantly, a human’s mental faculties go down due to oxygen depletion and ailments caused by extreme altitude. This all played a huge part in the events laid out in the book.

Climbing is an inherently crazy pursuit. But the main lesson of this book, for me, would be to pick your battles carefully. If you want to go vertical, be sure that you have the necessary skill and experience for the task at hand. This may sound like a no-brainer but history is full of people neglecting this simple truth.

Stay safe.






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