Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
Into the Wild
On September 13, 1992, The New York Times ran an Associated Press story with the headline, “Dying in the Wild, A Hiker Recorded the Terror.” The remains of an unidentified man, who had apparently been injured and stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, had been discovered along with a cryptic journal that recorded months of starvation and fear. The journal entries were telegraphically brief: “Weakness,” “Snowed in,” “Disaster,” “Fall through the ice.” It seemed to be simply the story of a gruesome accident, the kind of thing that happens in Alaska as a result of inexperience or bad luck, Alaska being so vast and inhospitable that anything from a Sunday hike outside Anchorage to a tourist flight over the mountains can become a nightmare. But after an autopsy and investigation it turned out that the stranded, injured hiker had, in fact, sustained no serious injuries and, in the strangest way, had deliberately stranded himself.
The mystery of the man’s identity and the puzzling circumstances surrounding both his death and his terse account of his last days inspired great media interest, including many newspaper articles, features in Outside magazine and The New Yorker, and then a book, by the author of the Outside piece, Jon Krakauer.
The hiker’s name was Christopher McCandless, and he was twenty-four years old when he died. He had spent most of his childhood in Annandale, Virginia, the son of a NASA scientist. By all accounts, Chris McCandless was a gifted child, musically and athletically talented, and a successful entrepreneur at a young age, earning seven thousand dollars working as a salesman during the summer before he graduated from high school. Shortly after his graduation from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990, he disappeared. Unbeknownst to his family, he had donated all of his savings, almost $25,000, to the charity OXFAM, moved out of his apartment, and driven off across the country. His family never saw him or heard from him again.
His journey, a bizarre odyssey through the West ending with his death in Alaska, was a downward spiral in which he divested himself of everything he owned and everyone who cared about him. He renamed himself “Alexander Supertramp” and began keeping a scrapbook-journal in which he recounted his adventures in a melodramatic third person and illustrated them with photographs.
After leaving Atlanta, in the summer of 1990, he drove to Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, and abandoned his car after driving it off the road and getting it stuck in the sand. In it, he left the keys and a note: “This piece of shit has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.” According to his journal, he then burned all his money, $123, and wandered around the desert near Lake Mead until he became delirious from heat stroke. Over the next few months, he hitchhiked throughout the West, spent a few weeks working as a laborer at a grain elevator in South Dakota, and then, after taking to the road again, decided to buy a canoe and float four hundred miles down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, a feat which is, in fact, technically impossible owing to the numerous dams, canals, and diversions on the lower reaches of the river.
McCandless’s journal records a series of manic highs and depressed lows on this doomed foray: on entering Mexico, “Alexander is jubilant!”; on becoming lost, “Alex is dumbfounded”; later, “He is overjoyed and hope bursts back into his heart”; later still, discovering that the Colorado becomes a swamp in Baja, “All hopes collapse!… All is in despair.” He delighted in trespassing and breaking the law. He spent over a month alone on a deserted beach in Baja, subsisting on five pounds of rice; once he nearly killed himself by rowing on the ocean in high winds. In February 1991, he wrote, “Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.” He seemed violently determined to wipe out all vestiges of the young man he was and to create of himself an idealized wanderer, completely self-sufficient, needing no one.
In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to Fairbanks, bought a secondhand rifle, a book on edible plants, and a bag of rice. He sent a postcard to the man he’d worked for in South Dakota. The message ended: “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild. Alex.”
Jim Gallien, an Alaskan electrician who picked up McCandless outside Fairbanks and dropped him off outside Denali National Park, listened with some astonishment to his plans, seeing that he was grossly under-equipped and ill-dressed for an extended stay in the back country. There was still snow on the ground, and McCandless had no compass, no adequate map or hiking shoes, no ax, and his rifle was inadequate for killing large game. Failing to talk him out of his plan, Gallien pressed on him an old pair of rubber boots and his lunch and drove McCandless to the trailhead he’d selected, mostly frequented only by local hunters.
McCandless walked some twelve miles toward the park on the trail, crossing the Teklanika, a typical braided Alaskan river that widens enormously with the summer runoff, and ended up camping in an abandoned bus, used by moose hunters in the fall, which was parked near another river, the Sushana. At one point he tried to hike further toward the park but was discouraged by the difficulty of bushwhacking through dense brush and by the time it took to hunt and forage for squirrels, porcupines, birds, berries, and roots; he returned to the bus. His journal records that he was jubilant when he shot a moose but soon bitterly castigated himself for losing most of the meat to flies. He was reading Jack London, Tolstoy, Walden, and Dr. Zhivago, and scrawling graffiti on the inside of the bus: “All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too! Alexander Supertramp.” In July, he decided his adventure was complete and tried to walk out, only to discover that the Teklanika had become unfordably swift and deep. Again, he returned to the bus.
Since the nineteenth century, wilderness travelers and polar explorers have documented what begins to happen to the human body under the conditions that McCandless had sought out. Jean Aspen, in Arctic Daughter, an account of the trials of living off the land in Alaska’s Brooks Range, describes the effects of the slow semi-starvation she and her boyfriend experienced in 1972 as they attempted to survive on a diet of lean meat, consuming fewer calories than their bodies were using: “We moved slowly, as if in a dream. It took a long time to get anything done. We were indecisive and spiritless—no longer able to think clearly, to act, to choose.”
The photographs McCandless took of himself during his last months clearly show his emaciation, and his apathetic response to the dilemma posed by the river suggests that his judgment, as well as his physical stamina, were impaired. After his death, it was pointed out that, had he explored even a few miles of the Teklanika, he might have found the functioning surveyor’s tram that crossed it by cable or a section where he might have been able to cross on foot.
In his last days, in August 1992, McCandless finally recognized his peril and dropped the grandiosity of his alias, placing a SOS note on the bus, pleading for help and signed with his real name. The autopsy indicated that he probably died on August 18, nineteen days before several different parties of hunters and hikers almost simultaneously happened upon the bus and discovered his body.
Krakauer suggests one likely reason for McCandless’s rejection of his family and his aimless wanderings. On his first cross-country trip, after graduating from high school, he had inadvertently discovered a skeleton in the family closet. Visiting old friends, he learned that at the time of his birth his father had been carrying on simultaneous relationships with his mother and with the woman who was still his wife, with whom he already had several children. Krakauer’s theory—that McCandless was furious with his parents for keeping such hurtful secrets—is plausible, but it’s not an entirely satisfactory explanation for his behavior. Many young people experience intense disillusionment with their families; few self-destruct quite as spectacularly as McCandless did.
But the biggest problem posed by Into the Wild is its thesis that Chris McCandless was like other famous seekers and mystics who set out into the wilderness in search of spiritual transcendence. McCandless displayed no notable talent as a writer or a thinker, yet Krakauer tries to identify him with many of the writers whose books he was obsessively reading and rereading—Jack London, Tolstoy, Thoreau. He expresses an almost protective defensiveness about McCandless; he calls him “the boy” and compares him to the naturalist John Muir and a young hiker and mystic named Everett Ruess, who was befriended by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and who eventually disappeared in the Escalante wilderness of southern Utah in the 1930s. He dismisses the suggestion that McCandless may have been deranged: “McCandless wasn’t mentally ill…. He wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.” Krakauer also identifies him with himself.
Two chapters of Into the Wild are taken, almost verbatim, from the last chapter of Krakauer’s first book, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains,* a collection of essays about outdoor adventures. (It may not be technically unethical to plagiarize oneself, but an editor I once worked with was fond of referring to this practice as “selling the same pup twice.”) Originally entitled “The Devils Thumb” and here retitled “The Stikine Ice Cap,” Krakauer’s tale of how, at the age of twenty-three, depressed and dissatisfied with his life, he tackled alone a climb so extreme and hazardous that he was lucky to live through it is powerful in its original setting but puzzling here. What inspired Krakauer to transfer it into his second book seems to have been his sense that McCandless was similarly adrift, at odds with his father, and driven to extreme acts. His denial of McCandless’s suicidal tendencies is particularly striking in view of his allusion to his own father’s breakdown and attempted suicide.
Krakauer, when he climbed the Devils Thumb, a tower of rock that rises six thousand vertical feet from a glacier near Petersburg, Alaska, was an experienced amateur mountain climber, well-provisioned and well-equipped. His pursuit of the Devils Thumb was perhaps foolhardy, but he was prepared to attempt it. Indeed, after a few misadventures, he succeeded. Chris McCandless, on the other hand, did just about everything he could to kill himself. Neither a visionary nor the heroic adventurer he wanted to be, McCandless was simply a sad, disturbed young man.
Krakauer describes the Alaskan bush where McCandless died as a “Gothic, overgrown landscape,” “malevolent,” “gloomy, claustrophobic, oppressive.” The same view of nature as a malign force set against a submissive seeker pervades Krakauer’s latest book, Into Thin Air. Here Krakauer’s passive pilgrim is himself, and the force of nature is embodied by a single entity, Mount Everest.
Since men began climbing Everest in the 1920s, some one hundred and fifty people have died on it, including, as Krakauer points out, many great mountain climbers. But during the climbing season of 1996, twelve climbers died, more than in any other season, and most of them were not professional climbers but amateurs and their guides. Their deaths ignited a frenzy of media attention and a firestorm of criticism from professional climbers; Sir Edmund Hillary himself claimed that he had been expecting just such a disaster since amateur climbers began ascending the mountain in ever-increasing numbers.
Debate immediately broke out on the Internet, on the same websites that had been following the progress of the climbers as they prepared to ascend the mountain. Nine days after the deadly storm of May 10, during which eight climbers were killed and another crippled by severe frostbite, The New York Times reprinted some of the comments that had been posted online—comments which expressed everything from admiration for the heroism of those who perished to outrage over the deliberate risks involved. One man wrote:
I am a farmer in eastern Montana and know little or nothing about climbing or mountaineering. I do, however, know quite a little about nature and weather. To defy -40o temperatures is not a sign of courage, it is blatant stupidity.
Another man defended the climbers on Everest, who “at least died doing something they loved; they knew the risks, as did their loved ones.”
One of the most outspoken critics of what happened on Everest was Jon Krakauer himself, who told the Times in an interview published two weeks after the debacle, “Yeah, made the summit of Everest—for whatever that’s worth.” He declared that he had no plans to write a book about what happened “because, with Into the Wild, he had already written that story.” But, of course, he had not. His new book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, is linked to its predecessor by its title and its preoccupations, but it is a very different book, presenting a far less romanticized view of man grappling with nature.
In March 1996 Krakauer was sent by Outside magazine to report on the “commercialization of Everest.” Krakauer joined a team led by Rob Hall, an experienced climber and guide from New Zealand, who waived most of his $65,000 fee in exchange for advertising for his company, Adventure Consultants, in Outside. All went more or less as planned until the day of the summit attempt. Krakauer reached the summit early in the afternoon, but others in Hall’s expedition, delayed by fatigue and cut off from each other, were caught high on the mountain by a violent storm. Hall himself, two of his clients, one of his guides, and several more people from other expeditions died.
Krakauer’s report, written only a few weeks after the disaster, appeared in Outside last September. It was an urgent and suspenseful first-person account of how a series of mistakes and miscalculations by both guides and clients on the day of the ascent unravelled all their planning and safety precautions. The disaster was covered by numerous magazines and television news shows—Vanity Fair, Time, Life, People, ABC’s “Turning Point,” and NBC’s “Dateline”—but Krakauer’s article, at 17,000 words, was by far the most comprehensive and convincing account. His anguish over his inability to do anything to save those who perished and over the loss of several climbers who had become friends, written with all the raw emotion of the moment, was deeply affecting. In Into Thin Air he has enlarged on the story.
In 1852, as a result of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, the mountain that became Everest was declared the highest in the world. It thus became the Third Pole, “the most coveted object in the realm of terrestrial exploration,” and it took a hundred-and-one years and twenty-four lives for men to reach the summit, including the life of George Leigh Mallory, the British climber who so famously declined to explain his motives for climbing Everest beyond saying, “Because it is there.” Mallory and his climbing partner, who amused themselves in their tent by reading aloud from Hamlet and King Lear, were last seen near the summit on June 8, 1924.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Everest and lived to tell about it in 1953. When news of the ascent reached England on the eve of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the coincidence was greeted, as Jan Morris wrote, with “almost mystical delight.” The feat of Hillary and Tenzing was thought to herald “a new Elizabethan age,” a renaissance of the British Empire. A decade later, Krakauer, growing up in Oregon, himself became obsessed with climbing Everest when Willi Unsoeld, a family friend, and Tom Hornbein became the first climbers to reach the summit by the West Ridge route. Krakauer was apparently not deterred by the fact that Unsoeld lost all his toes after he and Hornbein were forced to spend a night in the open at 28,000 feet, then the highest known bivouac anyone had ever survived. “Secretly,” Krakauer writes, “I dreamed of ascending Everest myself one day; for more than a decade it remained a burning ambition.”
But during his late twenties and thirties, Krakauer, by then a fanatically ambitious amateur climber, adopted the contempt for Everest affected by many climbers. Everest had been climbed too many times; it lacked “sufficient technical challenges”; it was a “slag heap,” big but boring. Still, when the editor of Outside called to ask if he would climb Everest and write about it, Krakauer—by now forty-one years old, happily married, and a successful writer—did not hesitate: “I said yes without even pausing to catch my breath.”
His journey last year from his home in Seattle to the Nepalese foothills landed him in the midst of the modern paradoxes posed by Everest. In years past, the so-called “roof of the world” has been treated like a garbage dump, littered with empty oxygen canisters, shredded tents, human feces, and corpses. In 1990, Rob Hall organized a cleanup operation that removed five tons of garbage from Base Camp. And in 1994, Scott Fischer, the flamboyant leader of a rival expedition from Seattle who had started his own company, Mountain Madness, had his team bring an additional five thousand pounds of trash down from the mountain. Still, the annual arrival of climbers has irrevocably brought development to Nepal, for better or worse, from deforestation caused by the high demand for firewood to hydroelectricity and medical clinics, paid for by international relief groups and supported by climbers.
Moreover, as Krakauer notes, the arrival of the first British climbing expedition in 1921 “sparked a transformation of Sherpa culture,” introducing hard currency and lethal hazards. While the Sherpas—who are a minority within Nepal—seem to welcome progress, the price they pay for it is steep. The Sherpas are indispensible to Everest expeditions, carrying tons of food, equipment, and oxygen at high altitude. They worship the mountain they call Sagarmatha, “goddess of the sky”; they can also be killed by it.
Krakauer saw their occupational hazards firsthand. Several weeks before the summit attempt, Ngawang Topche, a Sherpa working for Scott Fischer, exhibited signs of weakness and fatigue at Camp One and disobeyed Fischer’s order to descend to a safer altitude; Sherpas who acknowledge illness fear they won’t be hired on future expeditions. Soon Ngawang was delirious and coughing up blood, all signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema, an illness that causes the lungs to fill with fluid. Pulmonary edema is often fatal unless the victim is immediately evacuated to a lower altitude. Ngawang did not respond to drug treatment, and owing to Fischer’s inadequate planning there was a delay in bringing the Sherpa down the mountain and in hiring a helicopter to transport him to Kathmandu. Before reaching the hospital there, Ngawang stopped breathing at one point for more than four minutes; brain-damaged, he lingered for some weeks and died in June.
Life for everyone, even for the Sherpas who are better acclimated than virtually everyone else, is increasingly tenuous at high altitude. “There was no forgetting that we were more than three miles above sea level,” Krakauer writes of life at Base Camp. “Walking…left me wheezing for several minutes. If I sat up too quickly, my head reeled and vertigo set in. The deep, rasping cough…worsened day by day. Sleep became elusive, a common symptom of minor altitude illness.” Krakauer lost twenty pounds, developed crippling headaches, and coughed so violently that he tore thoracic cartilage; others experienced nausea and diarrhea, and “cuts and scrapes refused to heal.” Doug Hansen, a postal worker from Seattle who had unsuccessfully attempted to reach the summit of Everest with Rob Hall the previous year and had badly frostbitten his toes, rejoined Hall’s expedition in 1996 and, not long before the summit attempt, froze his larynx in the frigid air. One of Fischer’s clients came down with cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain that can lead to delirium, coma, and death; he was evacuated to a lower altitude and recovered.
The climbers in Hall’s expedition completed their acclimatization by making trial runs up to progressively higher camps, Camp One, at 19,500 feet, Two at 21,300, Three, at 24,000, and Four, at 26,000, the base from which the attempt at the summit is made. But these trips left them increasingly weakened by altitude sickness and injuries.
The discrepancies between the relatively luxurious life afforded the clients in Base Camp and the deadly nature of their undertaking is one of the strange elements of the story. Hall’s eight clients were served tea in their sleeping bags every morning by Sherpas; their mess tent contained a stereo system; they were served fresh vegetables and bread imported by yak. A satellite phone and fax machine were available in the “communications tent.” The camp for Fischer’s group was decorated with a promotional banner from Starbucks Coffee.
One of Fischer’s clients was Sandy Hill Pittman, a rich New York socialite for whom Everest represented the last of the seven summits (the highest peak on each continent) that she needed to conquer in order to complete her book, Summits of My Soul. She was filing daily accounts of the climb for NBC Interactive Media and brought with her to Base Camp, besides two IBM laptops and several cameras, tape recorders, a satellite telephone, coffee from Dean & DeLuca, and an espresso maker. She received regular deliveries of Vogue via DHL Worldwide Express. A Sherpa rolled her sleeping bag for her every morning.
While Hall and Fischer were experienced climbers, the character and behavior of some of the other expeditions at Base Camp that season raise the question of whether the Nepalese government should begin to issue permits to climbing parties on Everest according to their ability. (As Krakauer notes, this is unlikely to happen because of the Nepalese government’s need for hard currency.) A Taiwanese expedition included members who had required a hazardous high-altitude rescue on Mount McKinley the year before, including their leader, Gau Ming-Ho, who called himself “Makalu” Gau, after the peak near Everest. Reckless and seemingly without climbing expertise of any kind, the Taiwanese reached Camp Three at around the same time as Hall’s and Fischer’s expeditions did. Rob Hall had tried to arrange a summit schedule that staggered the various expeditions in order to avoid crowding, and the Taiwanese had agreed to it. But on May 10, when Hall’s group started for the summit, Gau and one of his teammates started too. And this was only hours after Gau had left another of his teammates, Chen Yu-Nan, who had fallen seventy feet down the vast ice slope of the Lhotse Face, to recover in a tent, only to learn later via radio that Chen had died. When he heard the news, Gau replied, “O.K. Thank you for the information,” and continued preparing to leave for the summit.
The leader of a South African expedition, Ian Woodall, refused to cooperate with Hall’s scheduling altogether, and would eventually become the center of a national scandal in South Africa when the Johannesburg Sunday Times, which was sponsoring his group, learned that he had told some extravagant lies about his mountaineering qualifications and military experience in the “Long Range Mountain Reconnaissance Unit” of the British army—which, as it turns out, does not exist. Hall feared that the incompetence and bizarre behavior of climbers such as Gau and Woodall potentially endangered everyone on Everest. Events would prove him right.
Krakauer describes climbing Everest as “a long, tedious process, more like a mammoth construction project than climbing as I’d previously known it,” and part of that process involves anchoring safety lines of rope to the ice. Climbers clip themselves to the fixed line by means of a safety tether harnessed to their bodies in order to provide some measure of stability on the steep, windy route to the summit. (This task has to be repeated every year, because storms, crevasses, and high winds inevitably bury, break, or sweep the lines away.) Hall attempted to negotiate an agreement whereby Sherpas and guides from his expedition, along with those from Fischer’s, Gau’s, and Woodall’s, would fix the lines, but the agreement collapsed when Gau and Woodall failed to keep up their end. The failure to fix the lines; the presence of three expeditions (Woodall’s remained behind) with some thirty-three climbers, many inexperienced, going for the summit at once; and the rancor between them were elements of the disaster waiting to happen on May 10. But there was at least one other crucial factor: competition.
Krakauer unravels the tangled ambitions and missteps that led to this worst season on Everest by focusing on the relationship between Hall and Fischer. Fischer was guiding a group on Everest for the first time and had himself reached the summit only once before. Hall had reached it four times previously. Krakauer points out that the high-profile presence of Pittman in Fischer’s camp as well as his own presence as a journalist in Hall’s raised the stakes for both lead guides, perhaps to the point where they began to sacrifice safety measures in their zeal to get celebrity clients on the summit who would boost their business in years to come. The words of Mo Anthoine, the climber profiled in A. Alvarez’s book Feeding the Rat, seem prophetic: “If there’s publicity involved, then it may be that the climbers who need it will ride roughshod over the others, and everything gets sacrificed to the summit.” In this case, the climbers who needed it the most were the organizers, who, indeed, sacrificed everything.
Hall’s, Fischer’s, and Gau’s teams all set out for the summit around midnight on May 10. Hall had repeatedly drummed it into his climbers that once they entered the so-called “Death Zone” above 25,000 feet, where bottled oxygen is necessary for most mortals just to maintain consciousness, they must adhere to a “turnaround time” early in the afternoon; climbers who reach the summit later in the day may run out of oxygen and fail to reach the relative safety of the tents of Camp Four before nightfall. Spending the night in the open at high altitude on Everest is nearly always fatal. But Hall was vague about whether he wanted his team to turn around at one or at two o’clock, and Fischer did not enforce a particular turnaround time.
By midmorning of that day, signs of trouble began to appear: Seaborn Beck Weathers, an American surgeon in Hall’s group, had to stop climbing because his eyesight was failing. Hall made Weathers promise to wait where he was until he himself returned from the summit. Some hours into the climb, other climbers in Hall’s group took him at his word; realizing that they could not reach the summit by early afternoon, they turned around and descended, passing Weathers en route, who, now nearly blind, remained stranded where Hall had left him. The last words Krakauer heard from Hall were, “I only wish we could have gotten more clients to the top.”
Relations among the Sherpas became strained. There had been bad blood between Ang Dorje, Hall’s head Sherpa, and Lopsang Jangbu, who served the same role for Fischer, since the year before; now they were feuding over who would fix the safety lines that had still not been secured high on the mountain before the clients reached them. At the South Summit, only a few hundred feet below the peak, Krakauer and several of the guides waited in a bottleneck for nearly an hour for the Sherpas to fix the lines; finally they fixed them themselves.
To make matters worse, Lopsang, one of the strongest, most experienced members of Fischer’s staff, had carried Sandy Hill Pittman’s satellite telephone up to Camp Four only the previous day (where the phone, as it turned out, didn’t work), and, on May 10, he spent a good portion of his time “short-roped” to Pittman, as he pulled her up the mountain. This left him exhausted; at one point, Krakauer saw Lopsang vomiting in the snow. Anatoli Boukreev, another of Fischer’s guides and a renowned Russian mountaineer, was climbing without bottled oxygen, questionable behavior for a guide, Krakauer says, since it made it impossible for him to stay with the slower clients; he had to descend rapidly in order to regain the tents before the effects of oxygen deprivation became debilitating.
Passing slower climbers, Krakauer himself reached the summit shortly after one in the afternoon, but not before running into several long lines of climbers spending precious time and oxygen backed up at the most difficult parts of the route, points where only a single climber can advance at a time. And the summit, when he reached it, did not inspire relief:
Plodding slowly up the last few steps to the summit, I had the sensation of being underwater, of life moving at quarter speed. And then I found myself atop a slender wedge of ice, adorned with a discarded oxygen cylinder and a battered aluminum survey pole, with nowhere higher to climb…. Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I’d coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.
Indeed, as Krakauer attempted to descend, he was forced to wait, panicking as his oxygen ran out, for over an hour in line before he could negotiate the Hillary Step, one of the most difficult technical portions of the route. It was in this frantic state that Krakauer had what would turn out to be a fateful encounter with one of Hall’s guides, Andy Harris, who had become a friend. Harris was standing over a pile of oxygen bottles, and when Krakauer desperately asked for a fresh bottle, Harris told him they were all empty. They were not, and Krakauer, himself hypoxic from lack of oxygen, did not suspect that Harris was suffering from delusion, owing to severe oxygen deprivation. As he continued his descent, Krakauer encountered another climber, whom he mistook for Harris, and only later did he realize that he had left Harris behind on the slope above.
Many of the others didn’t reach the peak until two or three o’clock, and Rob Hall, breaking his own rule, spent the precious late afternoon hours urging and finally half-dragging his client Doug Hansen up to the summit. For Hansen, who had climbed with Hall the year before and had failed to reach the summit, Hall had lowered his fee to entice him back, clearly feeling a special responsibility to help Hansen to the top this time. It was a fatal miscalculation. Hall and Hansen didn’t reach the summit until after four o’clock, and Hansen collapsed soon after, as he had done the year before. Hall refused to leave him. Then the storm enveloped them.
As darkness fell, the temperature plummeted, and the wind and blowing snow escalated to gale forces and whiteout conditions. Scott Fischer, who had shown signs of exhaustion all day and reached the summit late, at 3:40 PM, became delirious high on the mountain. Exhausted by his struggles with Pittman and her equipment, his lead Sherpa, Lopsang Jangbu, could not help him. He stayed with his boss for an hour, then descended, hoping to send another guide up to him. A group including Pittman, Beck Weathers, and Yasuko Namba, a Japanese woman in Hall’s group who hoped to become one of the first women from her country to complete the Seven Summits, became trapped, staggering about blindly, only yards away from the tents and from a sheer drop. Anatoli Boukreev, who ventured out during a lull in the storm, managed to save Pittman and another woman; Weathers and Namba were unconscious, the flesh on their hands and faces covered with ice. They were left for dead. Miraculously, Weathers staggered back to the tents late the next day, but was seriously maimed by frostbite, eventually losing his right hand, all the fingers on his left, and his nose.
Krakauer, sleeping exhausted in his tent, awoke the next morning to the grim news that Hall, Hansen, Harris, Fischer, Weathers, and Namba had never made it back to camp. Ian Woodall refused to lend his radio to call for help. Two Sherpas made an attempt to reach Hall but were turned back by the intense cold and wind; two others managed to reach Fischer and Makalu Gau, who had collapsed nearby. Gau was able to descend with help, but Fischer was near death: “Scott was still breathing, barely, but his eyes were fixed in their sockets, and his teeth were tightly clenched.” The Sherpas, who could carry only one man between them, were forced to leave him.
Hall was still alive near the summit. Anguished radio calls between Hall and climbers at Base Camp took place that surreal day, as they tried to talk him down the mountain, but he was too debilitated and frostbitten to move. Finally, Hall did talk by radio to his wife in New Zealand. She later told Krakauer, “My heart really sank when I heard his voice…. I knew what it could be like in bad weather. Rob and I had talked about the impossibility of being rescued from the summit ridge. As he himself had put it, ‘You might as well be on the moon.”’ His last words, at 6:20 PM that night, were to his wife: “Please don’t worry too much.”
Climbers from several other expeditions helped bring Weathers and Gau down to Camp Two the next day, and they were flown to safety in a dramatic high-altitude helicopter evacuation. The deaths of Fischer, Hall, and Hall’s guide and clients were not the only ones caused by that storm. In one of the most horrifying passages in the book, Krakauer describes how three members of an expedition of Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who were climbing from the Tibetan side of the mountain, were discovered half-frozen by a Japanese team who, in their lust to reach the summit, simply passed them by. One of the Japanese climbers blithely told a British journalist, “We didn’t know them. No, we didn’t give them any water. We didn’t talk to them. They had severe high-altitude sickness. They looked as if they were dangerous.” Another said, “Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality.”
Into Thin Air will undoubtedly take its place among the classic accounts of adventure and human endurance: Robert Falcon Scott’s diary; George Stewart’s account of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger; Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World; and Admiral Richard Byrd’s Alone, in which he recalls his experience of delirium and near-death while living in a hole carved out of the ice during the Antarctic winter. Krakauer understands the complex motives of those climbing Everest: pride, ambition, greed, self-glorification, recklessness, the desire for transcendence. He captures Hall and Fischer in all their moral ambiguity: simultane-ously heroic, self-sacrificing, and almost pathologically arrogant. Fischer boasted of having built a “Yellow Brick Road” to the top of Everest and, without telling his clients, was climbing with a liver ailment; it was Hall’s sympathy for Doug Hansen and his longing to reach the summit that, ironically, led to their deaths and, arguably, to the deaths of others in Hall’s group. But Krakauer derives no easy lessons from his own analysis of the tragedy:
To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.
Krakauer conveys the mysterious irrationality and nobility that drive people to search for self-transcendence in the mountains, “a triumph of desire over sensibility.” But as he predicted, insight has its limits. So far this year, seven climbers have already died on Everest. And Lopsang Jangbu was killed by an avalanche last September.
If there is one character in this story Krakauer doesn’t quite capture, however, it is himself. In much of his previous work, particularly in the essays collected in Eiger Dreams, his rueful, self-deprecatory tone has served him well. The ironic bemusement with which he has recounted his own and others’ mountain misadventures—setting his tent afire while stoned, failing to climb the North Face of the Eiger, failing to climb Mount McKinley—has brought humor and sophistication to a genre not previously known for those qualities. All of his work has been dedicated to exposing the absurd side of outdoor-adventuring, as well as its dark side, what he calls the “almost pornographic fascination” that wild, dangerous places hold for some people, including himself.
But in Into Thin Air, the self-deprecation becomes almost embittered as Krakauer veers from a calm assessment of others’ mistakes (Hall, Fischer, Boukreev, Lopsang) to an emotional condemnation of his own. He is generally a discerning and sympathetic judge of human character, but his portrayal of himself as a bumbler suggests an uneasiness with his own ambitions, both mountaineering and journalistic. He describes himself as “well past my climbing prime, with a graying beard, bad gums, and fifteen extra pounds around my midriff.” He describes his limbs “wither[ing] to sticklike proportions”; and his “inner voice” reminds him of “Chicken Little.” Yet his forays up and down the mountain were always successful; he was often the first to arrive at camp; he was among the strongest climbers who got to the Everest summit before two o’clock, thus saving himself from the perils that came later. Confessing his compulsive worries to Hall, Hall himself saw through his insecurities, telling him facetiously, “A few of the blokes who’ve summitted with me were nearly as pathetic as you.”
Krakauer quotes at length Beck Weathers’s televised comments on the “stress” and pressure that the presence of a journalist placed on Rob Hall and his other clients, and in the epilogue he reprints whole paragraphs of scathing letters he received after the Outside article was published, including one from Scott Fischer’s sister, excoriating him for being a “tattle tale” and causing “grief and anguish” to the surviving relatives of the dead.
Throughout the book, Krakauer conveys the queasy sense that he is somehow to blame for various aspects of the disaster, including his inability to recognize Andy Harris’s severe oxygen deprivation. Self-doubt and survivor’s guilt are the natural responses of a decent man to such a tragedy. But Krakauer shies away from his wife’s anguished attempt to make him acknowledge his darker impulses. “If you get killed,” he reports she told him, “it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay, too, you know, for the rest of my life. Doesn’t that matter to you?” It is a question he does not answer.
Each chapter of Into Thin Air begins with a long epigraph. Taken together, these comprise a virtual anthology of the writings of great mountain climbers or those who have thought about the siren song of risk: George Leigh Mallory, Eric Shipton, Thomas F. Hornbein, Reinhold Messner, Joseph Conrad. These add a depth of reflection to the book, and tend to make up for the fact that Krakauer, who seems most comfortable as a reporter, tends to shy away from contemplation. The passage from David Roberts’s Moments of Doubt explores some of the unattractive aspects of the adventurer’s psyche:
How much of the appeal of mountaineering lies in its simplification of interpersonal relationships, its reduction of friendship to smooth interaction (like war), its substitution of an Other (the mountain, the challenge) for the relationship itself? Behind a mystique of adventure, toughness, footloose vagabondage—all much needed antidotes to our culture’s built-in comfort and convenience—may lie a kind of adolescent refusal to take seriously aging, the frailty of others, interpersonal responsibility, weakness of all kinds, the slow and unspectacular course of life itself.
But the epigraph that seems most striking, especially in the aftermath of the Everest disaster, as members of the various expeditions have engaged in backbiting and name-calling, is drawn from Scott’s famous “Message to the Public,” written during the Antarctic storm that killed him and his companions.
For your own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.
This is the epigraph Krakauer chose for the chapter in which some of his doomed companions reach the summit of Everest. The very quaintness of such nineteenth-century concepts as duty to country, honor, and “the will of Providence” suggests that the pursuit of adventure in the late twentieth century is undertaken not so much for God or country as for self. At one point, Krakauer compares the endeavor to reach Everest to a spiritual quest. It “became an almost Calvinistic undertaking…. It struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.” Yet he also admits:
We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.
There is a similarity between Krakauer’s description of the summit of Mount Everest at the beginning of Into Thin Air and his earlier description, at the end of Eiger Dreams, of the summit of the Devils Thumb, in Alaska:
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care. [Into Thin Air]
Fittingly, the summit was a surreal, malevolent place, an improbably slender fan of rock and rime no wider than a filing cabinet. It did not encourage loitering. As I straddled the highest point, the north face fell away beneath my left boot for six thousand feet; beneath my right boot the south face dropped off for twenty-five hundred. I took some pictures to prove I’d been there and spent a few minutes trying to straighten a bent pick. Then I stood up, carefully turned around, and headed for home. [“The Devil’s Thumb,” in Eiger Dreams]
In both passages, there is little sense of terror, little triumph, only a vacuum, an emotional zero. He quotes the great Himalayan climber Reinhold Messner, to the same effect: “The longer I climb the less important the goal seems to me, the more indifferent I become to myself.” The attraction to this state of mind is perhaps apparent in Robert Falcon Scott’s last letter to his wife, in which he wrote of his tremendously painful and ultimately fatal journey, “How much better it has been than lounging about in too great comfort at home.” Such indifference toward life, which Krakauer has described in his books again and again, may be its own reward. But as Scott also wrote, in that same letter, “Oh, what a price to pay.”
1990, reprinted by Anchor, 1997.↩
1990, reprinted by Anchor, 1997.↩