Nonfiction Nagging- Everest: Adventure, Commercialization, and Risk

I think I may have been the last person alive to have read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer- if not, than you are, and that problem needs to be rectified immediately. This was an amazing book, controversy and the author's afterward aside. For those not familiar (so one whole person), this book is about the Mount Everest Tragedy of 1996, in which 8 people died when a sudden storm hit. Jon Krakauer, the author, was commissioned by Outside Magazine to climb the summit and write a piece on the over-commercialization of the area. He, along with a team of other climbers and and three expert guides (and several experienced Sherpas) traveled to the base camp and began the process of acclimating to the altitude (a dangerous process in and of itself; most of the climbers would eventually use bottled oxygen for the final accent. On May 10, 1996 the group, along with several other ones made their final climb from camp 3 to the top, an ultimate peak of 29,029 feet (perspective- I hiked Half Dome, a mere 8,836 feet, and it kicked my ass). When the storm hit many of the climbers (some of which inexperienced, just wealthy enough to pay the $50,000+ price tag) were behind the prescribed pace. Already exhausted from even getting that far, they were left freezing and without adequate oxygen supplies (and not tired as in "this is was a long week tired," but tired as in "I have lost 15 pounds of muscle mass, I'm perpetually freezing, and my brain cells are dying from lack of oxygen" tired). While many managed to make it back to camp, 8 ended up dying, including Rob Hall.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story, besides the pure adventure and the devestation, was the issue of the mountain being commercialized. If you have the money to pay a guide you can go, resulting it various guide companies popping up to take advantage. This is obviously a safety issue, but the Chinese and Nepalese governments, who charge a fortune for Everest permits, aren't about to stop them. Another huge issue is the trash that has accumulated on the mountain; until the last few decades air canisters, human waste, and non-biodegradable trash has just sat there (see picture). In recent years legitimate guide companies have worked to clean up the mountain and even some corporations, such as Nike, have sponsored efforts with the Sherpas (Nike paid the Sherpas for each air canister they removed). I've been bitching and moaning lately about how hard it is to get a Half Dome permit (I really want to hike it again this summer), but know that national parks in the US and around the world must take precautions to preserve the environment and our impact on in.

The idea of risk is also extremely relevant to this book- how far is too far and should anyone step in to prevent adrenaline junkies from getting their jollies? Into Thin Air does touch on the im
pact that risky climbing has on families- marriages are often destroyed, finances are jeopardized (not a cheap hobby), and then the psychological trauma when a death occurs. But, on the other hand, there are some risks worth taking, and to some, climbing to the highest peak in the world may be one of them. You can't live life sitting on the couch or staying close to home. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn't do something? For many of the climbers and guides climbing Mount Everest has been a lifelong dream. Personally, I'd love to say I'd like to climb Everest, but I know my physical limitations; my asthma would definitely not appreciate the altitude and I seriously doubt my ability to successfully maneuver and ice pick (not to mention the lack of funds). So, instead I'll sky dive. Maybe.

The one issue I had was the ending; an afterward was added from the author to later versions rebutting guide Anatoli Boukreev's published version of the events, refuting some of the things that Krakauer wrote about. Apparently there was quite the controversy after Into Thin Air and and Boukreev's The Climb came out; the media got involved, as did the translator for Boukreev's text, and it got nasty. Not really knowing that this was going to be addressed, I started reading and must say I really preferred the ending of the adventure story, rather than the "he said/I said" crap at the end. I understand Krakauer's need to set the record straight, but I could have done without.

Definitely read it- it's very quick and incredibly interesting. It's actually very well-written, which isn't always the case with non-fiction. And apparently the IMAX movie (their crew was up there the same time, but hadn't started the final accent when the storm it) is great, too.


  1. I've never met a Krakauer book I haven't liked. I highly recommend his 'Under the Banner of Heaven'. IMAX has two notable movies about Everest: the one your referenced called simply 'Everest', and the more recent one 'The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest'. Both of them are well worth searching out.

    Krakauer likes to address issues people have taken with non-fiction that he's written. It's both something I admire about him and something that drives me bonkers. He will admit when he's wrong and explain when things aren't clear with an afterward, but sometimes it just feels like he's George-Lucas-ing the book after it's been printed. Just let it be the way it went to print!

  2. I LOVE Into Thin Air! I read it only a few months ago, and I already want to read it again. I know some people are 'eh' toward nonfiction, but this book is so worth the read.

    The afterward didn't bother me. Mostly because I found the confusion/drama/controversy very interesting. I'd be interested to read some of the books written by the other survivors to compare perspectives.*

  3. Melanie here! I enjoyed this piece, please email me--I have a question about your blog. MelanieLBowen[at]gmail[dot]com

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