The greatest compliment I can pay this book is to briefly retell how I came to read it. At a bookstore, one often finds his time spent shelving books. I was shoving spines into the Sports & Adventure section, where my fingers happened to stop at Into Thin Air. I remembered reading the book in middle school, checking it out from the school library and finding it immensely enjoyable. Years later I would read Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which stands as one of my favorite books ever. I found myself struck by the idea that my younger self may very well have underappreciated Into Thin Air, so I took the copy back with me to the register and proceeded to read the first pages at a slow moment during my shift.
Cut to four days later. I’ve finished the thing. I’ve read it every spare moment I could find, and even in some moments that were perhaps not so spare. Krakauer’s ability to tell a story is top-notch, and one as objectively compelling as a disaster atopMt.Everestisn’t going to need much to capture most readers’ attention. When you couple it with an amazing writer, whose role isn’t just as an after-the-fact researcher but as a member of the fateful expedition, you’ve got the literary equivalent of an alchemist’s gold.
Like many extreme adventure narratives, the book’s strongest moments rest on the moral dilemmas and split-second decisions people are forced into when unforeseen complications arise. Krakauer willing admits his failures to prevent several deaths, and also calls into question the accuracy of facts when all witnesses were oxygen-deprived, delirious for lack of sleep and in the midst of a snowstorm atop a mountain. The author repeatedly emphasizes his efforts to report everything to the best of his ability, and a length afterword deals with the fall-out of how certain events are portrayed in the course of his book.
Into Thin Air is the scariest book I think I’ve ever read, if only because it a) really happened and b) really happened to people who all chose to subject themselves to their eventual fates. By this I mean that if I had read a book about Hurricane Katrina, unquestionably a horrifying experience and certainly another event that really happened, one could, for the most part, safely say that most of the people affected did not invite Katrina to happen to them. However, the two teams that are the focus of Into Thin Air not only chose to climb Mt. Everest when no one required it, but paid mightily for the privilege to do so. To find yourself freezing to death, your brain succumbing to hypoxia in the desolate and frigid wasteland that is the upper-portion of Everest, must truly be the worst feeling imaginable.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I often opt for hyperbole when I read a book I like (“Best nonfiction book of the last decade”, “Not sure I’ve ever read anything better”) but I mean it when I say there isn’t a reader out there who wouldn’t get hooked into this narrative from the get-go. My only complaint is that Krakauer had to publish Into Thin Air the same year Guns, Germs and Steel hit the shelves, and thus deny himself what surely would’ve been a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.