"Into Thin Air: A personal account of the Everest disaster"
by John Krauker
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 30th October 2014Jon Krauker's account of the 1996 Everest Disaster (in which 8 people from two commercial expeditions died) is both compelling and tragic. A member of one of the expeditions caught in the blizzard which claimed the climbers' lives, Krauker was at the time a journalist on assignment from "Outside" magazine to cover the summit attempt and so witnessed many of the events first-hand. However as he freely admits, piecing together the full story will always be impossible: the victims - a number of whom made key decisions on the day - are unable to give any account, and the survivors disagree on many crucial details. Aside from the frailties of human memory, this is also due to the effects of low oxygen levels that climbers experience for extended periods when ascending to the top of Everest (the "thin air" of the book's title): deprived of sufficient oxygen, a person becomes rapidly fatigued, and both memory and decision-making abilities can become severely impaired.
To a great extent it appears from the version of events presented in the book (based on interviews and other information, as well as his own experiences) it appears that the magnitude of the disaster was largely the result of bad luck: the sum of a number of poor but relatively minor decisions all conspiring to make the climbers vulnerable to the freak blizzard that engulfed them. Without an obvious cause, no single decision or person to blame, it seems that Krauker struggled to make sense of his experience - and that he survived when others perished, compounded by the fact that retrospectively he finds himself wondering if he could have done more to help others caught in the storm after he returned from the summit.
It's a difficult question to answer and as Krauker suggests, those on the outside should perhaps reserve judgement. As he says, climbing Everest is inherently a dangerous thing to do for many reasons, and when climbers get into trouble it can create situations in which questions of morality or ethics meet some harsh realities (one of the most difficult things to read are the descriptions of decisions about whether to try and rescue the still-living but severely ill climbers, or leave them to die - and the slopes of Everest are littered with people who have died). Krauker talks about how the commercial nature of the expeditions, which brings different pressures and distorting factors to relationships (for example between guides and clients, and between clients - who are no longer really a "team", each client has paid to get themselves to ) might affect the decisions made and the risks taken. And of course the effects of the thin air probably had an effect on the judgement of otherwise extremely experienced and competent climbers.
As compelling as it was, as a reader I felt a sense of sadness at the end of this book, for both the survivors and the victims - but also a feeling of a lack of closure to the events. Sixteen years after the publication of this edition one wonders whether Krauker has made peace with his experiences, which seemed to elude him at the time of writing.