Into Thin Air

Why did Jon Krakauer feel compelled to publish a book over 300 pages long after writing an extensive article about the Everest disaster for Outside magazine?

After witnessing the 1996 Everest spring disaster in which twelve climbers eventually perished, Jon Krakauer felt compelled to recount the tragedy as it had unfolded. Into Thin Air chronicles the travels of the Adventure Consultants expedition, the team to which Krakauer belonged, that was led by Kiwi Rob Hall. After spending over a month living in close quarters atop of the world, Krakauer grew attached to Hall, his teammates, as well as other climbers from different expeditions, particularly those of Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team. When disaster struck in early May, leaving nine of Krakauer’s friends and fellow adventurers dead, Krakauer was devastated—he felt partially responsible for the lives of those lost. Krakauer’s guilt was compounded months later when he realized that he had inaccurately reported the death of guide Andy Harris. Confused and scarred by the experience, he decided to document the calamity in Into Thin Air, a book based on information from his experience and journalistic research, with the goal of imparting the lessons that he believes need to be learned in the tragedy’s aftermath.

What does Jon Krakauer want his audience to learn from Into Thin Air?

While some view Into Thin Air only as a thrilling tale of adventure and death, Krakauer advocates for awareness of the increasing dangers unique to Mount Everest and as well as investigate the inherent risks of mountain climbing. Krakauer was originally sent to Everest to write an article for Outside magazine examining the issues of an increasingly crowded and commercial experience on Mount Everest. He explains that climbing has long held a fascination for some people, and admits, “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire of sensibility.” However, scaling mountains 20,000 feet mountains was once an adventure available to only the most credentialed climbers. As climbing techniques have significantly improved, Everest has become home to enterprises that offer to guide people to the summit for a hefty fee. Many of the clients, though, are not qualified to climb Everest, and become liabilities on everyone else on the mountain. Krakauer explains that climbing teams rely on one another to mark paths and install ropes and ladders throughout the mountain; failure to do so by one team may place another team in jeopardy. Not only do commercial expeditions plague the slopes of Everest with inexperienced climbers, but as Krakauer experiences, there are also national expeditions such as the Taiwanese and South African teams that are led by unseasoned or dangerously egomaniacal individuals. Thus, while Krakauer acknowledges that climbing will always be a risky undertaking, he argues that the number of unqualified climbers on Everest generated unnecessary risks that lead to the death of twelve climbers in the spring of 1996. Krakauer concludes, “Everest seems to have poisoned many lives,” and will continue to do so unless there are more regulations on the mountain.

What kind of style does Jon Krakauer use to write Into Thin Air?

To render mountain climbing and “the Everest experience” more comprehensible to his readers, Krakauer provides a plethora of background information that includes: explanations of the history of Everest and its early conquerors, climbing techniques, and logistical information regarding the climbers on his team as well as those from other expeditions. Krakauer weaves in these bits of information in his paragraphs and uses footnotes as well. Largely colloquial in tone, Krakauer relies heavily on imagery in order to accurately depict the Himalayas in print. He brings the realities of the expedition to life, sparing no descriptions of the feces and sickness that plague the various camps. However, Krakauer’s main strategy takes shape in his scheme that he uses to climax the drama that took place on the upper reaches of the mountain. As he chronicles his journey from India all the way to his return to base camp after summiting, Krakauer’s tone and diction reflects his evolving sentiments throughout his journey. For example, the tone of the early chapters is one of excitement and anxiety, which quickly turns into fades into exhaustion and discomfort as he realizes the magnanimity of the task before him. By briefly documenting his summiting of Everest in chapter one, Krakauer sets an underlying sense of foreboding throughout the entire book that climaxes as the tragedy unfolds.