A couple of years ago, I was waiting for a bus to work on a sleepy Saturday morning, enjoying my usual people-watching schadenfreude on the UT campus. (Apparently, 7:45 A.M. is the customary time for the inevitable Walk of Shame back to one's apartment after a night of debauchery. There were dozens of raccoon-faced, scantily-clad undergrads slouching and stumbling home every weekend. This one was no exception.) As I stood up to catch my bus, I turned to ensure that I wasn't leaving anything behind before boarding, and noticed a book lying there on the bench. It wasn't mine, but I picked it up to give to the driver, so it could be taken to the Lost and Found in case the owner was seeking it. The driver told me basically to shove off, and to just leave it there, which I couldn't bear to do with rain clouds threatening, so I stuck it in my bag to return to that bench later on. The title was Into Thin Air, by a name I recognized -- Jon Krakauer. You may recall his accounting of Chris McCandless' ultimately fatal journey into the unsettled Alaskan backcountry, which bears a film of the same name -- Into The Wild.
Since that workday was interminably slow, I decided to go ahead and read the book before returning it to its previous resting place. The cover heralded the book as "A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster", which to me meant that Krakauer had interviewed the person(s) who were on that particular expedition. I was stunned to discover that this so-called personal account was exactly that -- his own retelling of his team's disastrous trip to the summit of Everest. Upon that discovery, I fell straight into the rabbit hole, emerging hours later shocked and horrified to my core with the terrors his group had experienced on that fateful trek.
The book begins by giving a small excerpt of the apex of Krakauer's journey, then proceeds to chronicle the history of Everest voyages -- from Sir Edmund Hillary to George Leigh Mallory, and of the Nepalese government's extreme reluctance to allow anyone to climb the mountain in the first place. As with most things worth doing, making the summit of Everest is not a thing lightly undertaken or easily done. There was much in the way of backstory regarding Krakauer being chosen for an expedition at all, and of the planning that had to be undertaken in preparation of such an excursion. He was an avid climber in the years preceding the Everest expedition, and was excited to have been selected for this trip. There were narratives about the trip to Nepal, of the mixed feelings from being at the height of the summit inside the aircraft while flying through the Himalayas, and of meeting up with his fellow climbers and the Sherpa crew that would be accompanying him to the top. There were stories of their trip to the base camp at the foot of Everest, and of the journey to each of the camps that followed. Air grew thin, suffering began from altitude sickness, climbers began requiring extensive oxygenation between camps. Murphy's Law was in full effect for these ill-fated climbers, though they were not yet aware of just how perilous their journey was about to become. A multitude of factors that alone would have been manageable and minuscule, combined to engender a dangerous and essentially catastrophic turn of events. It cost the lives of many in their group, and none who survived were ever the same again.
By failing to properly respect the dangers that an Everest climb could trigger, the expedition was bound to run into trouble before the end. But it was a freak storm that developed suddenly as their party approached the summit that was the ultimate factor in their calamitous outcome. Visibility reduced to nothing, while climbers were scrambling to make it back to camp, resulted in many disappearances that have remained missing to this day. Several members of the group were discovered having frozen to death while trying to find their way back to safety, while others who made it back were suffering from extreme cases of frostbite and worse. Communications were disabled due to the extreme weather, making it impossible to have anyone removed to safety via helicopter. It truly became a clusterfuck of massive proportions.
After those who survived were safely off the mountain, and climbers began journeying home, the tone shifted into the melancholy. Krakauer suffered tremendous guilt for his perceived faults in several of the deaths on the mountain, and his accounts of these thoughts were utterly heartbreaking. Reading about widowed spouses and fiancees, along with the grief of various family members and friends, was gutting. I found myself in tears for more than one passage.
Overall, the book is hard to review in any concrete sense. The things that you'll read in this story have to be experienced in the imagination firsthand, rather than through an impartial reviewer's lens. To attempt to convey Krakauer's masterpiece myself would be to do it and those who are its subjects a grave disservice. I give as vague an outline as I can muster out of respect to his own storytelling. I can't recommend this book highly enough, though I will caution that the reading of such a thing will leave you changed irreparably. It is brilliant and devastating all at once.