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Throughout history, people have always dreamed of standing on top of the world to look down on everyone, to feel a sense of power and accomplishment above everyone else. Those who climb mountains take this adventure to the physical extreme and push their bodies to the limit for a singular moment of ecstasy at the top. This is exactly the moment that Jon Krakauer dreams of, but it is also the moment that almost killed him. In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer describes what really happened on his journey to the top of the world. Although he had written an article about the Mount Everest disaster a year prior to the publishing of this book, it was soon discovered that many minor facts were inaccurate and ultimately, further harmed the family of one of the deceased climbers. Through his retelling of his original story published in Outside, Jon Krakauer warns daredevils or outdoorsy people about how in the battle between Mount Everest and mankind’s ego, Everest will always win. As Krakauer does this, he also points out the fact that commercializing Everest impedes on the safety of the climbers by encouraging competition between guides which leads them to make rash decisions.
Krakauer starts off the book by describing the climax of the story, from his perspective only, which is when he reaches the top of the mountain and sees a giant storm heading his way. He realizes what is coming and foreshadows the events to come. “None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter”. This first chapter draws the reader in and makes them wonder what happens at the end. The lack of details in this chapter also gives the reader room to imagine how a “blanket of clouds,” turned into one of the worst storms on Everest. In addition to the beginning of the climax, Krakauer gives a brief history of the area around Everest and the mountain itself. This gives readers an idea of what was going on during that time period so that they could form their own opinions about what happened on the day of the storm. Many bad decisions were made during that day because of the political circumstances during that time. Without this background information, Krakauer would seem very biased when describing the dangers that climbing Everest holds during the process.
Throughout the book, Krakauer divides each chapter by altitude, and when he starts his journey from the bottom, he begins to divide the chapters by camps along the mountain. He begins his journey at Everest base camp at 17,600 feet and he goes up until he reaches the summit at 29,028 feet. These chapters mark his progress during the book, and the whole group typically spends a couple of weeks at each camp to acclimate to the new altitude. As Krakauer and his group climbs to the summit it becomes clearer that the higher people move up, the more people die. The first death happened in chapter eleven and after that, death lost its effect on the climbers’ minds. Whether the cause of death is from an acclimation sickness, by accident, or even the storm, as the group moves further up they all become weaker and sicker. At the summit one of the climbers, Beck, who had undergone major eye surgery, lost almost all of his eyesight during the climb. “The higher he climbed, the lower the barometric pressure fell, and the worse his vision became”. Nevertheless, he continued to tell himself that he was fine and could make it to the top, and by the time he made it down, several of his limbs had severe frostbite and had to be amputated. When people are so close to the top it is hard for them to turn back and they convince themselves they can make it. Even if they reach the top, there is no guarantee that they will make it back down to tell others, and that is where hubris comes into play. People forget to look at the risks when climbing Everest, especially at the top, and in the end, it ends up getting them killed.
As he is writing, Krakauer tends to follow a typical disaster pattern where the book moves from bad to better, to worse. First, Krakauer describes the difficult journey to the top of the summit where they faced many challenges and had to overcome unexpected obstacles like broken lines and frozen gear, but when they reached the top, the group felt a sense of accomplishment and success. “They had climbed Mount Everest. It had been a little sketchy there for a while, but in the end everything turned out great”. It was not until they started to descend that the storm that would take the lives of eight people started to come in. Krakauer had felt safe during that short duration of time. “It would be many hours before he learned that everything had not in fact turned out great–that nineteen men and women were stranded up on the mountain by the storm, caught in a desperate struggle for their lives”. This furthers Krakauer’s argument by showing how he got cocky and felt safe on the most dangerous mountaineering expedition on earth. This false sense of security as well as exhaustion and oxygen depletion led to a string of bad decisions. Krakauer’s self-confidence led him to believe that getting down would be fine but he was sorely mistaken. In addition to this disaster pattern, Krakauer uses multiple time jumps throughout these chapters to mirror Krakauer’s confusion and the chaotic events that took place during the whole expedition.
If it weren’t for Krakauer’s journalistic capabilities he would not have had the chance to go on this trip in the first place. The first part of the book reflects his investigative style of writing, but as the story goes on, Krakauer becomes more involved and starts to insert his own opinions about the expedition. Only facts were stated in the first few chapters which gave readers a chance to form their own opinion. For example, Krakauer gave a backstory of his guide, Robert Hall, who came from a Catholic middle-class family and had previous success with climbing Everest. “It required ten years and three attempts, but in May 1990, Hall finally reached the summit of Everest as the leader of an expedition that included Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund”. This fact establishes Hall’s credibility and success, and also gives the reader a chance to form his/her own opinion of Hall before his writing becomes more subjective. This same style of writing continues until he reaches the base of the mountain which gives the reader an unbiased view of the expedition before Krakauer inserts his own opinions and arguments.
This objective style of writing is shown throughout the beginning of the book, but as he becomes more involved, Krakauer begins to insert his own opinions, particularly about the other people he climbed with. “Take Beck Weathers, for instance…My first impression of Beck had not been favorable: a backslapping Dallas pathologist with less-than-mediocre mountaineering skills…Yet the better I got to know him, the more he earned my respect”. His opinions gave readers an idea about how Krakauer felt during the duration of the trip and it gives a firsthand view of what Krakauer is like. He is not just some bonehead who just decided to climb Everest one day. He had prior climbing experience and his views of other people as climbers give readers an idea of the type of people who go on this trip. Additionally, Krakauer showed little emotion during the chaos. Even when he saw a dead body for the first time, Krakauer did not think twice about it. That is, until he was safe on the ground. “Safe now, the crushing strain of the preceding days lifted from my shoulders, I cried for my lost companions, I cried because I was grateful to be alive, I cried because I felt terrible for having survived while others died”. His lack of emotion until the very end emphasizes the danger and the toll Everest takes on people. While he was on the mountain, Krakauer was void of all emotions because there was no time for him to grieve which he would not have been able to do if he was dead.
Because of the seriousness of this event and the effect it has had on the author, Krakauer is very blunt in his writing. He tells the readers exactly how it happened and does not beat around the bush, especially when it came to injuries or death. “Over the preceding six weeks there had been several serious accidents,” somebody fell into a crevasse, another had a heart attack, and one even came down with a serious case of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and continued to deteriorate until he died. Krakauer was not one to sugarcoat events, even when there were dead bodies found on the mountain. “Few of the climbers trudging by had given either corpse more than a passing glance. It was as if there were an unspoken agreement on the mountain to pretend that these desiccated remains weren’t real”. The directness in Krakauer’s writing makes his point about the dangers of Everest very clear. The actual sight of a dead body made both Krakauer and the readers realize how consequential this event was to him and all of the other climbers who were on this trip. This type of writing is Krakauer’s attempt to scare the reader and discourage them from thinking about attempting the dangerous climb. Unfortunately, these two corpses would not be the only dead bodies that Krakauer would see during his time on Everest.
For every event that takes place Krakauer is sure to have the right dates and times in addition to the altitude which marks each camp along the mountain (from base camp to camp 4). Before each chapter the location, altitude, time, and date are stated as a way for the reader to keep track of each event as Krakauer moves chronologically through the story. Within the course of sixteen hours, the storm at the top of the mountain had reached its maximum strength. This shows how quickly the storm progressed from innocent looking clouds into “…a full-scale blizzard with driving snow and winds gusting in excess of 60 knots…”. In the case of life or death, every minute is precious and worth something. Krakauer’s precise times made it evident to the reader that this storm was not something that could easily be seen or escaped from.
In addition to Krakauer’s specific times, he also give a whole history of the mountain and the countries surrounding the mountain, Tibet and China, as evidence to show the negative impacts commercialization has had on the areas surrounding Everest. Soon after Everest was conquered for the first time by two climbers, the expeditions continued and started to stir up some concerns. “The government of Nepal recognized that these throngs flocking to Everest created serious problems in terms of safety, aesthetics, and impact to the environment”. In order to solve this problem Nepal started charging thousands of dollars to anyone who wanted to climb Everest in the spring of 1996, but what Nepal did not take into consideration was that China would charge less money for a climbing permit. The tension between the two countries dramatically increased, and the debate over the commercialization of Everest became more necessary. This history gave background information to readers which would make them understand why Krakauer was being offered the chance to climb Everest and why the climb was becoming more popular. The expensive permits reserved the way for egotistical, rich people to climb Mount Everest as it became a more common expedition for people who wanted to say that they actually accomplished something during their lifetime.
Not only was the marketing of Everest growing but so was the competition between the two countries. The growing competition allowed for only the more rich and ambitious people to climb Everest, and all they needed was a guide who was willing to push them through one of the hardest expeditions mankind can go on. The competition between guides for money also increased because each guide must demonstrate that he is more likely to get a person up and down the mountain safely. This ultimately led to many poor decisions being made. The pressure on the guides to succeed often clouded their judgment, mainly with the people they took on the climbs. Many of the climbers had very limited mountaineering experience, and yet they still went, which not only endangered them, but it also endangered the rest of the team. These climbers’ overconfidence and big egos were what got some of them killed. Too much faith was put into the stressed guides because the climbers thought these guides were the best that money could buy since they had the highest success rate.
This book originally started as a story about the commercialization of Everest, which was already a controversial topic, stirred up even more feelings after it was released. In the epilogue, Jon Krakauer chooses to include some of the letters he received after the initial release of the book and acknowledges his own faults during the expedition. One of the deceased guide’s sister wrote him saying, “Perhaps catch a glimpse of what you are doing by seeming to KNOW EVERYTHING…What I am reading is YOUR OWN ego frantically struggling to make sense out of what happened”. By including this in the book, Krakauer is indirectly admitting to his own faults and the role that his and everybody else’s ego had during the expedition. When mankind’s ambition becomes too great in the face of nature, nature is always going to win, no matter what, and that was the hard lesson that Krakauer learned during his time on the mountain.
The same letter also appeals to the reader’s feelings of guilt. Guilt has proven to be a universal feeling that everyone has felt at some point. In Krakauer’s case, he had survivor’s guilt and it tore him apart after the tragedy happened. During the day of the storm, his failure to act killed a person on his team. “…whileYasuko Namba lay dying…he was a mere 350 yards away, huddled inside a tent, oblivious to her struggle, concerned only with his own safety”. Many bad decisions were made and it showed, but Krakauer’s worst decision he ever made was deciding to go on the trip in the first place. If he didn’t go on the expedition he wouldn’t have received all of the backlash and emotional distress; nevertheless, his ego got in the way and he decided to go anyway. The guilt and remorse that Krakauer felt after this trip made it easier for readers to understand the toll this trip took on him. When he explains his feelings at the end, it makes people think back to a time where they regretted or felt guilty about something and show sympathy towards him.
In the end, Krakauer expresses his feelings of guilt and remorse, but to keep the reader engaged, Krakauer also appeals to the readers’ adventurous side. The entire book is based on this one adventure that has many twists and turns. The reader is constantly engaged and wonders what is going to happen next and which person is going to live or die. Krakauer appeals to people’s sense of adventure and their longing to escape from their world. According to Krakauer, “I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end”. This sense of adventure and wanting to experience something new was the whole reason Krakauer decided to go on this expedition. Especially to the thrill-seeking, adventurous people, Krakauer’s ambition seemed very relatable. To do what was once thought to be impossible will always be an adventure in of itself and that’s what Krakauer relies on to keep the reader engaged and on their toes.
It has always been mankind’s instinct to push the boundaries and go where no one else has gone before. Without that instinct, people would not have made any progress to get to the point where society is today, but that same instinct can also be mankind’s enemy. Jon Krakauer has traveled to many different parts of the world, but the one trip he has regretted taking was climbing Everest. Every day, people lose their lives because they want to show off and boast to others about their accomplishments. Everest is just one example where people push their bodies to the limits at the most vulnerable place on earth, at the top of the world. In the end, nature will always prevail over any one man, and any person who forgets that will regret it until their very last breath.