Saturday, February 19, 2022

Review: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

** spoiler alert ** Apparently, I read this book 12 years ago. I know it impacted me when I read it but I didn’t write a review. The probable reason is that I was still processing it. Honestly, I have spent 12 years processing it and just reread it. It was a different experience. The last time I read this book I was fascinated by the science of altitude, acclimation, climbing strategies, wind velocity, and then the terrible tragedy. Admittedly, I had opinions about many of the climbers and they weren’t always good. I accepted Krakauer’s report of what happened as the truth. The end.

This time around I viewed every climber with more compassion and humanity. I also noticed that Krakauer did not judge harshly. He merely reported what he remembered. He is a reporter AND a mountain climber. He didn’t dissect their characters, but I think I was still looking for a smoking gun, so to speak. Someone that bore responsibility for the tragedy that day. This time around, I viewed every climber with compassion and recognized that there is no smoking gun. There were at least a couple dozen contributing factors, but nothing and nobody caused that tragedy. And everybody and everything contributed to it.

I live at 4500 ft. above sea level. I spend a week every year at a lake at 6000 ft. We have a cabin at about 8000 ft. I think I will also add that, even given this altitude, I suffer from a genetic condition where I have too many red blood cells. Im sleepy the first few days at the lake. I can’t seem to take a full breath at the cabin and I can’t sleep. I am very aware of the altitude, particularly at the cabin. My son gets altitude sickness with a headache and throws up. He doesn’t enjoy the cabin quite as much. We would adapt if we lived there year round. Mount Everest is over 29000 ft. above sea level. They acclimate for some of the altitude, but the energy it takes to breathe thin air and stay warm is not sustainable. What happened is the climbers bodies used up all of their fat and started consuming the muscle. Then bran cells die without adequate oxygen.

As they climbed and the air thinned, their bodies were pushed to the limit but they took 6 weeks on the mountain before the summit. There are four camps. They moved freely between base camp and camp 2, adding camp 3 at the end. Camp 4 and the summit are above 27000 feet. That’s how high airplanes fly. The oxygen is so thin that it is called The Death Zone. Life is not sustainable no matter how prepared a climber is. The body consumes itself, it can’t stay warm, and above all, brain cells die. Every single climber is cognitively impaired. I could not read this book this time around without the fact at the forefront of my mind. It seemed that nobody possessed the cognitive ability at that altitude to make lucid decisions. Or even have clear thoughts. They are confused, may start hallucinating, even lack the ability to fully enjoy the view from the top of the world. I can’t imagine that kind of cognitive impairment, on a technical mountain at that altitude when a blizzard blows in.

This time reading I was most impacted with Krakauer as he returned to base camp and afterward. The sudden clarity as oxygen reached his brain and realization of what happened up there. It would be an impossible event to process. He pieced together the events by using his memory as a guide but gathering information from others. His account is not a complete story. But the aftermath is very real. He wrote this book as a way to process the experience but admitted it merely scratched the surface. Still, it is the most comprehensive book written on the 1996 Everest tragedy. I came away with a greater appreciation for Krakauer’s attempt to reconstruct what happened, mostly on May 10 and 11. There were survivors that are forever scarred (physically and emotionally) who barely made it out alive. Out of oxygen and completely exhausted, they couldn’t help with a possible rescue. There were some heroics but no heroes. There were mistakes but no villains. They were climbers uniting to summit Everest. They all have stories to tell. Krakauer gives as comprehensive report as he could. I read another that was pretty incredible from the group but the writing isn’t as good.

This book stays with you.

1 comment:

Harvee said...

Really enjoyed thie book.