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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

The morbidity of tragedy doesn't diminish its astounding nature, particularly if it is well-documented. Its like witnessing a gory accident - our mind instructs us to stop looking into details but curiosity is hard to abate, much to our own extreme discomfort. I am not uninitiated to the topic of the Everest, and more specifically, the darker aspect of it, having read a few accounts of George Leigh Mallory - who remains a quaint personal inspiration. Irrespective to the same, high altitude tragedies do not seem to blunt the pang I feel - several thousand feet vertically below the scene of action - for the men and women up the slopes. And what men and women they are...

Into Thin Air is no mean feat. Of course, being based on the painful spring of 1996, when the majestic mountain claimed the highest toll since foot was set upon it with the purpose of summitting it (later outrun by the events of 2014 Everest avalanche and the avalanches triggered by the 2015 Nepal earthquakes). Jon Krakauer - the well-known American writer and mountaineer and a member and lucky survivor of the incident gives a first-hand, very journalistic and investigative account of what transpired on that fateful day. The narrative starts at the cusp of when things started unravelling and traces back tantalisingly to the origin of it all. It builds slowly, till nearly half the book, with adequate time expended on the key participants - developing their personal profile and setting the mood - both at the human-interaction level and the physical landscape level - as the the climbers venture higher on the mountain. And then gradually, the situation spirals into a disaster that never really lets up. Krakauer, very skilfully, sticks to a very personal viewpoint, not a bird's-eye-view version, and barring slipping in a few retrospective comments, narrates events as they happened to and around him. This lends a story-like quality to the narrative, so that the reader would be hoping against hope that a miraculous ending might just be possible. Sadly, this is the real world out there. There are miracles, but none are of the scale that can wipe out the dark doom that envelops the climbers on those two fateful days. Perhaps, foreknowledge abates to some extent the sting that the culmination of the expeditions would bring to the ignorant. But the hurt remains surprisingly real. The movie Everest  - also based on the book - does a reasonably good job of portraying the shocking chaos that ungulfs the climbers, but needless to say, the book does it much better. 

Another irrefutable aspect of Krakauer's work is the criticism it drew from several quarters - family and friends of the deceased and other climbers - regarding the veracity of the facts concerning the event. While, it is impossible for laymen like me to deduce the truth, one thing I can say for sure that, barring a highly opinionated and blinkered person, no one is likely to find any severe fault with any member involved in the incident. One can certainly take the content with the disclaimer that it would certainly be coloured to some extent by the perceptions of the author - both of himself and others - but I think that is a risk any kind of narrative, especially one involving a disaster of this scale, would naturally entail. A hardcore climber or alpinist would perhaps be better equipped to judge for himself/herself the efficacy of the decisions taken on the mountain slopes, but somehow, I think it really didn't matter what one person or even a few thought or did on those two days. It was an unstoppable calamity, and the realisation of the same is the triumph of the book. 

Books like Into Thin Air are a must now and again in our daily mundane lives. Sure, our boats too get rocked more often than we would like them to, but most adversities are surmountable, or at best, non-fatal. Summitting the Everest is a life event on a completely different scale and universe, and this book skilfully stitches the two lives together, thus bringing home the dangerous, unrequitted love of this mountain. 

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