A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that "suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down." He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more--including Krakauer's--in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer's epic account of the May 1996 disaster.
This is an updated review, written after I've read more books on the 1996 Everest disaster and had a chance to compare and contrast the accounts of survivors.
Jon Krakauer is asked to go on a commercial Everest climb to write an article for a magazine. What begins as an assignment turns into disaster when his team and several others are caught high on the mountain during a savage storm that will claim lives. This is the personal experience of a man who survived while watching disaster unfold around him and he is not shy at pointing the finger at those he felt were in the wrong. He was on the team of experienced guide Rob Hall, a man with an excellent record for success and safety, who was under pressure for a successful year with a journalist writing about what was happening on the mountain. Rob has a newer younger rival Scott Fischer leading a rival team which adds to the sense of getting results to prove that your team is the one to sign up to. It was a friendly rivalry that that fatal consequences.
I was gripped, disgusted, shocked, appalled and saddened as I made my way through this amazing book. The author has a real gift for enveloping you in the story and sweeping you along on a wave of emotion, caring about those who died, were injured, who survived. The reader feels as if they are there on the frozen slopes, battling the cold and fatigue, running out of oxygen and simple brain function and wondering if they are going to get out of this alive. Bad decision making, poor planning, a brutal storm and summit fever combine to take the lives of people who could have survived if the basic rules of safety had been followed. That is the real tragedy-it could have been prevented.
The author looks at a lot of things in this book which I'll give you an idea of here without telling the whole story:
-lack of Everest experience in Rob Hall's guides or 8000m climbs by clients
-inexperienced climbers slowing everyone down
-bottleneck cost hours of time which led to people running out of oxygen and getting down too late
-nobody fixed the ropes needed ahead of the final climb causing huge delays
-having a journalist raised the stakes and others did not want to talk to him or be written about
-lack of planning led to extra trips up for Scott Fischer to help his team prior to final push
-Doug Hansen quits but Rob Hall gets him going up again, which dooms them and Andy Harris
-turnaround time never set or enforced
-lack of oxygen supplies and systems not working
-Beck Weathers abandoned for hours instead of being helped down
-poor radio contact between guides and with other camps
Other things covered in the book are the accidents involving Sherpas in the early part of the expedition, the deaths of a couple of people before the summit push and mistakes that the author saw in who was chosen to join the team and how he evaluated their climbing skills. Not all of what he had to say about his team and rival teams were complimentary and some of it was challenged in other books. There also seemed to be friction between Scott and Anatoli over decisions made with Anatoli indicating that clients had to have the ability to climb or not be there at all, instead of having their hands held by Sherpas.
The Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev comes in for a lot of criticism in this book by the author for doing his climb solo, without oxygen and not assisting any of his team up or down the mountain. In other books, he is treated more sympathetically. Lou Kasischke in his book After the Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy—One Survivor's Story indicates that Anatoli was not in favour of doing the climb on that day and said so, and that he spent time on the mountain fixing ropes that others were meant to have fixed. If he did something wrong, blame can then be placed at his team leader for allowing him to do his own thing. I'm not going to further comment until I read his book The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev which is on my tbr. It must be pointed out that whether you think he did wrong on the climb based on this book, he did risk his life to save others later on during the search. What I did find appalling was the treatment of Beck Weathers, who was found several times not far from camp but who was just left to die without even trying to save him. Bringing him the short distance to a tent to give him a chance seemed the least they could have done, and he was then abandoned overnight with nobody looking after him because they gave up on him a second time. The fact that this man survived is a damn miracle as seen in his book Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers It makes me sadly ask the question-had they brought Yasuko Namba to the tent when they first found her, could she have lived? It is heartbreaking to think of that.
I have sympathy for anyone who made mistakes during the confusion and fear in the storm, and you have to factor in the oxygen shortage and mental impairment of being at such high altitude when judging the actions of people. I think unless you have experienced that environment, you can't really know what it is like and its easy to shove blame around. The heroes of this book who surrendered their own ambition for the summit to help the victims deserve a special mention here as well, like the IMAX team.
Now, the team accused of doing nothing to help in the crisis was the South African team led by Ian Woodall. I was outraged in this book that any team could withhold a working radio and supplies that could save lives to keep them for their own summit bid later, when others like IMAX gave up everything they had. Having since read other books including their own account of the events, I found myself somewhat confused by what part they really played. Yes I imagine their own account has to be looked at with a degree of suspicion as it would be written for damage control and to restore their reputation while some books don't even mention the South Africans. The general thoughts of most people involved was that they refused to help and that their leader was unwilling to cooperate with other teams before and during.
BUT. There are several things that really concern me. Amateurs who have no business being on that mountain are a danger to everyone-the Sherpas, the guides and their fellow climbers. I firmly believe that you should not be given a permit to climb unless you have proved yourself to a certain standard first. It won't stop the deaths on Everest as accidents and illnesses will always occur but it might reduce it. Experienced guides made bad decisions that cost lives because they didn't stick to their own rules so future guides MUST enforce this however sad it is for those who are turned back before the summit. I can understand the appeal and lure of the mountain. I have always wanted to go to base camp to photograph the mountain, and I'm addicted to watching TV programmes and reading books about these amazing mountains and the expeditions on them. But until the amateurs realise that it is not a game, until proper regulation comes in to police the expedition leaders and their clients, I'm afraid we are going to be reading a lot more disaster books like this one.
Other books about this disaster include:
Doctor on Everest: Emergency Medicine at the Top of the World - A Personal Account of the 1996 Disaster by Kenneth Kamler
The Death Zone: Climbing Everest Through the Killer Storm by Matt Dickinson
Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil
The Storms: Adventure and tragedy on Everest by Mike Trueman
Everest: Free to Decide by Cathy O'Dowd
re-read June 2016