Have you ever read a book that climbs into your brain and refuses to leave?
Last year, I picked up a copy of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer for 50 cents at a used bookstore. I had read Into the Wild a few years before and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to give this one a try. More than a year later, I finally opened it up…and finished it within 48 hours. Once I got about 10 pages in, despite knowing how it ended, I could. not. stop. reading.
Even now, weeks later, it’s still on my mind. This book just…destroyed me. I’ve read plenty of books that made me cry (looking at you, The Book Thief), but I’m talking about something different. I never cried during this book—it was less of an acute sadness, and more of a heavy weight on my soul. When I finished it, I got so quiet and somber for so long that Chris, concerned, asked me if I was going to be okay.
So I know I’m about 20 years late to the party here (in my defense, I was seven when the book came out), but I had to write something about it anyway. I guess I’m still trying to put my finger on why it affected me so much.
Here’s the thing. As much as I love hiking and camping, mountaineering—especially the hardcore kind that leads you to want to tackle peaks like Everest—doesn’t hold any appeal for me. Back in 10th grade, my biology teacher showed us a documentary on Everest climbers. What exactly this had to do with biology is unclear, but I still remember it vividly—learning about the effects of oxygen deprivation at high altitudes, the frozen bodies littering the path to the peak, the extreme cold and wind—It blew my mind that people chose to put themselves through that experience…and for what, exactly?
So I went into this book interested in the story, but not really expecting to connect with it very much, y’know? And it caught me completely off guard.
Looking back, I think there are a lot of elements that made this book such a gripping, heartbreaking read: The fact that it’s a true story, and that knowing how it all ended made each detail that much more excruciating. The tragedy in the smallest moments or decisions that seemed inconsequential at the time, but had a devastating outcome. Krakauer’s gifts as a storyteller in relating his own personal, emotional journey as an actual member of the most deadly season on Everest. The insanity of an environment so hostile and unforgiving that people are left to die mere yards from safety. The heart-wrenching, unimaginable decision of whether or not to risk your own life to try to save someone else’s.
But mostly…I think it’s the simple humanity of it all.
There’s nothing more perfectly human than the quote from climber George Mallory, who, when asked why he would want to climb Everest, replied with the most famous three words in mountaineering history: “Because it’s there.”
Why do we run marathons? Write novels? Have children? This innate desire to explore, to conquer, to achieve. To live. Not all of us are Everest climbers, but in some way I think we can all relate to wanting something so badly that we would do crazy, inexplicable things to get it. It manifests in different ways in all of us, but we all have irrational goals and desires. It’s what drives us forward. It’s what makes us human. And sometimes, it’s what ruins us.
I expected a journalistic account of a tragic historical event, and what I got was an unsettling reflection on the human ego. Terrifying, and fascinating, and a lot more relatable than I expected.
So you don’t have to be a climber or even an outdoors(wo)man of any kind to appreciate this book. If you haven’t read it, I’d definitely recommend it. Just…maybe make sure you have time built into your schedule to stare off into the distance and ponder humanity for a while afterward.
(P.S. I obviously went online and read a bunch of other stuff about Everest after finishing this book. I also loved this story on the most successful female Everest climber ever—a virtually unknown Sherpa and a housekeeper living in Connecticut.)