Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Definitely not doing that! A review of "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

Why I read this book:

While many people will know Jon Krakauer only by association - the movie "Into the Wild" was based on his book of the same title, Krakauer's account of an Everest expedition, "Into Thin Air", first earned him national recognition. While I had heard of Krakauer's work, I did not have a burning passion to read his books. It is a rather curious thing how our perceptions are shaped: armed with the knowledge that Krakauer wrote "Into the Wild", a book about a young man who discards his typical suburban life and heads into the wilderness of Alaska, and "Into Thin Air", a book about climbing Everest, and no other facts about the man to speak of, I quickly deduced that here was an author who came up with a simple winning formula: to write books titled "Into <insert extreme story/adventure/sport here>" and become fat and happy re-telling the glory tales of other men's heroics. An appealing concept, certainly, but not enough to entice me to read his works.

And so on we went with our lives, Krakauer and I, each one occupying our own little corner of the world. Now the story would typically end here, but, as it happens, fate had different ideas. One day, I was chatting with a friend (let's call him Dexter), and while the exact topic of our conversation escapes me now, it is only logical to conclude that our tete-a-tete was at least partially related to the theme of summiting Mount Everest. Whether we were discussing doing a brisk two mile hike that upcoming weekend or just walking up a steep hill, my thoughtful friend, aware of my positive disposition towards good books, exclaimed that I must read "Into Thin Air", and that he had a copy of it to give to me.

I am not one to turn down a book when one is offered to me, and that act in itself is cause enough for me to read the book. I, however, became much more intrigued by the book when Dexter informed me that Krakauer himself was on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest, and that the book is his recollection of that expedition and the tragic events that transpired during that trip. This revelation piqued my interest in the book tremendously and gave Jon Krakauer mad street cred in my eyes. I also felt guilty for having a completely erroneous and uninformed impression of him for years, but that feeling went away as soon as I realized that Krakauer very likely could care less of what I think about him.

My rating for this book:

1. Like flax-seed ice-cream - something that actively seeks to destroy happiness.
2. Like vegemite - pretty bad, but the reaction is more reserved because of cultural implications.
3. Like spam - just because something is eatable does not mean it should be consumed.
4. Like an apple - refreshing and comforting because there is probably more where that came from.
5. Like bacon-wrapped scallops - a markedly noticeable step towards peace and progress.


"Into Thin Air" is a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The book will give you an inside look at the world of mountaineering, and that portrait will do much to alter your perception of that world. Like most enterprises that carry high stakes and hold high reward, the world of mountaineering combines gripping tension with day-to-day tediousness and the promise of glorious accomplishment with nagging loneliness. A climber and a restless soul himself, Krakauer is a great writer and weaves the history of man's quest to conquer Mount Everest into the recollection of his own doomed expedition. I could not be farther off in my initial assumption of the book serving as a puff piece deifying a summit of Mount Everest - Krakauer writes this book as a way to recreate the expedition frame by frame in order to understand how it came to be that eleven lives were lost on that day. The book, as Krakauer admits in the foreword, is an attempt to overcome his own demons that have tormented him since that terrible tragedy. It is a controversial book, as Krakauer readily admits by including an angry letter from a family member of a deceased expedition member. As a "civilian" observer, I appreciated the author's honesty, and his effort seems sincere. Regardless of one's opinion about the sensitivity surrounding the topic of Krakauer's recollection of the tragic events and his own actions, the revealing glimpse into the domain of mountain climbing offers sufficient reward for the vast majority of the readers who are not privy to the inner workings of that small society.
While reading "Into Thin Air", I felt a sense of guarded admiration for those brave and crazy enough to risk their lives to climb the world's most daunting peak. On one hand, those who decide to summit Everest despite the gravest risks epitomize the very principles of drive and resolve that spearhead human progress and represent humanity's unyielding spirit. On the other hand, there is no way under any circumstances that I would be willing to subject myself to the experience of climbing Everest. I am not kidding - if you were to offer me my own island, like Madagascar or Tazmania if I attempted a summit just once, I would politely refuse. Then again, it is undeniable that each one has the call of the wild in us. Every child dreams of adventure, travel, and exotic lands. Over time, of course, the overwhelming majority of those boys and girls grow up, get an office job, and diligently settle into their daily routine as their dreams go by the wayside (the dissipation of dreams is remarkably gradual - see Figure 1). So it is with respect and admiration that we look at that small fraction of us who refuse to lose that sense of wanderlust and restlessness and instead become adventurers, field scientists, or elite soldiers.

Graph 1 - Hmm, strangely specific.
The trajectory plotted in Graph 1 can be avoided, of course, by asking what your Everest is and planning and executing your ascent. I will tell you one thing however - my "Everest" is not the actual Everest.

The end.

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