Having never held any interest in mountaineering, I came across 'Into Thin Air' by accident. However, I found Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 Everest disaster to be utterly gripping. Krakauer gives a clear insight into what compels ordinary people to leave their everyday existence behind and spend vast sums to conquer the world's highest peak. Many were attracted by the fact that the mountain had appeared to be 'tamed.' Expert guides such as Rob Hall, whose expedition Krakauer joined in 1996, had previously guided relatively inexperienced fee paying clients to the summit. In a time when daredevil mountaineering feats had lost their appeal in terms of attracting commercial sponsorship, many climbers came to rely increasingly upon guided expeditions to earn a living. Krakauer lucidly describes the motives of the various teams that congregated upon Everest in 1996 as well as the sometimes fraught interaction between them. The events that led to the death of eight climbers during a terrible storm on the upper reaches of the mountain are recounted in detail. Krakauer is frank in his assessment of what went wrong and much of what he says may seem obvious with hindsight but as he is at pains to point out, rational thought and action is often impossible in intense cold and at extreme altitude.
The quality of Krakauer's writing is exceptional and this book engages the reader on several levels. Issues such as the commercial pressures upon the guides, the motives of the climbers and the effects of the expeditions upon the Himalayan community and environment are examined in an intelligent manner. What remains most in the mind however is the bravery of the climbers, especially those involved in the rescue attempts, and the images of the mountain itself as a great physical and spiritual entity that has possibly not always been afforded the respect it is due.