Book Review: Into Thin Air

Written by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air tells the story of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest
Written by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air tells the story of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest

With the opening of a new exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre, which includes talk of mountain climbing, I became interested in learning a bit more about Mount Everest. This interest was also sparked because a coworker of mine’s brother has climbed Mount Everest.
Into Thin Air is a recounting of the infamous climbing disaster that happened on Mount Everest in May of 1996; it is written by Jon Krakauer. He is a professional writer and mountaineering hobbyist who was sent on the Everest expedition by Outside magazine charged with the task of writing an article about his experience.
Before reading this book I knew very little about Everest. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who climbed it first (I know now it was Hillary and Norgay in 1953)*. I would not have been able to tell you what country it was in (the summit actually straddles the boarder of Tibet and Nepal). Nor would I have been able to tell you that Everest is spiritually connected to the people who live in the area (the Sherpa People, among many others). What I could have told you before reading this book is, really, what most of us know: it’s the tallest mountain on Earth (at 8848m). That’s about it.
In reading the book I gained a new appreciation for high-altitude climbing and to Everest itself. While it speaks mostly about the 1996 disaster, Krakauer also covers a wide range of history of the mountain (* including the story that Mallory and Irvine may actually have summited the mountain in 1924, however they never returned so we’ll never know), and also covers how Everest is turning into a tourist destination.
While I’ve never seriously considered climbing Everest, I’ve long thought that it would be an amazing experience. After reading it I’ve realized just how fool hardy you must be to think that you can climb this mountain having no experience. The interesting thing about Everest is that it’s not necessarily technically difficult climbing. There are a few places that demand good climbing skills (like the Khumbu Icefall or the Hillary Step), but the rest of the mountain isn’t that tough. What’s tough is the environment. For weeks you are living at altitudes above 6km (base camp is at 5380m) which makes doing anything physical very difficult. The lack of air also makes it difficult to sleep, eat, and drink. The temperatures can change from extreme heat to extreme cold from sunrise to sunset. Further, the lack of air makes cognitive processes difficult, and therefore making decision making hard. Climbing Everest is not a technical challenge in mountain climbing, it’s a slow determined battle with the mountain and yourself. The even more interesting thing about it, is that it is entirely different from person to person. Some people’s physiology just seems to work in high altitude, making their trek to the summit relatively easier than others.
I would recommend this book. It’s a somber story, but one worth it’s time.

Science-y Side Note:
I’ve discovered that, while Everest is the highest mountain on Earth above sea level (seriously, passenger planes fly at the same height as Everest), it is not the furthest point from the centre of the Earth. Since Earth is an oblate spheroid, the equator is further away from the centre of the Earth than is the North/South pole. As a result, mountain climbing near the equator puts you closer to space, or further from the centre of the Earth. According to this article I read from NPR, it appears that Mount Chimborazo in the Andes (Ecuador) is about 2.5 km ‘higher’ than Everest. Remember, if you’re counting from sea level, Everest is still higher, but if you’re wondering where you need to go to be closest to the Moon, go to Mount Chimborazo. wicked.

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