I’ve mentioned before that one of the earliest books my parents gave me, probably when I was about five or six, was ‘The Conquest of Everest’ by Sir John Hunt. It was a magnificent book with full page coloured photos – and thinking about it, it must have been quite expensive. Maybe a strange book for such a young girl living in one of the flattest counties, Cambridgeshire, but I was obviously fascinated by the story of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary reaching the summit if the world’s highest mountain. Before I could read it, I poured over the photos, fascinated by them. I still have the book, still in its cover and without opening it I can remember most of them.
Many years later, when I was living in the village of Lees on the outskirts of Oldham, on the Pennine side, I took full advantage of the great library there, joined the book club and thanks to a librarian member who was fascinated by mountaineering (and mountaineers!) I read a lot of the classic books written by climbers. Now I have just finished ‘Into Thin Air‘ by Jon Krakauer, a brilliant book about the tragic events on three 1996 expeditions to Everest who were caught in ferocious weather conditions.
Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is the true story of a 24-hour period on Everest, when members of three separate expeditions were caught in a storm and faced a battle against hurricane-force winds, exposure, and the effects of altitude, which ended in the worst single-season death toll in the peak’s history.
In March 1996, Outside magazine sent veteran journalist and seasoned climber Jon Krakauer on an expedition led by celebrated Everest guide Rob Hall. Despite the expertise of Hall and the other leaders, by the end of summit day, eight people were dead. Krakauer’s book is at once the story of the ill-fated adventure and an analysis of the factors leading up to its tragic end. Written within months of the events it chronicles, Into Thin Air clearly evokes the majestic Everest landscape.
As the journey up the mountain progresses, Krakauer puts it in context by recalling the triumphs and perils of other Everest trips throughout history. The author’s own anguish over what happened on the mountain is palpable as he leads readers to ponder timeless questions.
I can’t remember hearing the news of this awful event, I guess I was busy with my own young children at the time, but it was a truly shocking disaster – just the headline tells a dreadful tale, but reading Krakauer’s account really brings home the horrors of it all – and also convinces me that I really would not like to climb even the smallest rock face in even the mildest and most perfect conditions.
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster occurred on 10–11 May 1996 when eight climbers caught in a blizzard died on Mount Everest while attempting to descend from the summit. Over the entire season, 12 people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest season on Mount Everest at the time and the third deadliest after the 22 fatalities resulting from avalanches caused by the April 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 16 fatalities of the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche. The 1996 disaster received widespread publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.
Numerous climbers were at a high altitude on Everest during the storm including the Adventure Consultants team, led by Rob Hall, and the Mountain Madness team, led by Scott Fischer. While climbers died on both the North Face and South Col approaches, the events on the latter were more widely reported. Four members of the Adventure Consultants expedition perished, including Hall, while Fischer was the sole casualty of the Mountain Madness expedition. Three officers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police also died.
‘Into Thin Air’ gives background and context to the history of mountaineers attempts on Everest, and of Jon himself so when the actual tragic ‘adventure’ starts, even a mountaineering ignoramus can follow and understand what happened. Because there are so many people who were involved, he very usefully gives a list of dramatis personae, which I consulted many times as the different climbers were mentioned.
Everest these days is a crowded place, and the shocking amount of litter and debris left behind – climbing gear, oxygen cylinders, human waste and bodies, yes the bodies of dead climbers, was horrific. The conditions in the different camps were squalid beyond belief, but the terrible self-inflicted suffering through frost-bite, injury, oxygen deficiency, gastric troubles was even more unbelievable. Mountaineering seems like an addiction, there was little sense of joy, feelings of achievement or accomplishment, more the sort of relief any other addict would experience when satisfying their cravings.
It was such a gripping read, once again i stayed up too late, then stayed in bed the next morning reading on – unable to put it down. I need to read another account of the same events to see it from a different point of view!