DOWN Jon Krakauer defends "Into Thin Air"
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BY DWIGHT GARNER | Early in the spring of 1996, when climbers began arriving at Mount Everest base camp to begin training for an eventual trip to the summit -- this weeks-long, lung-strangling ordeal is called acclimatization -- they quickly discovered that they had a writer in their midst. Jon Krakauer, an American journalist under assignment for Outside magazine, announced his presence, if not his grandest literary ambitions, when he composed -- on the orders of Rob Hall, his team's leader -- a gonzo Do Not Enter sign that hung from the door of his team's portable john: "YO! Dude! If you are not a member of The New Zealand Everest Expedition Please do not use this toilet. We are a way serious bunch of shitters, and will have no trouble filling this thing up without your contribution. Thanks, The Big Cheese."
Krakauer's good humor, like everyone else's, wouldn't last long that year on Everest. As much of the world by now knows, the climb ended tragically. On May 10, 1996, 26 climbers from three separate expeditions reached Everest's summit. (At 29,028 feet, the peak juts up into the jet stream some five and a half miles above sea level, higher than some commercial airlines fly.) Crowded conditions and bad judgment had already put some climbers in peril that day; a late-afternoon blizzard that sent temperatures plummeting to more than 40 degrees below zero -- with wind chills in triple digits -- sealed the matter.
Descending climbers were scattered precariously along the upper portions of the mountain when the storm hit. Some were virtually stopped in their tracks near the summit; others managed to scramble down to within a few hundred yards of their tents at Camp Four (26,100 feet), on a small shelf known as the South Col, before becoming lost in the whiteout conditions. Eight climbers, including two respected guides -- New Zealander Hall and American Scott Fischer -- would die over the next day and a half. (Twelve would die in all that spring.) Another, a Texas pathologist named Beck Weathers, would eventually lose part of his nose, one of his hands and all the fingers on the other to severe frostbite. To remark that nearly everything turned to shit that year would not be an overstatement.
In countless newspaper and magazine accounts of the tragedy, the hand-wringing began almost immediately. Dozens of journalists, pundits and old-school mountaineers deplored the commercialization of Everest; others asked why relatively unskilled climbers were allowed to be on the mountain at all. Many more commentators shrugged their shoulders and suggested that hubris, plain and simple, was at the root of this fiasco -- the failure to accord an outsize mountain the outsize respect it deserves.
The most personal, and by far the most harrowing, account of the 1996 Everest disaster came from Krakauer, first in the form of a breathless 17,000-word article for Outside and then, in an expanded and more nuanced form, in his book "Into Thin Air." Hailed as an almost instant classic, "Into Thin Air" was a breathtaking piece of literary journalism that succeeded beyond anyone's, especially Krakauer's, wildest dreams.
"Into Thin Air" spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 800,000 copies are now in print. (This doesn't include the paperback version, which has already spent 15 weeks on bestseller lists.) Krakauer's book has been translated into more than 19 languages, including Latvian and Catalan, and it is credited with sparking a boomlet not only in gnarly-dude adventure travel -- a trend New York Times Magazine writer John Tierney recently slagged as "explornography" -- but also in hairy-chested, man-against-the-elements narratives like Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" and Gary Kinder's "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." Even a soupy, half-baked TV movie version couldn't kill "Into Thin Air's" buzz. Everywhere you look these days -- beaches, airports, subways -- someone's got a copy propped in his lap. Most of these people look stunned and appalled, as if they were studying their own grim medical reports.
Given "Into Thin Air's" ecstatic reviews and titanic sales, you might think Jon Krakauer would be a relatively happy man these days. Think again. Krakauer composed "Into Thin Air," he writes in the book's introduction, as an "act of catharsis," a way to get a 10-ton monkey off his back. But that monkey has hung on. "The success of this book is great -- it should be every writer's dream come true," he says now. "But I wish it had stopped selling a half-million copies ago. I just want it all to go away."
In part, Krakauer is still spooked by the lives lost on Everest that day, and by the fact that his own actions, or failure to act, may have been a factor (albeit a minor one) in the deaths of two climbers, his teammates Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba. "Everything is so tainted by the bad shit that happened," he says. "There's no getting around it -- my success is tied up with the fate of others." Among the therapies that the 44-year-old Krakauer, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., has resorted to is one of the oldest -- giving away what he describes as "tons of money." It helps a little, he says.
That Krakauer describes himself as a haunted soul isn't surprising; nearly every climber who returned alive from Everest in 1996 talks about his or her mental state in similar terms. What is surprising is how bitter, how defensive and how wounded Jon Krakauer sounds these days. Much of this bitterness stems from this fact: Since "Into Thin Air" was published nearly two years ago, the book has been under almost constant sniper fire from a small and close-knit group of climbers, a few of whom were on Everest in 1996, who dispute some of his book's facts and interpretations. In their view, Krakauer didn't merely get things wrong -- he got things intentionally, maliciously wrong.
N E X T+P A G E | A bitter dispute goes public