Into Very Thin Air: The Most Riveting Reads About Mount Everest
Everest books are a peculiar sub-genre of nonfiction. The recollections of climbers (and, as a result, authors) are always called into the question by the availability, at any given time, of oxygen. Particularly in what is known as “the death zone,” climbers can lack mental clarity because of the high altitude and high-stress atmosphere. As a result, the nature and unreliability of memory often plays a large role in these narratives. The sub-genre is also an unusual one because it is largely defined by a few key disasters, in particular the deadly 1996 season.
Teams of climbers usually make their bid for the summit of the mountain in May in order to avoid monsoon season. But following the death of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche in April, reports indicate that major teams have left the mountain. Because of the unprecedented scale of the tragedy in April, it is unclear how many people will summit Everest in the 2014 season.
In honor of the mountain’s climbing season, here are some of the most engrossing books about tackling Mount Everest. They chronicle the amazing strength of the Sherpas and climbers, and provide insight into the controversy surrounding this unusual and incredibly risky sport.
The word “Sherpa” can refer both to the profession (guiding paying clients up Mount Everest) as well as the ethnic group in Nepal. Most mountaineers are quick to acknowledge that without Sherpas, there would be no climbing of Everest—at least not on the scale that it takes place today. Yet, relationships between Sherpas and climbers can be tense: Sherpas are not adequately compensated for their work which is dangerous, thankless, and difficult. This book by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay (who made the first successful climb to the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary), is candid about the issue. Norgay provides insight into the culture and beliefs of the Sherpas, as well as the 1996 expedition that went so horribly wrong.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer set out to summit Mount Everest, with plans to cover the journey for Outside magazine. Unfortunately, Krakauer got more material than he bargained for. This book chronicles the disastrous day in May 1996, when eight climbers died in a blizzard near the summit. Krakauer’s account of the tragedy is a riveting read, but also a clear (and understandable) attempt to make peace with the events of that day. This retelling of what transpired on May 10-11, 1996 has sparked some controversy, particularly regarding the actions of mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, but the ultimate tone of the book is one of respect for the mountain and those who died trying to safely ascend and descend.
Anatoli Boukreev, a seasoned and widely-respected mountain climber, was on Everest along with Krakauer in May of 1996. He led the Mountain Madness expedition up Everest with Scott Fischer that year, and was responsible for saving the lives of three climbers who were stranded in the blizzard on the night of May 10. It would be hard to overstate how incredible it is that Boukreev had the stamina and mental clarity to pull off these rescues, but he came under fire following the publication of Into Thin Air.
Critics of Boukreev have pointed to two facts: that he voluntarily climbed without supplemental oxygen (when he may have been able to think more clearly and last longer on the summit had he used it), and the fact that he left the summit before his entire team had reached it. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that all of Boukreev’s clients made it down alive. The Climb is Boukreev’s own account of a tragic day on the world’s highest peak, and a direct response to Krakauer’s book.
Jordan Romero’s time on Mount Everest was also controversial, but thankfully not deadly. In No Summit Out of Sight, Romero details an extraordinary accomplishment: being the youngest person to reach the top of Mount Everest, at the age of 13. As the title of his book might indicate, Romero also reached the top of the Seven Summits (a prestigious list of seven peaks on seven continents), becoming the youngest person to do that, too. Romero’s quest has sparked more than a little controversy for obvious reasons—whether 13 is old enough to understand and accept the risks of climbing Everest being chief among them—but this book is an exciting look at what it is to literally grow up summiting the world’s tallest peaks.
When George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to climb Mount Everest in 1924, the memory of World War I still loomed large. These two Englishmen, who died on the mountain, were driven by a host of factors including a desire to redeem their country in the eyes of the global community. Here, author Wade Davis paints a vivid and nuanced picture of post-war sentiment, and the unimaginable difficulty of summiting the world’s highest mountain without the technologically-advanced gear that, even today, cannot always save climbers from the elements.
Beck Weathers attempted to summit Everest in 1996 along with Jon Krakauer. In this memoir, he shares his remarkable survival story after being left for dead on the mountain. When Anatoli Boukreev came back for three of his own clients on that deadly night in May and saw the state that Weathers and climber Yasuko Namba were in, Boukreev assumed there was nothing he could do for either of them. He was right about Namba, but not about Weathers. Left for Dead takes a long, critical look at climbing: Weathers is particularly candid about how the demanding sport altered and strained his relationships and how his subsequent multiple amputations changed his life. “For the first time in my life I have peace,” he told The Guardian. “I no longer seek to define myself externally, through goals and achievements and material possessions. For the first time I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Beck Weathers isn’t the only Everest climber to get left for dead on the mountain and then live to tell the tale. Lincoln Hall collapsed from altitude sickness shortly after reaching the summit during the 2006 climbing season, and Sherpas attempted to revive him for hours, to no avail. Finally, the Sherpas were instructed to come down to camp to avoid the same fate that Hall faced. Astonishingly, Hall made a recovery, and a Sherpa happened upon him the next morning. Hall was changing his shirt, clearly delusional, and sitting just a couple feet away from a 10,000 foot drop. Hall recounts his improbable survival in this tale that has fed the controversy surrounding climber David Sharp, who died on the mountain during the same season and who was not rescued despite as many as 40 climbers passing him where he sat.