I surprise myself by having a great, obsessive love for Jon Krakauer, based entirely on the man’s grip of reporting and narrative, which, honestly, if there’s any better nonfiction writer/reporter on earth, I don’t know about him. I recently re-read Into Thin Air, twice through, starting directly again from the beginning after having completed it once, bringing my total lifetime reads of Into Thin Air to five. This is just weird, I realize.
Into Thin Air, for the uninitiated, is the first-person story of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 summit of Mount Everest. He was on the trip as a magazine journalist, writing for Outside magazine, covering the increasing crowds on the mountain and commercialization of the climb. The thesis of the piece was supposed to be that the new forces were making the climb more dangerous and that a big disaster was in the offing. No one knew how prescient that would be, but the big disaster in fact happened in front of Krakauer’s eyes. Eleven people died on Everest in the few-day time window that Krakauer was summiting the mountain, including two guides and two clients in his group, and the head guide of a rival group. This was the trip that included socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who did manage to make the summit, but whose celebrity presence warped the climb in ways that directly led to several deaths. Krakauer’s chronicle of the disaster is just simply one of the most harrowing and riveting adventure stories of all time.
You might think that with such good material, the story would be hard to fuck up. It’s not that Jon Krakauer is a great writer, it’s that he got “lucky” to be along on a trip where people died in spectacular circumstances. This couldn’t be more wrong. Into Thin Air reads so effortlessly that the reader barely questions that Krakauer has re-created, through painstaking original reporting, the timing, movements, thoughts, soul-searching, etc., of dozens of people wandering around on the top of Mount Everest in a snowstorm, most of them half-demented from hypoxia, some of them actually hallucinating. These were not reliable sources, but Krakauer sorted it all out. He also imposed a narrative on events, which could roughly be translated as “What went wrong? Why did this happen?” Again that seems so obvious that the reader doesn’t question it, but creating structure takes intellectual rigor.
And I have proof of this!, because my Kindle auto-prompted me to buy another Everest book, Dark Summit by Nick Heil, and I took the bait. This book focuses on an almost equally deadly season on Everest ten years after Krakauer’s, in 2006, when ten people died. You could teach a master class in narrative in comparing these two books, which are as close to apples and apples as you’re ever going to get, yet Krakauer’s is the classic of the genre and Heil’s is sketchy at best, despite that he also had a riveting and horrible story to work with, about a young climber named David Sharp who sat dying for days on the top of the mountain while teams of climbers walked past him without trying to help. A week later another experienced climber was left for dead in the same location. (He miraculously survived).
Dark Summit is worth reading, barely, just because the story is so crazy, but Heil misses the boat with asking the interesting questions about it or imposing a moral narrative. I can’t say what that narrative should have been, but I feel its lack, and suspect that in the hands of a different writer the facts could have been orchestrated to mean more.
Heil’s reporting, also, is thin. He frequently quotes from websites, TV interviews and so on instead of directly from the sources. He doesn’t seem to have talked to two of the story’s villains, a couple who ran an adventure website that was generating scandal and misinformation. I found myself wondering if he’d had adequate financial support to write the book, and then wondering more in the epilogue when he mentions that some of the reporting was done on the tab of another of the book’s major players, Russell Brice, a prominent adventure-tour leader who was blamed (probably unfairly) for Sharp’s death. (Sharp was not his client.)
It’s not necessary to tear Heil apart by comparing him to Krakauer (we can’t all be Jon Krakauer, sigh) but it’s so tempting because of how illustrative it is. Into Thin Air starts with the information about who its writer was and how he related to the expedition. Krakauer was a journalist working for Outside magazine, a member of a luxury tour, basically a representative of the exact type of person not qualified to be on Everest but there anyway. He turned out to be physically up for the climb. His mountaineering expertise probably saved his life. But his presence as a journalist clearly added to the pressure on the tour-leaders, and was a factor in the body count. Krakauer puts this up front and wrestles with it, hard, for the entirety of the book. He is there to be critical, do his research, and tell the truth, the core tasks of the journalist.
I think it’s possible between-the-lines that Heil was hired by Brice to write Dark Summit. And if not, Brice was obviously his main source and the person he had the most access to. The book is Brice’s story, but it pretends not to be. It would have been stronger if Heil had just said OK, it’s Russell Brice’s story. Brice is a new microcosm of the dangers and problems of Everest, the “big boss” of the base camp, the man running all the ropes up the mountain, footing the bill for many a rescue of people not on his team, yet with no real authority. What does that ultimately indicate about life and death, good, evil, human society, the modern-day state of the commercialization of Everest? Brice has too much power and too little and how does that get into the heads of guys like David Sharp, climbing in his proximity? That kind of synthesis is what Jon Krakauer excels at, and Nick Heil unfortunately does not.
Heil also fails to get into any of his characters’ heads. There’s a tediously in-depth chapter about David Sharp’s personal history, but it comes after two filler chapters about the history of climbing Everest, by which point I’d forgotten that Sharp was the name of the climber who’d died. In a well-written book that wouldn’t have happened.
Some people will say that Krakauer had the massive advantage of having been there. I don’t, actually, think it’s entirely relevant since he’s shown the same virtuosity and moral reasoning in Into the Wild, the story of a young man who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer wasn’t there for that one, but he recreated it as if he were. And, in fact, he entered the story himself, bringing in his own struggles with his family, mountaineering and the hubristic impulses of young men in order to shed light on the story’s mysterious subject. Krakauer is self-revealing, critical and honest, a brilliant combination in an investigative journalist. Amazing!
I could go on, but surely this is enough. Adding a 19. to this post because I have also just read Eiger Dreams, Krakaeur’s first book on mountaineering.
And here, I shall leave you with Krakauer in 1964, at age 10, summiting his first mountain. Taken from his beautiful Instagram feed. A little boy about to cause the world a lot of trouble, right there.