JON KRAKAUER IS SITTING IN HIS COZY Seattle bungalow, nursing a beer. But in his mind, he is thousands of miles away, in Nepal. It is almost a year ago, and he is climbing Mount Everest, trying for the summit with New Zealand guide Rob Hall, two assistant guides, seven other Hall clients and several Sherpas, Nepalese natives known for their endurance and skills on the mountain. “I keep thinking of this moment just before dawn,” he says. “[Client] Doug Hansen gets out of line and apparently is going to turn around, and then Rob Hall has this conversation with him. We don’t know what was said, but clearly Rob convinces Doug to get back in line and continue going for the summit. This kind of stuff is so poignant to me, because it ended up costing both of them their lives. It really tears me up.”
Krakauer’s new book, Into Thin Air, is filled with such moments. A personal account of last year’s Everest disaster that saw a record 12 people perish when a fierce storm enveloped the summit, Into Thin Air is a harrowing tale of the perils of high-altitude climbing, a story of bad luck and worse judgment and of heartbreaking heroism (such as that of Hall, who refused to leave Hansen and save himself when Hansen could no longer move). It is a story that has gained a fresh edge from the news of seven more Everest casualties just two weeks ago. “When I finished Jon’s book, I sat in stunned silence,” says Lou Kasischke, 54, a lawyer from Bloomfield, Mich. “Everest was the worst experience of my life. I was snow-blind, frostbitten in a blizzard, people dying all around me. Reading Jon’s book, I felt like I was there again.”
Krakauer is still there, gasping for breath in the so-called Death Zone, above 25,000 feet. Only six of the 10 guides and clients led by Hall made it to the top; of those, just two survived—Krakauer and assistant guide Mike Groom. Another expedition survivor, who never made it to the top, Dallas pathologist Beck Weathers was so badly frostbitten he later lost his right hand and part of his left and his nose. In the rival Mountain Madness expedition, which included New York City socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, three more people died—among them the group’s leader, Scott Fischer of Seattle. The remaining dead came from Indo-Tibetan and South African expeditions.
“I expected Everest to transform me,” says Krakauer. “How could it not? It’s so huge and has so much mythic weight.” Everest has transformed him—from a relatively obscure freelance writer into a highly successful author. But he has taken little delight in his instant bestseller. Already-struggling with survivor’s guilt, he now has to deal with charges that he is profiting from his fellow climbers’ deaths. “It’s hard when a widow calls you up at 2 a.m. and accuses you of selling her loved one’s name,” says Krakauer. “I mean, before Everest, I’d never even been to a funeral. Now I wish I’d never even heard of Everest.”
Outside magazine provided him with his ticket there. The magazine wanted a story about the commercialization of the world’s highest mountain. The editors had been struck by reports that, in 1993, 40 people—many of them weekend climbers—had reached the summit in a single day. Rob Hall ran an ad claiming a “100 percent success rate,” while Scott Fischer told Krakauer, “Hey, experience is overrated…. I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”
Krakauer is an accomplished mountaineer who has made daring first ascents on rock walls in Alaska but who had never climbed at Himalayan altitudes, where climbing is more a test of endurance than a surmounting of technical challenges. Originally he talked about just reporting from base camp. “I had this dream of climbing Everest and I’d buried it for years,” he says. “My line was, I’m going to try to climb as high as I can—and write about it.’ But, in my mind, I was going to the summit any way possible.”
Rob Hall’s clients included three doctors, a publisher, a personnel director and a lawyer—successful, driven people who paid $65,000 each—and Hansen, a Seattle postal worker who’d invested his savings in a failed attempt on Everest in 1995. This time, Hall had given Hansen a discount and talked him into trying again. “They were not elite climbers,” says Krakauer. “They trained on StairMasters, but they were as fit as I was.”
Fitness proved to be almost beside the point. “Never before,” says Krakauer, “had I experienced such a ratio of misery to pleasure.” In addition to the customary dangers of climbing, the expeditions, once in the Death Zone, faced numbing cold at night and blinding solar radiation during the day. They were subject to frostbite, hypothermia, high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema—the latter involving a potentially fatal swelling of the brain.
“By the time you get to the Death Zone,” says Krakauer, “it’s scary. Your cells are dying from oxygen starvation; you can’t think. Rob Hall told me a dozen times, ‘Your brain is not going to work at altitude, but the good thing is you don’t have to use your brain. You just look at your watch. When it says 2 o’clock, you just turn around and go down.’ ” His point was that to reach the summit too late in the day could be suicidal, since the climbers would have little time to get back to the lifesaving shelter of camp before nightfall.
But Hall did not turn around at 2 o’clock; neither did Fischer. The pressure on the guides was enormous. It came largely from the clients, who had paid their $65,000 and expected to bag their summit. Fischer was so determined to have his people stand triumphant on the roof of the world that he had his top Sherpa attach a three-foot rope to Sandy Pittman and virtually drag her to the summit. Also in the grip of summit fever, Hall was still struggling to get the severely ill Hansen within striking range of the top when Krakauer reached the summit, descended and, totally exhausted, fell asleep in his tent. For this, Krakauer cannot forgive himself.
Specifically, he blames himself for the death of Andy Harris, Hall’s 31-year-old assistant guide. On the way down, Harris and Krakauer had a puzzling conversation about oxygen tanks. Harris insisted that the spare tanks cached along the route for climbers to use while descending were all empty when they clearly were not. This conversation, Krakauer believes, should have told him that Harris was delusional, a danger to himself. “Andy was the guide, and I was the client, and Andy was really strong,” he says. “It never occurred to me to worry about him. But I should have.” No one knows what happened to Harris, who was last seen plodding up the summit ridge to assist Hall and Hansen.
Krakauer comes from an idealistic, amateur climbing culture, where, he says, “self-reliance and loyalty to your partner”—values that are largely eroded by the guide-client arrangement—are paramount. He grew up in Corvallis, Ore., the third of five children of a physician father and an art teacher mother. His father, Lewis, was a friend of Willi Unsoeld, who was on the first American expedition to Everest in 1963 and who took 8-year-old Jon on his first climb, up Oregon’s 10,000-foot South Sister. “My heroes were Unsoeld and [fellow Everest climber] Tom Hornbein,” says Krakauer, “when all my friends were talking about Sandy Koufax and Wilt Chamberlain.”
At Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the early ’70s, Krakauer met climbing writer David Roberts, who introduced him to Alaska. “I became this climbing bum,” says Krakauer. “I worked as a carpenter in Boulder, Colo., five months of the year, climbed the rest.” In 1977 he met University of Colorado at Denver student Linda Moore and married her three years later. Linda, once a climber herself, says they had an “understanding” that Jon would quit. But he found he couldn’t. It was the thread that knitted his life together; besides, he had started making money writing about it. “In 1984, Outside asked me to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, which has this aura of death,” says Krakauer. “Linda was ready to leave me. I left not knowing if she would be there when I got back.” She was, having decided, she says, that Jon was worth the anxiety.
In 1992, Krakauer got his big break when Outside asked him to write about 24-year-old Chris McCandless, an honors graduate of Emory University in Atlanta who, with his head full of ideas about shedding one’s worldly goods and going into the woods to front what his beloved Thoreau called the essential facts of life, gave away his savings of $24,000, took the name Alexander Supertramp and walked into the wilds of Alaska. Four months later, his body was found by a party of hunters. He had starved to death.
“I really identified with McCandless,” says Krakauer, pointing out that both he and Chris had rebelled against their parents’ more conventional ideas of success. Instead, both young men sought to define and extend themselves through adventure and risk.
Krakauer believes in luck. He believes McCandless died partly because he was unlucky, partly because he didn’t know about the runoff season—that the rivers in Alaska rise when the snow melts and he would not be able to make it back to civilization by fording them. Similarly, he believes that 12 people died on Everest because of an accumulation of small but fateful misjudgments—and bad luck.
But he is having trouble accepting his own good luck—the fact that the mountain not only spared him but gave him a bestseller. “Jon is not done dealing with this,” says Linda. Adds climbing mentor Roberts: “He’s the most depressed I’ve ever seen him.”
But maybe that’s okay, says Krakauer. Maybe you should feel bad. “It’s something you can’t fix,” he says, “something you have to live with. But I keep thinking of bringing Doug Hansen’s stuff back and handing it to his kids and his girlfriend and his sister. Linda was with me at the airport and, man, she just lost it. That’s a level of grief I never want to feel again.”