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"Intrinsically irrational" is how Jon Krakauer characterizes the compulsion to climb Mount Everest in his audiobook Into
Thin Air. The highly publicized fates of the May 1996 Everest expeditions, including the tragic loss of 12 lives, seem
to bear out Krakauer's statement. Listening to Krakauer read his own account of the events in this unabridged version
adds a uniquely intimate and thought-provoking dimension to the tragedy. Although Krakauer reads his account with
journalistic professionalism, it's impossible to forget that you are listening to someone unburdening himself of a great
weight, an unburdening that sometimes nearly approaches a confession.
Since the 1980s, more and more "marginally qualified dreamers" have attempted the ascent of Everest, as guided
commercial expeditions have dangled the possibility of reaching the roof of the world in front of anyone wealthy enough
to pay for the privilege. In 1996, Outside magazine asked Krakauer, a frequent contributor, to write a piece on the
commercialization of Everest, and Krakauer signed on as a member of New Zealander Rob Hall's expedition. The disastrous
outcome of the 1996 expedition forced Krakauer to write a very different article.
Those who read Krakauer's book may wonder whether the audiobook can possibly shed more light on the unfortunate events.
It does. Krakauer's chronicle is chilling and horrifying. He recounts with excruciating detail the physical and mental
cost of such a climb. Even under the best of circumstances, each step up the ice-clad mountain is monumentally
exhausting, and the oxygen-deprived brain loses the ability to make reliable judgements. And on May 10, 1996, when
Hall's expedition and several others made their summit assault, the conditions were far from ideal. The mountain was so
"crowded" that climbers had to wait their turn near the summit while their bottled oxygen dwindled by the minute. By
afternoon a blinding hurricane-force storm had stranded a number of climbers on the highest, most exposed reaches of the
By writing and reading Into Thin Air, Krakauer may have hoped to exorcise some of his own demons and lay to rest some
of the painful questions that still surround the event. He takes great pains to provide a balanced picture of the people
and events he witnessed and gives due credit to the tireless and dedicated Sherpas. He also avoids blasting easy targets
such as Sandy Pittman, the wealthy socialite who brought an espresso maker along on the expedition. Krakauer's highly
personal inquiry into the catastrophe provides a great deal of insight into what went wrong. But for Krakauer himself,
further interviews and investigations only lead him to the conclusion that his perceived failures were directly
responsible for a fellow climber's death. Clearly, Krakauer remains haunted by the disaster, and although he relates a
number of incidents in which he acted selflessly and even heroically, he seems unable to view those instances
objectively. In the end, despite his evenhanded and even generous assessment of others' actions, he reserves a full
measure of vitriol for himself. (Running time: 467 minutes; six tapes)