For the flatlanders of Western New York -- except, perhaps, those who live in the Boston Hills, Ellicottville or similar lofty perches -- the prospect of climbing Mount Everest must be about as attractive as a vacant Rich Stadium in October.
But for anyone who has wondered what climbing Everest is like, step by oxygen-starved step, Jon Krakauer tells a chilling, morbid, lunatic saga of the year Everest took the lives of 12 people, including four in his climbing party.
Krakauer was already an accomplished climber and writer before he signed on with his first Everest expedition and Outside magazine paid his fee of tens of thousands of dollars in return for an account of his experience. His No. 1 best seller is built off that magazine article.
A Portland, Ore., native now living in Seattle, he dreamed of mountain climbing as a boy and has some impressive climbing credits. But he had never been higher than 17,200 feet, which is lower than Everest's base camp. Nothing could have prepared him for Everest, of course, or for the storm that struck shortly after he descended the summit, or the one that raged in the months that followed.
Krakauer had no idea he was simultaneously climbing Everest and descending into human hell.
1996 was when a witches' brew of instant communication and commercial ambition focused outrage on what had, at best, always been a niche sport. Satellite links, cell phones, instant Internet updates and a drive to promote privately guided parties to the top of the world were acceptable only until disaster struck.
Overnight, accomplished, romantic explorers became irresponsible cowboys.
"Even before the calamitous outcome of the 1996 pre-monsoon climbing season, the proliferation of commercial expeditions over the past decade was a touchy issue," Krakauer writes. "Traditionalists were offended that the world's highest summit was being sold to rich parvenus -- some of whom, if denied the services of guides, would probably have difficulty making it to the top of a peak as modest as Mount Rainier. Everest, the purists sniffed, had been debased and profaned."
Put aside for now the propriety of experts guiding people who qualified to climb Everest by visiting EMS or Abercrombie & Fitch (three of Krakauer's party arrived at Everest base camp having never tried on their hiking boots) on such a hazardous trek.
No words can adequately relate the pain, deprivation, fear, luck or ceaseless challenges involved in climbing Everest. Yet Krakauer comes close enough for most of us.
Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached and returned from the summit on May 29, 1953, 630 people have stood triumphant at 29,028 feet. Starting with the first known attempt in 1924, 141 have died trying.
The extreme cold, weather conditions that only 747s are built to withstand, and an atmosphere with just a sliver of the oxygen of sea level, make climbing Everest the ultimate human physical test. But until the mid-1980s, Everest expeditions were usually national in nature, elite in composition and somehow noble of purpose.
Then corporate bombast mixed with thrill-seeking sports. Well-to-do people bankrolled everything from America's Cup yachts to balloon races around the equator.
The buy-a-ticket-to-Everest approach was inevitable.
In the spring climbing season of 1996, there were 15 expeditions on Everest, some more reputable than others and most of them commercial, rather than national.
Krakauer signed with renowned New Zealand guide Rob Hall, who when he died had climbed Everest eight times and reached the summit on four of those expeditions, an extraordinary record. The book obviously focuses on him and his group. A competing guide, Seattle-based Scott Fisher, was on a similar timetable and inevitably the two groups' paths crossed and they aided and competed with each other. Fisher would also die on Everest.
This set up a precarious balance in a logistical undertaking that allows no margin for elbowing people aside on a trail. Each guide staked his reputation and future livelihood on getting people to the top, at up to $65,000 a person.
Thus their motivations shifted from quiet inner pride at the achievement, to self-promotion and gaining bragging rights. These changes were in a realm where one misstep meant a 7,000-foot death drop. It all led to mistakes, ignoring steadfast rules of conduct on Everest, and death.
For instance, as difficult as getting up Everest is, insiders realize that getting down is what's really hard. Adrenaline pumping through the veins of climbers who already have overachieving personalities creates a "summit fever" that drives climbers beyond exhaustion -- and good sense -- to the top.
But climbing up is often less treacherous, glued in gravity's grasp, than climbing down, when gravity tries to push a climber off the icy mountain.
So by permitting himself and members of his party to reach the summit as long as three hours after an ironclad 2 p.m. "turnaround time," Hall apparently sealed his death and is responsible for the others in his crew. However, the question will never be answered: Did Hall and other guides, knowing their futures hinged on how many clients they put on the summit, make faulty decisions for themselves and those clients?
"Four of my teammates died not so much because Rob Hall's systems were faulty -- indeed, nobody's were better -- but because on Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance," Krakauer writes.
What focused world anguish were reports that the narrow, precarious access to the summit was actually clogged, like a rush-hour gridlock, with climbers vying to go up while others waited to go down, from this, supposedly the world's most remote spot.
This image of overweening, cynical human excess is nauseating.
That day, a 100 mph storm ripped the exposed, late-arriving climbers, who were already wracked by hypoxia and days without keeping down a good meal and a host of injuries and problems derived from being on the mountain for three weeks. And it hit in darkness.
Not all the experiences were tragic, and several were miraculous. But the events seem best summed up by the eerie spectacle of a trapped and disoriented Hall freezing to death in snow and wind just below the summit, yet able to communicate by cell phone with his wife in New Zealand and his frantic climbing peers protected in tents mere hundreds of feet below.
A difficult aspect of this book is that Krakauer -- though he conducted many post-climb interviews -- was in the thick of it. He is not the dispassionate investigator arriving after the fact. That's neither good nor bad in this context; it just is. He admits to errors, and acknowledges that he has been criticized by families of the injured and dead.
His defense, other than to recount the astounding conditions humans face in such an inhospitable place, relies on numbers. Eighty-four people reached the top of Everest that spring, and 12 died. That is half the historic ratio of success to death on the mountain.
Another problem with the book is the number of people involved. Krakauer lists 141 people whom he names and at least touches on in his account. His more in-depth profiles of the central people in his saga seem to have suffered in brevity through the book's editing.
As a result, beyond him and one or two others, a reader is hard-pressed to follow each person and know what the relationships are. In addition, just keeping track of everyone on the mountain is a major geography lesson.
Those warnings aside, this is a remarkable book for anyone who has ever wanted to know what it is like for people to push themselves to the edge of death but never wanted to go to Everest themselves.
The message is as stark as that rarely reached summit: Don't go there.
"There were many, many fine reasons not to go," Krakauer writes in his introduction, "but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act -- a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.
"The plain truth is that I knew better but I went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time."
Review Into Thin Air By Jon Krakauer Villard 293 pages, $24.95