Book Review: Into Thin Air (1997) by Jon Krakauer

This book retells the catastrophic attempts at climbing Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 that cost 12 people their lives. There are many versions of what really happened and a lot of the central characters died and can’t tell their story. There is also the fact that even with supplemental oxygen most witnesses are telling it the way the saw it when they were tired, confused and suffering from various conditions related to extreme altitude.

That said, the book is an interesting look at what psychologists call Sensation Seeking (SS), a trait characterized as a need for intense, novel  and complex stimuli. Research shows that those attempting to climb Everest have this trait. If you look at other traits it is similar to the psychiatric term ADHD and also to Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Psychopathy.

Superficially, sensation seekers appear like exciting and adventurous people. Scott Fischer, the leader of one of the expeditions is a typical example: gregarious, energetic and willing to take great risk – he once fell 80 feet to the ground and survived – with a childlike enthusiasm and a strong will power. He made friends easily and women were drawn to his charismatic personality. He exercised vigorously, but also drank and smoked a lot of pot.

While this may sound charming SS is also a trait that excludes a fair amount of empathy. They may make friends easily but their main concern is always about getting their kicks. The author Jon Krakauer indirectly admits this himself when his wife Linda blames him for taking a risk of this magnitude: “If you get killed, it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay too, you know, for the reast of my life. Doesn’t that matter to you?”  to which Krakauer answers, “I’m not going to get killed. Don’t be melodramatic.”

Something about how these men and women are wired drive makes them engage in dangerous activities like climbing or other extreme sports, but also crime and drugs. They rarely plan things and if they do they rarely stick to the plan. As for climbing in high altitude the attraction seems to be danger itself more than anything else. It’s not technical and you’re too tired or ill to enjoy the experience as such. As Krakauer puts it, “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality…” But once people started dying the titillation switched to horror and trauma followed by depression and survivor’s guilt.

The book follows a number of characters of this kind who were attempting to climb Everest at the time, not just from the expedition that Krakauer was a member of. It’s an extremely tough bunch who keep their calm in the face of mortal danger as well as in the face of certain amputation due to frostbite. Their attitude makes it a little easier to read about these horrors but it’s still a pretty scary book, even though Krakauer does nothing to dramatize. As a journalist from Outside Magazine he was there to report about the modern day expeditions and the commercialization of Everest. And he has kept a simple and matter-of-fact tone in the book, which makes it all the more authentic.

It’s a story about pain, suffering, loads of amputations, and of course death. But it’s also story about miraculous recoveries, friendship and true heroism. It’s not for the faint of heart, I personally felt disturbed at times when I read it. But as source of knowledge about the sensation seeking personality it’s a veritable goldmine.

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