Outside magazine, September 1996
Into Thin Air
Everest deals with trespassers harshly: the dead vanish beneath the snows. While the living struggle to explain
what happened. And why. A survivor of the mountain's worst disaster examines the business of Mount Everest
and the steep price of ambition.
By Jon Krakauer
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the
ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at
the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a
spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion
that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing
on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.
It was the afternoon of May 10. I hadn't slept in 57 hours. The only food I'd been able to force down over the
preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&M's. Weeks of violent coughing had left
me with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in
the troposphere, there was so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under
the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.
I'd arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide with an American expedition, and
just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide with the New Zealand-based commercial team that I was a part of and someone
with whom I'd grown to be friends during the last six weeks. I snapped four quick photos of Harris and Boukreev
striking summit poses, and then turned and started down. My watch read 1:17 P.M. All told, I'd spent less than five
minutes on the roof of the world.
After a few steps, I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the Southeast Ridge, the route we had
ascended. Training my lens on a pair of climbers approaching the summit, I saw something that until that moment had
escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds
now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.
Days later--after six bodies had been found, after a search for two others had been abandoned, after surgeons had
amputated the gangrenous right hand of my teammate Beck Weathers--people would ask why, if the weather had
begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides
keep moving upward, leading a gaggle of amateurs, each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be ushered safely
up Everest, into an apparent death trap?
Nobody can speak for the leaders of the two guided groups involved, for both men are now dead. But I can attest that
nothing I saw early on the afternoon of May 10 suggested that a murderous storm was about to bear down on us. To