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Into Thin Air | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Magazine writer and mountain climber Jon Krakauer was catapulted to fame by a disaster on Mount Everest in 1996. His team, as well as groups of other climbers, were trapped on the mountain in a deadly blizzard that cost the lives of eight climbers. Krakauer wrote an account of the events of those days for Outside magazine and then expanded the story into his best-selling book, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997. The book has been translated into more two dozen languages and was named Time magazine's Book of the Year.

Krakauer established a memorial fund with the proceeds of his book, helping children, veterans, and women with the funds he raised. He continued writing, both magazine articles and best-selling nonfiction, and was the recipient of an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, which honored writers of "exceptional accomplishment." In their citation, the Academy stated, "His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general reevaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport."

1. Krakauer considers climbing Mt. Everest his "biggest mistake."

After the disasters on the Mount Everest trip that Krakauer documented in Into Thin Air, he suffered for years with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he still suffers "from what happened. I'm glad I wrote a book about it, but you know, if I could go back and relive my life, I never would have climbed Everest." After experiencing the deaths of four climbers in his expedition, he advised others considering the climb, "I'm the last person who should tell people not to do crazy s**t. But think twice about it."

2. Climber Lou Kasischke blamed Krakauer for much of what happened on Mount Everest.

Lou Kasischke, a lawyer from Massachusetts, was one of the members of the ill-fated 1996 Everest attempt. He related in his own book, After the Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy—One Survivor's Story (2014), how he neared the summit of Mount Everest later than advised. He knew that when the sun set he'd be descending in darkness. He had been a climber for 25 years and knew the risks, and he turned around before summiting. Though many blamed the weather on the mountain for the deaths of eight climbers, Kasischke claimed that the addition of Krakauer, a reporter, to the climbing group made the stakes higher for those who led the expedition. This resulted in riskier choices that caused the deaths of the climbers.

3. Krakauer blames himself for the death of climber Andy Harris.

One of the eight who died on Mount Everest during the 1996 expedition was Andy Harris, a young guide from New Zealand. When a blizzard struck during the expedition's attempt to summit the mountain, climbers Doug Hanson and Rob Hall were stranded high on the slope and doing poorly. Harris decided to try to bring oxygen to the two stranded men. He reached them but was never seen again; it's assumed he fell to his death while suffering from oxygen deprivation. About his death, Krakauer said:

There is no way I should have ever headed down to camp and left him high on the mountain. I should have recognized that he was hypoxic and in trouble.

4. A climber who was severely injured during the climb said he would do it again "in a heartbeat."

Beck Weathers was one of 10 climbers stranded on Everest in the May blizzard in 1996. The oxygen was gone, and Weathers had gone nearly blind, a result of the high altitude creating complications from an eye surgery he'd had before the expedition. He lost consciousness, and when other climbers reached the group and began helping the others to safety, they wrote Weathers off, assuming he would die. In the morning, the group running the expedition called his wife to tell her he was dead. But Weathers regained consciousness and walked on his own into camp. He lost an arm and most of the other hand, and his nose had to be rebuilt with flesh from his neck. When asked if he would make the same choice to climb again, however, he responded:

If I knew exactly what was going to happen to me on that mountain, every horrific moment and the aftermath of trying to claw your way back out of that hole once you get back, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Because I gained so much more than I lost.

5. Sherpa guides die often on Mount Everest, though not as often as the people they are guiding.

Sherpas, Nepalese guides who set up the camps and carry the gear for the climbers who attempt to summit Mount Everest, have often died on the mountain. Between 1950 and 2009, 224 Sherpas and 608 climbers died on mountains in Nepal, including Mount Everest. While the mountain is getting safer for Westerners, it is not safer for Sherpas, who are not provided with medication and oxygen to combat the effects of altitude. However, there were no Sherpa deaths on the expedition recounted in Into Thin Air.

6. Socialite Sandy Hill was mocked for her behavior on Mount Everest after Krakauer's book came out.

Sandy Hill Pittman was a wealthy New Yorker who decided to try climbing Mount Everest. She planned to tie in her climb with various sponsors, including magazines, NBC, and clothing manufacturers. Pittman did summit, but on the way down she lost strength quickly. The blizzard hit, and Pittman stopped moving. A Russian guide named Anatoli Boukreev finally dragged her back to camp. Supposedly, she never thanked him for saving her life. After the disaster, she was mocked for her ambition and self-centeredness. Boukreev said about her, "Princess Sandy. Very rich, very spoiled." Some called her "Sandy Pittbull," and Krakauer referred to her as a "diva."

7. Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev was angry about Krakauer's depiction of him.

Anatoli Boukreev, one of the guides on the 1996 expeditions in Into Thin Air, wrote a response to the article Krakauer initially filed about the disaster. Boukreev objected to Krakauer's depiction of his quick descent from the mountain and criticism of his clothing on the climb. Boukreev stated that the descent was necessary to save his own life and allow him to help others. He claimed that his clothing was the "latest, highest quality, high altitude gear, comparable, if not better, than that worn by the other members of our expedition." Boukreev's efforts after his descent saved three of the climbers. In his defense, Boukreev said:

My decisions and actions were based upon more than twenty years of high altitude climbing experience. In my career I have summitted Everest three times.

Sadly, Boukreev died in an avalanche on Mount Everest in 1998.

8. Krakauer now thinks of Mount Everest as "the geologic embodiment of myth."

After the disaster on Mount Everest, Krakauer reflected on why people climb the mountain. He said that although he nearly died on Everest—and others did—he "came away with infinitely more respect for it." But he felt that the mountain "warps people" and in fact attracts people who are compulsive about climbing. They see Everest as the ultimate summit, as something more than just a mountain. He mused:

I guess maybe we should think of Everest not as a mountain, but as the geologic embodiment of myth. And when you try to climb a chunk of myth—as I discovered to my lasting regret—you shouldn't be too surprised when you wind up with a lot more than you bargained for.

9. The 2015 film Everest was based on the events in the book, though not on the book itself.

The movie Everest tells the same story that Krakauer's Into Thin Air tells, but it is based on fellow climber Beck Weathers's account of the disaster, Left for Dead (2000). The movie also uses audiotapes from the day the disaster occurred, incorporating them into the story arc. The director, Baltasar Kormákur, said he was uninterested in using Krakauer's account, claiming, "I've seen a lot of movies about writers. His book is a first-person account and there are a lot of things that he assumes or thought that happened that didn't really happen."

10. A comedian wrote a parody of Into Thin Air called Into Hot Air.

In 2007, comedian Chris Elliott, son of radio comedian Bob Elliott, published a book titled Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest. In the book, the author climbs the peak, carrying documentarian Michael Moore on his back. They encounter Nazi gnomes and yetis on the way, and the author has his prosthetic nose blown off in a blizzard. In an interview with Sierra magazine, Elliott was asked how much research he did for the book. His response: "Virtually none. I did watch a couple of documentaries on the subject. I tried to weave in some of what I'd learned from the Discovery Channel."

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