Two Days On Top Of The World

IT IS ONE OF THE CRUELEST SURPRISES of middle age, that life holds challenges for which no amount of time on the StairMaster can prepare one. Climbing Mount Everest, for instance; the eight men and women who died there on May 10 and 11 last year were all fit, experienced climbers, and two of them--expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer--were considered among the best in the world. But the mountain claims whom it will, the strong and the struggling alike--which is the essential lesson of Into Thin Air (293 pages. Villard. $24), journalist Jon Krakauer's firsthand account of those two fateful days on the highest place on Earth.

Krakauer's book is remarkable for its cleareyed refusal to give the reader even a token reason for ever gong above sea level. Short of mosquito bites, nature inflicted every imaginable torture on these adventurers, including thunderous diarrhea, continuous headaches and dry coughs violent enough to cause separated ribs. By the time Krakauer reached the summit, 57 hours after he'd last slept, he writes, "I just couldn't summon the energy to care." In less than five minutes, he was hurrying back down--and at that he was almost too late.

The disaster caused by the store that blew in on the afternoon of May 10 was reported almost as it happened on the Internet, covered extensively in the media and authoritatively recounted last fall in Krakauer's haunting 17,000-word article in Outside magazine. The new book adds details to these accounts, but contains only one significant new revelation, an extremely painful one for Krakauer. It was he who had reported seeing guide Andy Harris, a close friend, walking safely into camp at the height of the storm, information that had been relayed to Harris's family in New Zealand. This turned out to be premature; the next morning, Harris was nowhere to be found. Krakauer wrote that the exhausted guide must have walked right past the tents and over a precipice. But not long after his magazine piece appeared, Krakauer chanted to interview another one of the dozens of climbers on the mountain that day, and to his horror he realized that it was actually that man whom he had seen stumbling toward the tents. Harris evidently died much higher up on the mountain. His body has not been found.

Krakauer adheres to the disaster-book convention that the ghastly denouement must be the result of a series of small missteps, each seemingly innocuous. He doesn't seem to buy the idea, advanced by superstitious Sherpas, that the gods were angered by an unidentified female climber's fling with another expedition member in her sleeping bag on Everest's sacred slopes. But Krakauer doesn't hide his contempt for certain of his fellow climbers, notably the New York socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who was on a well-publicized venture to climb the highest mountain on each continent. For several hours, he writes, she was "short-roped" to Fischer's head Sherpa, hauled up the mountain by him on a three-foot tether. As a result, the Sherpa was unavailable to string ropes on the last, crucial section of the route. "Sandy is scary," Krakauer told Men's Journal, apropos of an obscure disagreement over how much oxygen she'd used on the ascent. "She's in her own world." Guide Anatoli Boukreev, who heroically rescued several lost climbers late that night, comes under scrutiny for his decision to make the ascent without oxygen, a stunt that in Krakauer's judgment reduced his effectiveness in critical moments at the summit.

In the final analysis, though, what did the climbers in was an accident of timing, a storm (not an unusual one for Everest, Krakauer notes) that blew in just as tired climbers were about to begin their dangerous descent. In that sense, it could have happened to anyone. That's a sobering fact for readers of the book-and the hundreds of climbers marshaled on Everest's flanks last week for their try at the mountain.