According to my wife, I have a weird streak (or two). Last time she said so was this weekend, when I bought pink converse sneakers (with pink soles!) and a gym outfit that looked like the cat threw up on it (it is colorful in a splashy kind of way). But she says it most often when she looks at my book shelves.
It is true: I have a number of (literary) interests that seem totally unconnected to each other and to me. On my shelves, (pulp) fantasy sits cheek by jowl with Shakespeare. I read about performance art, shipbuilding, russian cooking, concentration camps, the history of opera, arctic exploration, and a lot of other things. And I have a whole shelf on mountaineering.
This post is about the mountaineering shelf, or at least: the book that started me off as a passionate armchair mountaineer. If that makes you want to go ‘ok thanks bye’: PLEASE DON’T! I’m not going to recommend a book about climbing knots, techniques or gear. I wouldn’t know a Münter-Mule-Overhand Knot if it hit me in the face. I’m talking: greatest-story-ever-told stuff.
I must have picked up “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer quite by accident, many years ago now. I didn’t know the guy (that was long before “Into the Wild”, which he became famous for) and I didn’t particularly care about mountains. As far as I was concerned, mountains were just there, and some people climb them, and some mountains are harder to climb than others, and well, that’s it.
“Into Thin Air” swiftly disabused me of that idea. High-altitude climbing is years of prep + people skills + diplomacy + politics + survival of the fittest + tactics + heroism + gamble + a great deal of sheer luck + a zillion more things. I learned so much!
I didn’t know that, once you’re in the Everest death zone, you get 1 shot for the summit. That is: if the weather permits. If it doesn’t, your years of
“Into Thin Air” is the true story of a 24-hour period on Everest, when members of three separate expeditions were caught in a storm, and many – including highly experienced guides – lost their lives. Krakauer – a journalist as well as a seasoned climber – was on this fateful expedition and thus in the best possible position to tell the story. And what a story it is!
Even though I knew the outcome – it is based on a true and widely covered facts – I read with bated breath and beating heart. I simply raced through the book. It’s a sad story, and deeply troubling in a way, but it was so insanely good it katapulted me into months of non-stop mountain reading. And even though the Mountain Mania has abated a little now, I still read at least one mountain book a year.
So, whether you’ll spend your holidays in a cold climate, on a beach, or at home in the backyard: this is a terrific read. With a ‘disclaimer’ from me: might get you lost in a rabbit hole of mountaineering stories before you realized what’s happening. Enjoy!