In 1996, a number of expedition teams ascended Mount Everest. During May, a storm hit Everest, causing lives to be lost. This event is now known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, and it brought changes to mountain climbing. Numerous individuals wrote about the events that occurred during this climb. Among these individuals was Jon Krakauer, a writer and member of Rob Hall’s expedition team, who provided his account of the events in his book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.
Krakauer’s book was met with criticism from other climbers and mountaineers. His credibility was questioned as well because of the effects that high altitudes have on the human body. Perhaps the most critical of Krakauer was Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev was a climber in Scott Fischer’s group that felt there were inaccuracies and that he was painted in a bad light in Into Thin Air. His book, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, is Boukreev’s account of the Mount Everest climb. In his book, he criticizes a lot of the events Krakauer wrote of.
Krakauer was working for Outside, an outdoor recreational activities magazine to write an article about the expedition. Boukreev states that Krakauer was originally supposed to be a member of his climb team (10), but the magazine was trying to find the team that would cost the least for Krakauer to join. Initially, Krakauer had given compliments to Fischer’s team, saying that they were the best climbers (Boukreev and DeWalt 10). However, Rob Hall’s team offered a lower price, so Krakauer was put on their team (Boukreev and DeWalt 11).
There was possible tension between the two groups because of this, bringing into question whether the way that Krakauer portrayed Scott Fischer’s group in his book was accurate, or if it was about personal feelings. Another instance that Boukreev disputed was one regarding fixed ropes. Fixed ropes allowed climbers to clip onto them, to reduce the risk of falling. A rope between Camp IV and the summit was supposed to be fixed, but it was not (Boukreev and DeWalt 136). One of the people that was supposed to fix the rope was told it was already done.
Still, Krakauer said that the reason the rope was not fixed was because they were not willing to cooperate and wanted to stay in their sleeping bags (Krakauer 160). According to Boukreev, Krakauer only had circumstantial evidence regarding his theory and Boukreev provided alternate theories that any other person should have considered (137). There were also inconsistencies in both accounts about saving oxygen. At one point, Krakauer asks who he believes to be Andy Harris to turn down his oxygen tank so he can conserve it (Krakauer 7). Boukreev mentions this encounter in his book, but it is not the same as Krakauer described.
A direct quote from Martin Adams explains that Krakauer had asked Adams to turn his oxygen up (Boukreev and DeWalt 148). Later on, Krakauer and Adams were speaking, when Krakauer mentions that Harris accidentally turned his oxygen up when he said he wanted it down. Adams insisted that Krakauer spoke to him, not to Harris (Boukreev and DeWalt 215). Krakauer did not believe him due to lack of evidence (Boukreev and DeWalt 215), casting doubt on which of the events that Krakauer had written about actually happened and which had misconstrued details.
These are just a few of the differences in events that both Krakauer and Boukreev wrote about. Galen Rowell was a famous mountaineer who also commented on Krakauer’s accounts. He wrote a review for the American Alpine Journal that was featured in Boukreev’s book and criticized not only Krakauer but also Boukreev, offering no apparent bias to either side. Rowell stated that Boukreev was unable to acknowledge human error, and instead only mentions being stubborn (Boukreev and DeWalt 301). Krakauer was able to acknowledge failures due to human mistakes, which would make for a more appealing book (Boukreev and DeWalt 301).
Rowell mentioned that unlike Into Thin Air, Boukreev’s The Climb forces the reader to think, instead of just reading (Boukreev and DeWalt 301). Boukreev wrote his book in a manner that respected other climbers, while Krakauer wrote his in a paparazzi-like manner, removing the honor of the other climbers (Boukreev and DeWalt 302). Krakauer, working for a magazine, may be used to writing in this way, and it would certainly have an effect on the way that the climbers were received. Rowell knew some of the climbers that were members of the 1996 expedition, so his opinion on how they were portrayed may have been subjective.
Still, Rowell offered a third opinion from an outside source, not directly involved in the matter. His view brings doubt to the accuracy of both Boukreev’s and Krakauer’s accounts of the events. Questionable additionally was Jon Krakauer’s mental state. Climbing to high altitudes has significant effects on the human body. Altitude sickness and hypoxia are extremely serious ailments that affect the brain and body. Not to mention that climbing a severe slope would cause exhaustion, which has poor effects on the mind too.
Altitude sickness has been known to have symptoms such as vision problems, reduced awareness, shortened memory, poor judgement, lowered attention span, and changes in mood (“Altitude Effects on the Human Body”). If vision problems were affecting Krakauer, he may not have been seeing what he thought he was and therefore could have recorded events improperly. With reduced awareness and lowered attention span, Krakauer would have experienced difficulties in focusing and recognizing what was happening around him, again bringing question to whether the events he recorded were accurate.
Krakauer himself stated that the altitude had made events, especially the times they occurred, hard to recall (Krakauer xvi). He had to check with other climbers about events during and after, to be sure he was accurately remembering what had transpired (xvi). Changes in mood and poor judgement could explain Krakauer’s characterization of Boukreev. If Boukreev was truly represented poorly in Into Thin Air, it could have been due to Krakauer having altitude sickness. Cerebral hypoxia is caused by high altitudes, like altitude sickness. Hypoxia occurs when there is a lack of oxygen to the brain (“Cerebral Hypoxia”).
High altitudes have lower supplies of oxygen, so when a climber is not acclimated properly, the brain is deprived of the oxygen it relies on. A lack of oxygen can cause brain cells to die, and it is not uncommon for brain damage to occur with hypoxia (“Cerebral Hypoxia”). Like altitude sickness, hypoxia can cause poor judgement and negligence (“Cerebral Hypoxia”). Krakauer could have easily been suffering from altitude sickness or hypoxia, which would have impaired his recollection of the events that occurred. The effects of exhaustion on the mind are just as bad.
Exhaustion, like hypoxia and altitude sickness, causes poor judgement, inattentiveness, shortened memory, and lowered attention span (“Fatigue”). In addition to these effects, exhaustion can also cause hallucinations (“Fatigue”). Krakauer did not state anything wild like seeing extra canisters of oxygen that were not really there, but something minor that Krakauer claimed to witness may not have actually happened if Krakauer was experiencing any hallucinations. The effects of such a high altitude on the human body are severe and it is difficult to tell which of these ailments Krakauer experienced.
By not being present at the expedition, it will never be known exactly how Krakauer was feeling and if he was displaying any of these symptoms. However, the possibility of these symptoms does affect Krakauer’s credibility, as it is possible that he inaccurately described the events that happened on that mountain. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air told the story of a dangerous mountain expedition that ended with lives being lost. His reliability has been questioned ever since his book was released. Anatoli Boukreev’s testimonies against Krakauer did not stifle this controversy, but rather fueled it.
Questions regarding ethics, character portrayals, and state of mind arose. The other climbers that told their stories provided a new, unique perspective. Some of their stories corroborated Krakauer’s events, though others’ sided more with Boukreev. While the media and general public can speculate all they want about who was telling the true facts, what actually happened on that mountain, and who was responsible for the deaths that occurred, the only ones that know the real answers are those that took part of that 1996 Mount Everest expedition.