My Book Choices For 2009
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"Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

I recently finished reading "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer - a best-selling eyewitness account of the 1996 Everest tragedy, where eight climbers were killed and many others were stranded near the top of Everest during a storm in May 1996. I decided to write a post on the book when I realized it held many valuable lessons on leadership for students and graduates, even if they have no interest in mountain-climbing.

Krakauer was at the time a journalist for Outside magazine with significant mountain-climbing experience. He had gained a spot on the team of famed guide Rob Hall, who had launched his Adventure Consultants company to guide clients on top of the world's highest mountains, in order to write about the commercialization of Mount Everest, i.e., the idea that wealthy people who had done relatively little mountain-climbing could get to the top of Everest if only they were willing to spend the money (the fee was about ยง65,000). The Adventure Consultants team happened to be on Everest at the same time as another commercial expedition led by accomplished climber Scott Fischer and his Mountain Madness company, as well as several other teams, some apparently inexperienced.  

I can't do the book any justice in a few paragraphs, so I'll simply mention the points that struck me most and hope that interested readers will buy Krakauer's book to get the full picture. It is worth saying upfront that both Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, who come across in the book as exceptionally competent and talented, died on Everest that day, along with some of their clients and a Sherpa. (The other Sherpa mentioned in the dedication page died later.)

A fundamental challenge in ascending peaks like Everest is that air above 8,000m becomes extremely rarefied. There are only fourteen mountains in the world with maximum altitudes higher than 8,000m and while top climbers strive to conquer every single one of them, that also means their brain faculties become severely impeded at such elevations and they cannot spend much time in the zone above 25,000 feet without endangering their lives, even when there is no storm. According to Krakauer, Rob Hall had a rule about turnaround times (to make sure his exhausted clients would be able to make it back to camp before dark, since they traveled light to the summit and did not have much equipment with them.) He had announced before the summit bid that the turnaround time on that day would be either 1pm or 2pm, depending on conditions. He does not appear to have communicated the actual time to anyone, including any of the other guides. On May 10, he waited until 4pm on the summit for his last client to arrive, before starting the descent.

An important question Krakauer raises is: why didn't Hall enforce his own rule? The journalist suggests several answers. That last client was a postal worker who had been turned around short of the summit the previous year, and had worked two jobs to fulfill his dream of climbing Everest. Little kids had sold T-Shirts to help him fund the trip. He was writing them postcards during the trip. The postal worker seems to have become increasingly focused on making the summit during the year between the two summit bids, and Hall had convinced him to give it another try by giving him a discount. Therefore, Hall was far more emotionally invested than usual in that specific client reaching the summit. (Which he did, but he died during the descent.)

In addition, both Hall and Fisher needed to guide as many clients to the top as possible to gain new clients in future years and see their climbing companies prosper. Although they respected each other, they also competed for business. The number of clients they would be able to bring to the top would directly affect their income stream in following years. Therefore, Hall and Fischer might have taken more risks than they would have with professional mountaineers. (Of course, it is likely neither Hall nor Fischer realized they were taking serious risks with their clients' lives and their own at the time, until it was too late.) Another point Krakauer courageously makes, although he is obviously uncomfortable with it, is that the presence of a journalist in the group (himself), who had been assigned the task of reporting on the expedition, might have pushed Hall and Fischer beyond their limits, again because they wanted good PR. The tragic outcome of the 1996 expedition emphasizes how emotional involvement can override rational safeguards and lead to catastrophes.

Another lesson of the book revolves around money as a motivator. I have already mentioned that money seems to have played an important role in Hall's and Fischer's decisions because they needed good PR to keep their companies in business. More generally, climbers needed to guide clients to the top in order to come up with the money to secure expedition permits, but some climbers do not come across, in Krakauer's book, as overly enthusiastic about focusing on clients. Anatoli Boukreev in particular, a top Russian guide on Scott Fischer's team, made the ascent without additional oxygen (something Krakauer points out is very unusual for guides, who need all their brainpower to help clients if the latter get in trouble), and started the descent once he had reached the summit without waiting for late clients (a decision necessitated by the fact he had no additional oxygen). This reminded me that not everyone who is technically skilled makes a good manager/supervisor. Boukreev did courageously attempt to rescue stranded climbers once he realized they were in trouble, but his portrayal in Krakauer's book created much animosity between Krakauer and him, as well as a co-author who helped Boukreev write his own version of what had happened. Even if Boukreev did perform heroically on the summit (something that will never be known for sure, since he died in 1997 on another mountain), Krakauer strongly suggests financial pressures played an indirect role in the tragedy, because guides were forced to accept people of various abilities on the team and needed the money to enjoy their own passion of the mountains in a financially viable scheme.

I was surprised to read about the ferocity of the personal attacks Krakauer was subjected to, after the publication of his book, from Boukreev's co-author (because Krakauer's version of the facts did not suit him, for obvious reasons). Krakauer provides a glimpse into some readers' reactions in the postscript, and shows that the truth antagonizes certain people more than any work of fiction would. Some people will not hesitate resorting to personal attacks to gain the upper hand, but Krakauer's book is now heralded as "one of the great adventure books of all time" by the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the drive and determination of the various protagonists, including the clients of the expeditions. In an environment where students face intense pressure to fit - and especially to shrink to fit - it is refreshing to read about people passionate about their lifestyle and pursuing their endeavors with single-minded determination.


Loved both books when I read them 10 years ago. It is one of those rare stories that regularly surface back into my mind.
I can see some parallels between the Everest and the scuba diving businesses in the tropics. People earning a living in a foreign land, doing what they love; they too have incentives to turn a blind eye to the expertise of their clients. Diving is nowhere near as deadly, though.

Hi Xavier,
great point about the scuba diving business! It makes a lot of sense.

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