Last year, writer Jon Krakauer was assigned by Outside magazine to find out firsthand if climbing to the top of Mount Everest, a feat not accomplished until 1953, had become, some 600 ascents later, such a pedestrian undertaking that it could now be done by mediocre mountaineers. Krakauer joined an expedition headed by a skilled New Zealand guide, Rob Hall, who had boasted of a "100 percent success rate" for his Everest customers. Scott Fischer, a U.S. guide who would lead a party alongside Hall's, was even more dismissive of the dangers in scaling the world's highest mountain. "We've built a yellow brick road to the summit," he said.
That confidence proved fatal. In this movingly written book, Krakauer describes an experience of such bone-chilling horror as to persuade even the most fanatical alpinists to seek sanctuary at sea level. Not that they're likely to do so. As Krakauer observes, "Climbers, as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence."
Krakauer, an experienced mountaineer, had never climbed above 17,200 feet, an altitude comparable to base camp-level on the 29,028-foot Everest. Many of his teammates, as well as members of Fischer's crew, were even less tested. Yet on May 10, 1996, 24 beleaguered men and women reached the summit. Krakauer was so exhausted, sick, confused with hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) and worried about the trip back down that he barely took in the view.
He was right to fear the descent: A rogue storm of hurricane force brought the windchill to-100� and trapped most of the climbers near the top. Eight, including Hall and Fischer, were killed in the worst single-day catastrophe in the history of the mountain.
Krakauer blames the competitiveness between the guides for the debacle. He also cites his own culpability. "I knew better but went to Everest anyway," he writes. "And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time."
Krakauer's harrowing tale will linger in the reader's memory as well.