Starred review from April 21, 1997
What set out to be a magazine article on top-of-the-line tours that promise safe ascents of Mt. Everest to amateur climbers has become a gripping story of a 1996 expedition gone awry and of the ensuing disaster that killed two top guides, a sherpa and several clients. "Climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain," writes Krakauer (Into the Wild). "And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering... most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace." High-altitude climbers are an eccentric breed--Olympian idealists, dreamers, consummate sportsmen, egomaniacs and thrill-seekers. Excerpts from the writings of several of the best-known of them, including Sir Edmund Hillary, kick off Krakauer's intense reports on each leg of the ill-fated expedition. His own descriptions of the splendid landscape are exhilarating. Survival on Mt. Everest in the "Dead Zone" above 25,000 feet demands incredible self-reliance, responsible guides, supplemental oxygen and ideal weather conditions. The margin of error is nil and marketplace priorities can lead to disaster; and so Krakauer criticizes the commercialization of mountaineering. But while his reports of guides' bad judgments are disturbing, they evoke in him and in the reader more compassion than wrath, for, in the Dead Zone, experts lose their wits nearly as easily as novices. The intensity of the tragedy is haunting, and Krakauer's graphic writing drives it home: one survivor's face "was hideously swollen; splotches of deep, ink-black frostbite covered his nose and cheeks." On the sacred mountain Sagarmatha, the Nepalese name for Everest, the frozen corpses of fallen climbers spot the windswept routes; they will never be buried, but in this superb adventure tale they have found a fitting monument. Author tour.