After Thin Air, The Legacy of the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy

Publication Year: 1999.

After Thin Air

The legacy of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy

by Michael Chessler

You already know the names of the mountain and the climbers. Climbing mania like this had never happened before. It started with what was supposed to be a routine guided ascent of the highest peak trod by man. The peak had first been climbed a half century before and the public knew only the names of the first two men to climb it. It came as a surprise to the nation that climbers were risking their lives and the lives of their guides while spending great sums of money to climb this peak. And then a sensational magazine article of the ascent led to a best-selling book. Soon everyone wanted to see and hear the author in person. The lectures seemed to go on forever, the media loved it and the multitude of related books became a publisher’s dream come true.

Soon everybody was talking about the famed expedition. Climbers and non-climbers alike debated the ethics and propriety of guided mountaineering. The author was thrust into a position as the leading authority on the subject, and everyone was moved by his book and lectures. He became rich from royalties, and his name will be forever associated with the peak he climbed but once. He is indelibly a part of mountaineering history and literature.

Oh! Did you think I was talking about Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air and Mount Everest? Heavens, no! I was talking about Albert Smith, The Story of Mont Blanc, and the Mont Blanc mania of the 1850s! Mountaineering, with its media extravaganzas and celebrities, triumphs and tragedies, rule makers and rule breakers, best-selling books and wannabe rebuttals, has been around since the sport was introduced on Mont Blanc by J. Balmat and Dr. M.G. Paccard on August 8, 1786, and became popular after Albert Smith’s lectures from 1852 to 1858.

The public has actually gone into a frenzy over mountaineering many times before. Besides Albert Smith in 1851 and Whymper’s Matterhorn climb in 1865, all the British Everest climbs from 1921 to 1953 were vigorously reported in the press and on the lecture circuit. John Noel made the first Everest films in 1922 and 1924, and in 1933 the first aerial movies of the peak were taken. These films saw wide circulation. According to Walt Unsworth, Mallory’s great line, “Because it is there,” was said to a reporter (undoubtedly looking for a sound bite) after one of his many lectures. The press also had seizures after Annapurna in 1950, the Everest first ascent in 1953, and when the Americans spent an unheard of $250,000 to climb it in 1963. (That was mostly media money, by the way.) John Harlin III noted that CBS did a special on his father’s death in 1966, and I remember cutting Eiger and Everest articles out of the New York Times in the 1960s. Life magazine put Bobby Kennedy’s down-jacketed image on its cover when he summited Mount Kennedy. It is therefore hardly surprising that today there are many climbers who regard the whole Krakauer-Everest phenomenon as a non-event, and have not read the book. It has all happened many times before.

Salkeld and Boyle’s 1993 bibliography Climbing Mount Everest listed 586 books on the mountain and 316 expeditions to climb it. Very few of these have become well known to the general public. The 620th ascent of Everest in 1996 was not expected to be book-worthy, either. While Into Thin Air has had the greatest impact on the public’s perception of climbing of any book in 50 years, the success of this book is clearly part of a much bigger story, one that reflects the nature of American society. Why did media and the public collapse into frenzy following Into Thin Air? Why did this Everest story make the big time when so many others did not?

Because Into Thin Air is the perfect story. Its major elements were suspense, adventure, death, money, ego, power, male rivalry, sex and the immortal battle with nature. It had a big media build-up. It had rich Americans risking their lives for no useful purpose, and spending an obscene amount of money doing it. It made us jealous and it made us angry—and the cameras caught it all. What could be a greater rush than climbing the world’s highest mountain and coming back to the adulation of friends and strangers? And what could be worse than squandering your money, being involved in a catastrophe, and having to spend the rest of your life explaining your hubris?

We were waiting for the tragedy to happen. We had the lights on and the cameras rolling, and Jon Krakauer just walked right into the picture. Americans love a good tragedy, and we want it on tape for the six o’clock news. Jack Ruby and Rodney King taught us the value of good film footage. There is a straight line from Abraham Zapruder to David Breashears. Today, news events may as well not have happened unless there is a camera recording it, and there were cameras aplenty on Everest on May 10, 1996. Three people were broadcasting the ascent on the Internet, Scott Fischer was making videos, and Rob Hall had a cell phone. Book and magazine contracts had been arranged, TV reports were being broadcast, and the David Breashears’ IMAX expedition stumbled onto the greatest story of their lives. Like many reporters today, they became a part of the story. Krakauer himself was on the mountain to report on the issues of guided climbs on Everest for the influential magazine Outside. As a top-notch and lucky journalist, he wrote the story he saw. When I asked Krakauer how he felt about what the media did to him and his book, he replied, “I am the media.”

At the time of the 1996 disaster, both TV and the print media went berserk. Gay Ellen Roesch, the newly hired librarian at the AAC, spent her first few months on the job fielding interminable media requests for facts, quotes, photos, history, film, but mostly, sound bites. I asked Mike Kennedy of Climbing magazine if, as a journalist, he felt like he was dealing with some imbecile cousins when the networks called. He could not give me a reply on the record. David Breashears describes most media interviews as follows. “They have no interest in what I’ve done. All they have is a keen interest in getting access to an event that riveted the world. They want to reduce the story to cliches.”

Into Thin Air sold 800,000 hardcover copies plus 1,760,000 copies in paperback. Those are big numbers. It has been translated into 19 languages. Into Thin Air was a hardcover, then a large-print book, an abridged cassette, an unabridged cassette, a CD, a mass-market paperback, an illustrated edition, a made-for-TV movie and a trade paperback. There is no other way to do the book.

And of all the climbing books in recent times, Into Thin Air was most intensely read! It appealed to both men and women; whole families read the book. It was taught in classrooms. Not an airplane or terminal in America lacked someone engrossed in the book. At every private gathering, people were discussing and arguing the ethics, judgment and sanity of the guides and clients, and the miracle of Beck Weathers.

Simultaneous with Into Thin Air’s high ride, the IMAX Everest film was filling theater seats across the country. Krakauer’s book and the IMAX movie created a whirlwind effect. Once you saw one, you had to see the other. The book had depth, emotion and details, while the film was visually breathtaking. If the IMAX Everest film was given a big boost by the success of Into Thin Air, in the end the IMAX film may have had a greater impact on the public because many more people saw it than read the book.

In America, we measure success in dollars. Using the dollar figures we know, it is possible to estimate the financial impact of the Everest tragedy. The IMAX movie grossed 60 million dollars, the Krakauer book grossed perhaps 50 million dollars. The other Everest books and movies added perhaps another 50 million dollars. Therefore, the books and films directly related to Everest 1996 may have generated 150 to 250 million dollars in revenue. Now add just the additional revenue earned by tangentially related films and books like Seven Years in Tibet and Endurance, all the TV shows and magazines sold, the charitable contributions and speaking fees, the trinket sales and publicity tours, the babysitter fees while the parents went out to see Krakauer and Breashears speak. This was a major international media and financial juggernaught that may have generated half a billion dollars in spending. That is why the media loves these tragedies so much.

There were two book and film tours going on in 1997. While Krakauer was playing to packed houses across America, he was being pushed by his publisher to add more cities and interviews. At the same time, David Breashears was hired by National Geographic to promote their book Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, written by Broughton Coburn as a tie-in to the IMAX film. The tours attracted crowds so large that some bookshops had to hire auditoriums.

When the IMAX film opened in May 1997, it was a fresh media event. Breashears attended over 20 grand openings and gave live talks to invited audiences of opinion leaders, often as benefits for the American Himalayan Foundation. He flew to Paris, the Netherlands and Japan for IMAX openings there. IMAX has dozens of theaters in Asia and Europe, and Everest was a huge hit in those places, too. He was on TV and radio: Larry King, National Public Radio, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder and even Conan O’Brien. When People magazine designated Breashears as the world’s “sexiest explorer,” the whole incident was reduced to a new level of farce.

These live presentations by the actual climbers brings us back again to Albert Smith. His live performance of Mont Blanc in London brought the drama of climbing home to everyone in the audience. It does not matter if you have read every book on Everest, seen the films, clicked on the websites. “The most memorable moment is when you shake hands with and speak to the climber himself,” says Breashears, whether it is Albert Smith, George Mallory, Krakauer, Breashears or Messner. “Only then does it becomes real for you.”

It is not surprising that the success of Into Thin Air also created a publishing outwash plain that many are calling a new genre of “true adventure.” Practically every major magazine featured the Everest story on its cover. Perhaps 10,000 climbing books have been published over the centuries, but to the experts of Madison Avenue, Into Thin Air was the first that mattered. First there was Broughton Coburn’s Everest, Mountain Without Mercy and Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston De Walt’s The Climb. Soon to follow were Matt Dickinson’s The Death Zone, Ed Douglas’s Chomolungma Sings the Blues, Joe Simpson’s Dark Shadows Falling, Roberto Mantovani’s Everest: History of The Himalayan Giant, Lene Gammelgard’s Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Climbing Everest, Mark Pfetzer’s Within Reach: My Everest Story, Colin Monteath’s Hall and Ball: Kiwi Mountaineers, Mike Groom’s Sheer Will and Cathy O’Dowd’s Everest: Free to Decide. A South African reporter named Ken Vernon has written Ascent and Dissent, a more complete version of the South Africans’ travails. Tom Hornbein’s Everest: The West Ridge has seen a considerable resurgence of interest because Krakauer refers to Hornbein as one of his mentors: Borders Books alone ordered 400 copies of Unsworth’s Everest history, entirely wiping out the publisher’s stock. While Krakauer’s other book, Into the Wild, was already on the best-seller list, the boost from the new book kept the old one selling for another two years. Some books are already collectible. Signed first editions of Into Thin Air sell for a mere $75 because there are 110,000 first editions. However, signed copies of Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb fetch $500 because he signed only a few before he died on Annapurna. And people want even more: I have been asked if Ed Viesturs is writing a book!

Then there was Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in The Woods, both of which made many best-seller lists. Margo Chisolm’s To The Summit, Ruth Ann Kocour’s Facing the Extreme, Jim Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger, Laura Evans’ Climb of My Life, Jon Waterman’s A Most Hostile Mountain, Kurt Willis’s trilogy Epic, High, and Rough Water, Wainwright’s Deathful Ridge: A Novel of Everest, Salkeld’s World Mountaineering and Poindexter’s To The Summit also followed. Finally, the most unlikely book to emerge as a best-seller was the 1997 American Alpine Journal. Because it had three articles on the 1996 Everest tragedy, the AAJ sold out within a year. Someone even asked me if the disaster was covered in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

In addition to all the new titles, there were also many reissues and new covers on mountaineering and polar classics. Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams got a new publisher and cover. In 1990, David Roberts and Jon Krakauer collaborated on a book called Iceland. At the time, the publisher asked Roberts, “Isn’t Krakauer a writer too?” Roberts jokingly replied, “No, he’s just a climber and photographer who writes if they can’t get a real writer.” But for a 1998 edition, Krakauer was given higher billing than his mentor Roberts. New paperbacks were also published of Harrer’s The White Spider, Olsen’s The Climb Up to Hell, Leamer’s Ascent, Lansing’s Endurance, Worsley’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey, Huntford’s Shackleton, Buhl’s Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, Benuzzi’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya. Houghton Mifflin asked if the time was right to re-issue Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy with a better cover. It was and they did. Soon to be reprinted are two of the best Everest books of all time: Unsworth’s Everest and Peter Gillman’s Everest: The Best Writing and Pictures From Seventy Years of Human Endeavour. Even Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm is seeing many sequels, all concerning death at sea, another hot topic. And there is tremendous interest in Shackleton’s expeditions as well, which is also related to the public’s thirst for true adventure and exploration heroes.

Publishers continue to cash in. 1999’s harvest of adventure books includes David Breashears’ High Exposure, Jeff Long’s novel The Descent, Ed Webster’s Snow on the Kingdom plus a Vittorio Sella photo book, Summit: Pioneering Mountaineering Photographer. Aperture, publisher of the Sella book, said specifically that they hoped it would benefit from the new interest in mountaineering. DeWalt is adding 40,000 words to a new edition of The Climb. Dickinson’s Death Zone is getting a new title, The Other Side of Everest. According to Audrey Salkeld, Goran Kropp, the Swedish cyclist and Everest soloist, has written Odyssey, Ed Douglas and David Rose have collaborated on a biography of Everest (and K2) summiter Alison Hargreaves, and Matt Dickinson has finished an Everest novel titled Bivouac. As for the future of adventure publishing, Krakauer is now advising Random House on a new line of adventure reprints, and Norton has teamed up with Outside magazine to do a series of adventure books, starting in the year 2000.

The Internet is the hot new medium, and it, too, had a major impact on Into Thin Air, and vice-versa. The expedition in 1996 and the book in 1997 coincided with a surge in Internet activity. Websites were pushing the Everest story, but to raise cash, selling climbing books became the obvious way to go. Thousands of books were sold over the Internet. It seems that now every Himalayan expedition has its own website. Larry Johnson, leader of the 1999 Everest expedition looking for Mallory’s remains, remarked that fund raising was certainly easier than if Into Thin Air had not happened.

Adventure films were also doing well. IMAX Everest was the big hit, and Breashears says that in his opinion Titanic’s incredible success stemmed partly from the public’s insatiable fascination with man against the elements. Into Thin Air’s made-for-TV-version, although derided by climbers, also had a big public impact. Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun were major Hollywood releases with appeal to climbers, although only the Brad Pitt film was a commercial success. The Fatal Game told a story similar to Into Thin Air and was a film festival and video hit. Some climbers preferred the video The Making of Everest IMAX over the actual IMAX film itself. The 1998 Nova special Everest: The Death Zone with Breashears and Viesturs also got approval from the climbing community. Goran Kropp, who summited Everest after everybody else went home, made a humorous film that was popular at film festivals. A trio of videos called Everest: Mountain of Dreams, Mountain of Doom has become a mass market best seller. Just received in for spring 1999 is a video by Alan Hobson and Jamie Clark called Above All Else: The Everest Dream.

In Hollywood, Universal studios has options on the stories of some of the other Everest 1996 climbers, and Tom Cruise has an option on Touching the Void. Jeff Long’s The Descent has major studio interest. Rumor has it that this fall the director of Zorro will start shooting a climbing action thriller called The Vertical Limit, based on a fictional ascent of K2.

How many of the above books and films would have been published, or sold as well as they did, if Into Thin Air had not been such a blockbuster? Many were undeniably in the works before Krakauer appeared, but Into Thin Air definitely was the spark that caused many authors and publishers to act. For example, Boukreev’s book was obviously written as a rebuttal to Krakauer’s. And it worked; several readers have said they think Boukreev’s is the better book with a more factual account of the climb.

Before Into Thin Air, the general public had no idea that such dangerous and expensive activities were taking place in the Himalaya. Unlike Messner and Bonington in Europe, no climber’s name has ever been a household word in America. Now everybody knows one climber’s name: Jon Krakauer. They read him and believed every word he said. Eventually the public got almost as caught up in the nitty-gritty arguments over turn-around times and oxygen use as climbers did. Every climber I asked corroborated that his non-climber friends turned to him for an explanation of what happened. This discussion of detail has an important purpose besides mere curiosity. Climbers are generally meticulous about getting to the “truth.” Examining the details is a way of dealing with the trauma of death. As John Harlin III, only ten years old in 1966 when his father plummeted from the Eiger, says of his experience, “I examined the evidence minutely to find out what went wrong on the climb, to assure myself that Dad had not made a mistake.”

They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and indeed Into Thin Air and the IMAX film had the ironic effect of creating a stampede of climbers and trekkers to the Himalaya. Professional guides have said that a routine phone call from a prospective client goes like this:

“I’d like to climb Mount Everest.”

“How much climbing have you done?”

“I’ve never climbed. I just want to climb Mount Everest.”

“Our policy is that all climbers be properly prepared. That means we will first teach you how to climb on Mount Rainier. Then you will climb McKinley or Aconcagua to get some altitude experience. If you do well at altitude, we can talk about the Himalaya.”

“Hell, I don’t want to climb Rainier or McKinley! I can only get a four-week vacation next year! I don’t have time for all that!” Click.

Jon Krakauer essentially stopped giving lectures and making public appearances when his book tour ended. He did make a few attempts at public discussion, though. One event was an on-line debate between DeWalt and Krakauer in an e-zine called Salon in the summer of 1998. Accusations were hurled, mostly at the deceased guides, but there was also a tasteless insinuation by DeWalt that, as a reporter, Krakauer’s presence itself contributed to the tragedy. There was also a juicy rumor going around that one of the Everest climbers had lawyers contacting Krakauer advising him to be careful about what he said in his book about their client. No wonder he has stopped lecturing. Random House still gets ten requests a week for him to speak. When Krakauer does choose to appear, such as at the American Himalayan Foundation’s annual dinner in 1998, the clamor for tickets is so great that you’d think John Lennon had returned for a reunion with his old band.

David Rosenthal, the editor and publisher of Into Thin Air, says, “At first Jon did not want to write the book, but catharsis was a major reason for doing so.” Krakauer happens to be an exceptionally gifted storyteller; his wordcraft has twice turned a good story into a great one. The function of a well-written, timely and well-promoted book is to bring attention to what is ordinary and make it noteworthy. David Rosenthal had the vision to see that potential in Jon Krakauer, and that’s the fundamental reason why Into Thin Air came to be written.

The subtitle of Into Thin Air is A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, and nothing could be more truthful. Krakauer has said that he wished the book had stopped selling a half million copies ago. When Krakauer realized what the American Himalayan Foundation was doing for the indigenous people in the Himalaya, he changed the thrust of his lectures. He offered to personally match dollar-for-dollar any contributions his audiences made to the AHF and has given over $100,000.

If there is to be a beneficial legacy to the lives lost and the aftermath of the climb, it is what the climbers have done themselves. Norbu Tenzing, whose family has produced 11 Everest summiters, says, “This book and film have done more good for the people of Nepal than any single event since the first ascent by my Dad and Hillary in 1953.” Another positive result of the Everest tragedy is that some of the proceeds from Anatoli Boukreev’s book The Climb have been donated to the Kazak Army Sports Club to continue the mountaineering programs that lost their funding after the fall of communism. Linda Wylie, Boukreev’s girlfriend, initiated this financial aid in Boukreev’s name as something that he certainly would have wanted to do with the unexpected windfall from his book. While there is little more to be learned by debating why Boukreev descended ahead of his clients, or why Rob Hall and Scott Fischer did not turn their clients around at 2 p.m., there is much to be gained by taking some of the money from the sale of three million books, and giving it to people who need it.

Trying to affix blame for the deaths of climbers has happened before. Just look at the controversy surrounding Wiessner’s actions on his 1939 K2 expedition. Whymper’s 1865 ascent of the Matterhorn caused a controversy that simmered for 50 years. Arnold Lunn writes, “Queen Victoria was deeply shocked, and asked the Lord Chamberlain if something could not be done to stop mountaineering by law.” (National Park Service, take note!) Whymper’s telling of that tragedy in Scrambles Amongst The Alps has a direct parallel to Everest in 1996: a killer peak was climbed at inordinate loss of life, a book was written to huge public acclaim, the author became wealthy from the royalties, and he was nailed by his critics. I predict that in 20 years, should you mention Everest to Jon Krakauer, his reaction will be much the same as Ed Hillary’s today: he’ll reluctantly say a few words he’s said a thousand times before, and politely try to change the subject to something more important and timely. If Jon Krakauer can put Into Thin Air behind him, then maybe it’s time for the rest of us to do so as well.

So what will be the long-term effects of Into Thin Air? If history is a guide, the public will forget about climbing until another tragedy occurs. Jon Krakauer will fade from the public’s eye because he wants to. Some climbers will always admire him for his writing and his good works, while others will always feel that Boukreev’s version was right. Into Thin Air will become one more in a line of classic expedition accounts that stretches back to Scrambles Amongst the Alps. The copyright on Into Thin Air and IMAX Everest will run out in 95 years; I for one look forward to reading the multi-media centenary edition in 2097, with a built-in copy of the IMAX film on mini-DVD to watch in my nursing home. Guided Himalayan climbing will continue, because there will always be those who want to climb mountains and cannot do it any other way. Mount Everest itself will never lose its allure, even though it will have long since become, as Alfred Mummery once said of the Grepon, “an easy day for a lady.”