I remember working at BARNES & NOBLE and always seeing large stacks of John Krakauer’s INTO THIN AIR appear during the “school reading season”; it was a very popular book chosen to be read by American high school students. And why not? A gripping, personal account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that also tries to examine why people risk their lives to climb to the highest peak on this earth.
But none of those same students are required to read THE CLIMB. I think that is a terrible shame. Sure, Boukreev’s account is not nearly as dramatically written — he was an experienced mountaineer who, while fully experiencing the tragedy, also had a more objective view of the situation due to having summited multiple 8,000m mountains (without the use of supplemental oxygen) in his time before the 1996 expedition. He is a climber, not a writer.
And I think that he also had more than every right to rebut Krakauer’s characterization of both him and his actions during those horrid hours and days upon the mountain. Whatever demons Krakauer was trying to exorcise from himself with the catharsis of INTO THIN AIR, he — either unintentionally or not — made out Boukreev as an intransigent employee who wilfully ignored his expedition leader, Scott Fischer, as well as the welfare of his own clients and cared only for himself. Yet, at the same time, Krakauer names Boukreev as a hero when he, on his own, went to rescue lost climbers out in the middle of a storm with hurricane-force winds, little-to-no visibility, after nightfall, and after he had summited and descended without the aid of supplemental oxygen.
So which is he? Selfish or selfless?
While I believe this book can give the impression that Boukreev didn’t make a single wrong decision during the entirety of the 1996 expedition, he has his own grief and demons to expel, and hearing him attempt to work through the horrors of that night is just as emotional and gripping as Krakauer’s, even if, say, the writing is not as dramatic. I also think that it is important to read both books, in order to get a better overview of all the scattered, moving pieces of that tragic night.
I can’t help but think of the quote that there are three sides to every story: your side, their side, and the truth. In this case, only the mountain — only Everest, knows the truth.