Krakauer, Jon 1954–

views updated

Krakauer, Jon 1954–

PERSONAL: Born 1954, in Oregon; married. Education: Hampshire College, bachelor's degree, 1976. Hobbies and other interests: Mountain climbing.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Author Mail, Doubleday Broadway Group, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

CAREER: Journalist. Worked variously as a carpenter and salmon fisherman, c. 1970s; freelance writer, 1983–; Everest '96 Memorial Fund, founder. Member of board, American Himalayan Foundation, and Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Award, 1997; Walter Sullivan Allen Award, American Geophysical Union, 1997, for excellence in science journalism; Time book of the year designation, New York Times best books of the year designation, and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, all 1997, and Pulitzer Prize finalist in general nonfiction, 1998, all for Into Thin Air; Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1999; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 2003, for Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.


Eiger Dreams: Ventures among Men and Mountains (essay collection), Lyons and Burford (New York, NY), 1990.

(Photographer) Iceland: Land of the Sagas, (travelogue), text by David Roberts, Abrams (New York, NY), 1990.

(Author of foreword) David Roberts, The Mountain of My Fear, Mountaineers Books, 1991.

Into the Wild (nonfiction), Villard (New York, NY), 1996.

(Author of foreword) David Roberts, Escape Routes: Further Adventure Writings, Mountaineers Books, 1997.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, Villard (New York, NY), 1998.

(With David F. Breashears) High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

(Author of introduction) Jamling Tenzing Norgay, with Broughton Coburn, Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.

(Author of preface) Valerian Albanov, In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic, introduction by David Roberts, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Smithsonian, EO, Architectural Digest, Rolling Stone, Time, Washington Post, New York Times, and National Geographic. Contributing editor to Outside magazine.

Into Thin Air has been translated into over twenty languages.


Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole, revised edition, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Storm: The Conquest for the Great North Faces of the Alps, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Francis Parkman, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

Chauncey Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

Robert Dunn, The Shameless Diary of an Explorer, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

ADAPTATIONS: Into Thin Air has been recorded as an audiobook, read by the author, BDD Audio, 1997, and was adapted as a television film, 1998.

SIDELIGHTS: Best known as the author of the gripping 1997 book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, which describes a mountaineering tragedy, Jon Krakauer is a journalist and nonfiction author whose award-winning writings on mountain climbing and other sports combine the knowledge of the insider with the writer's sense of dramatic and well-timed storytelling. Critics have recommended the author's first book-length publication, Eiger Dreams: Ventures among Men and Mountains, a collection of essays on mountain climbing, for armchair adventurers, novices, and experienced climbers alike, praising its thrilling subject matter and Krakauer's unpretentious prose style. Krakauer's second book, Into the Wild, reconstructs the last days of Christopher McCandless, a young man who gave away all his possessions and traveled to the Alaskan wilderness only to die of starvation in an abandoned bus. Drawing on numerous interviews, Krakauer paints a touching picture of the troubled young man, while also attempting to understand the motivations for McCandless's trip to one of nature's most forbidding landscapes.

Eiger Dreams is a collection of twelve essays, several featuring famous eccentrics of the mountain-climbing set—including John Gill, who climbs boulders, and the Burgess twins, who, without an income, manage to travel the world climbing its most challenging peaks—while others center on the mountains themselves. The Eiger of the title is a fiercely difficult mountain in Switzerland that the author attempted and failed to climb, providing one of the occasional moments of humor in these adventure-filled pages. "Krakauer conveys well the formidable, even terrifying aspects of the sport," emphasized a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews. Tim Cahill, critic for the New York Times Book Review, singled out the author's avoidance of the clichés of "conquering" mountain peaks, and the trite epiphanies that occur there: "There is a beauty in his mountains beyond that expressed in conventional sermons. His reverence is earned, and it's entirely genuine."

Krakauer's Into the Wild, is the nonfiction account of the life and death of McCandless. A brilliant young man from a loving and prosperous family, McCandless abandoned his upper-middle-class existence to live the simple unencumbered life of a wanderer, influenced by the example of earlier American writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. In April of 1992 he hitchhiked to Alaska, carrying with him only a bag of rice, a .22-gauge shotgun, and some books. A few months later the young man's corpse was discovered alongside a desperate note in which he begged to be saved. Although McCandless's death was greeted with a mixture of derision and apathy by Alaskans, who pointed to the arrogance inherent in his ill-equipped and untutored attempt to live off the land, Krakauer manages to make his subject sympathetic, according to several reviewers. "The more we learn about him, the more mysterious McCandless becomes, and the more intriguing," wrote Thomas McNamee in the New York Times Book Review. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt similarly remarked in his review of Into the Wild for the New York Times that Krakauer mitigates the reader's desire to condemn McCandless by presenting him through the eyes of those who encountered him. The people Krakauer interviewed emphasize "how particularly intelligent, unusual and just plain likable this young man was," Lehmann-Haupt wrote, the critic also commenting favorably on Krakauer's apt placing of McCandless's quest in the context of other spiritual daredevils and sons of dominating, successful fathers. In this context, Krakauer reveals his own survival of an adolescent trek up Devils Thumb, a treacherous mountain on the Alaska-British Columbia border. Although McNamee complained that the author too-readily dismisses the possibility that McCandless's actions were at least partly the result of mental instability, he concluded that while the young man's "life and his death may have been meaningless, absurd, even reprehensible, but by the end of Into the Wild, you care for him deeply." Similarly, Lehmann-Haupt maintained that "Krakauer has taken the tale of a kook who went into the woods, and made of it a heart-rending drama of human yearning."

In Krakauer's most well-known work, Into Thin Air, he relives a 1996 guided climb up Mt. Everest in which he was participating in while on assignment for Outside magazine. First summitted in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary, Mount Everest by the mid-1990s had become the site of numerous commercial expedition tours where paid guides would lead amateur climbers able to pay the price. Investigating the safety practices of such ventures, and an experienced climber himself—although not at Everest's 29,028-foot altitude—forty-three-year-old Krakauer joined the small group of men and woman and their leaders, two ultra-experienced mountaineers, in their trip up to the summit. From base camp the group stopped at four intermediate camps staged along their route to Everest's highest altitude, each stay designed to allow their bodies to adapt to the depleted air pressure and oxygen levels that gradually weaken and befuddled weary mountaineers. Such conditions attack even experienced climbers; as Entertainment Weekly contributor Mark Harris noted, "there is no adjusting: Leave aside the blinding headaches, the gastrointestinal brutalities, the frozen fingers that frigid winds can produce, and the far more deadly possibilities of pulmonary or cerebral edema, and a climber will still face hypoxia, the oxygen deprivation that can reduce his judgment to that of a slow child just when he needs his adult wits most." As Krakauer later realized, it was hypoxia that, when a rogue storm hit Mount Everest, caused those attempting to scale the final, highly exposed region of the mountain to react poorly; when the storm clouds cleared eight people—including the two expedition leaders—were left dead, the author fortunate he was not among them.

"As an inquiry into the outer limits of human strength and into the inner turmoil of survivor's guilt, Krakauer's narrative leaves a reader virtually breathless," noted Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor. In Newsweek Jerry Adler wrote that Into Thin Air is "remarkable for its clear-eyed refusal to give the reader even a token reason for ever going above sea level." In addition to refraining from romanticizing the tragedy, Krakauer attempts to place responsibility judiciously, following what Adler described as "the disaster-book convention that the ghastly denouement must be the result of a series of small missteps, each seemingly innocuous." Noting that Krakauer's book "offers readers the emotional immediacy of a survivor's testament as well as the precision, detail, and quest for accuracy of a great piece of journalism," Harris added that, "as the full horror of Krakauer's trop unfolds, it is impossible to finish this book unmoved and impossible to forget for a moment that its author would have given anything not to have written it."

Several years after his Mount Everest experiences Krakauer attempted another daunting project: to unearth the truth behind the headlines regarding a 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter at the hands of Brenda's Mormon brother-in-law. "Part In Cold Blood, part historical-theological muckraking," in the opinion of Book contributor Paul Evans, Krakauer's 2003 work Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith "courts controversy in assessing not only the astonishing success of the Mormon faith … but also the history of violence that underscores it." Raised in a heavily Mormon community in Colorado, Krakauer adds to his familiarity of the Church of the Latter Day Saints by exploring the fundamentalist branch of this religion, a branch officially banned in 1890 due to its advocacy of polygamy. As Jennifer Reese explained in Entertainment Weekly, Mormon fundamentalists practice "a harsh, decentralized faith" that has over 30,000 adherents "in scattered pockets throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Canada." Noting that Under the Banner of Heaven "is a departure from Krakauer's … macho page-turners about misadventures in the wilderness," Reese maintained that "it is every bit as engrossing." While cautioning that the author attempts to take on too much—mixing in everything from the history of Mormonism to the Elizabeth Smart kidnaping of 2002—Reese dubbed the book "rambling, unsettling, and impossible to put down." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted in particular Krakauer's efforts, despite his own agnosticism, to condemn to broadly: while he "poses some striking questions about the close-minded, closed-door policies of the [Mormon] region," the reviewer wrote, Krakauer also "demonstrates that most nonfundamentalist Mormons are community oriented, industrious and law-abiding."



Book, July-August, 2003, Paul Evans, review of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, p. 71.

Booklist, April 1, 1997, Gilbert Taylor, review of Into Thin Air, p. 1276; July, 2003, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 1844.

Economist, September 6, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 17.

Entertainment Weekly, May 2, 1997, Mark Harris, review of Into Thin Air, p. 50; August 1, 2003, Jennifer Reese, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 81.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1990, p. 159.

Library Journal, April 1, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 117; June 15, 2003, Rachel Collins, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 88.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, p. 9.

New Statesman, August 22, 1997, Peter Gillman, review of Into Thin Air, p. 44.

Newsweek, April 21, 1997, Jerry Adler, review of Into Thin Air, p. 76.

New York Times, January 4, 1996, p. C17.

New York Times Book Review, June 10, 1990, p. 48; March 3, 1996, p. 29.

People, February 12, 1996, p. 35.

Publishers Weekly, February 2, 1990, p. 73; October 19, 1990, p. 44; November 6, 1995, p. 76; March 17, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 63; June 30, 2003, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 72.

School Library Journal, May 2004, Vicki Reutter, review of Into Thin Air, p. 66.

Sports Illustrated, May 12, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 18.

Time, April 21, 1997, John Skow, review of Into Thin Air, p. 123; July 21, 2003, Lev Grossman, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 62.

USA Today Magazine, March, 2004, Gerald F. Kreyche, review of Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 81.