Krakauer, Jon 1954-
KRAKAUER, Jon 1954-
PERSONAL: Born 1954, in Brookline, MA; son of Lewis Krakauer (a physician) and an art teacher; married Linda Moore, 1980. Education: Hampshire College, MA, early 1980s. Hobbies and other interests: Mountain climbing.
CAREER: Journalist. Contributing editor to Outside magazine. Worked previously as a carpenter and commercial fisherman.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Award nominee for an article that formed the basis of Into the Wild; American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults citation, 1998, for Into Thin Air.
Eiger Dreams: Ventures among Men and Mountains (essay collection), Lyons & Burford (New York, NY), 1990.
(Photographer) David Roberts, Iceland: Land of the Sagas (travelogue), Abrams (New York, NY), 1990.
Into the Wild (nonfiction), Villard (New York, NY), 1996.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, Villard (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole, revised edition, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Storm: The Conquest for the Great North Faces of the Alps, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
(With David F. Breashears) High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage, Volume 1, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Chauncey Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores, Volume 1, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Robert Dunn, The Shameless Diary of an Explorer, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to several books, including foreword to The Mountain of My Fear, by David Roberts, Mountaineers Books, 1991; foreword to Escape Routes: Further Adventure Writings of David Roberts, by David Roberts, Mountaineers Books, 1997; introduction to Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest, by Jamling Tenzing Norgay with Broughton Coburn, Harper San Francisco, 2001; and preface to In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic, by Valerian Albanov, introduction by David Roberts, expanded edition, Random House, 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Playboy.
ADAPTATIONS: Into Thin Air was adapted for television by TriStar Television and broadcast on ABC-TV, 1997. It was also adapted into an audiocassette read by Krakauer by BAD, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: Jon Krakauer is a journalist whose highly praised writings on mountain climbing and other sports combine the knowledge of the insider with the writer's sense of dramatic and well-timed storytelling. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1954, Krakauer was two years old when his family moved to the more rugged locale of Corvallis, Oregon; he began mountain climbing at the young age of eight. Krakauer's father, who led the hike up Oregon's ten-thousand-foot South Sister Mountain, was an acquaintance of climber Willi Unsoeld, who had been a member of the first American expedition to Mount Everest in 1963. As a boy, Krakauer idolized Unsoeld and fellow climber Tom Hornbein, and he dreamed of being like them and ascending to the summit of Everest some day.
Krakauer eventually attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts during the early 1970s. While at school, he met climbing writer David Roberts, who regaled him with stories of the excellent climbing in Alaska. In a People interview with William Plummer, Krakauer said, "I became a climbing bum. I worked as a carpenter in Boulder, Colorado, five months of the year, climbed the rest." In 1974, Krakauer climbed the Alaskan Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range, ascending three peaks that had previously been unexplored. As a result, the American Alpine Club asked Krakauer to write about the climbs for its journal; this was the first article Krakauer wrote. Three years later, he published an article on climbing the Devil's Thumb in the British magazine Mountain. This article paid well enough for Krakauer to decide to become a freelance writer, and in 1983 he quit doing carpentry work and became a full-time writer.
"I have never received any formal training as a writer," Krakauer commented in Outside Online. "Whenever I read something that moves me, I re-read it many times to try and figure out how its author has worked his or her magic…. Like any craft, the longer and harder you work at your writing, the more likely you are to get better at it." Krakauer drew on his own experience to write his articles, using his carpentry experience to write about architecture for Architectural Digest and his experience as a commercial fisherman to write on commercial fishery for Smithsonian. He sent out about ten query letters a week, asking various editors if they were interested in his articles, and getting enough positive responses back to make a living. "I wanted to pay the bills, so I worked really hard," he wrote in an online Bold Type interview.
In the late 1970s, Krakauer met Linda Moore, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, and married her in 1980. Moore, who was also a climber, thought Krakauer would stop climbing because of the risks involved. Although he promised her he would quit, he was unable to tear himself away from the mountains, and as he said in an Outside Online interview, "I came within a millimeter of wrecking our marriage. So, then we went through a bunch of years when climbing was a big issue. Now it is less of an issue. It is how I make my living, to no small degree…. It's a huge part of who I am, and I wouldn't be a writer if it wasn't for climbing, and Linda understands that and she accepts it."
As his writing career progressed, Krakauer found that he wrote best when he focused on outdoor subjects. His first book, Eiger Dreams, was a collection of magazine articles, which originally appeared in Outside and Smithsonian. Krakauer wrote about his own experiences climbing Mount McKinley, the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland, and many other mountains, and tried to answer the question of why anyone would risk death by climbing these peaks. In the New York Times Book Review, Tim Cahill wrote, "The reader who knows little about climbing will learn much from Eiger Dreams, but Mr. Krakauer has taken the literature of mountains onto a higher ledge. His snow-capped peaks set against limitless blue skies present problems that inspire irrefutable human experiences: fear and triumph, damnation and salvation. There is beauty in his mountains beyond that expressed in conventional sermons. His reverence is earned, and it's entirely genuine."
In 1992, editors at Outside asked Krakauer to write about the life and death of Christopher McCandless, a twenty-four-year-old honors graduate who, prompted by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, decided to give away all his possessions and go to the wilderness to experience transcendence. McCandless renamed himself Alex Supertramp and wandered through the American West, eventually reaching Alaska. Near Alaska's Denali National Park, he hiked into the bush, planning to live off the land. He carried with him only a .22 shotgun, a bag of rice, and some books. Four months later, his body was found: he had starved to death. Near the body was a desperate note in which he begged to be saved.
Krakauer used McCandless's journals and postcards, as well as interviews with those who knew him, to reconstruct the last two years of McCandless's life and write an article about it. However, McCandless's story fascinated Krakauer, and he expanded the article into a book, Into the Wild. In his introduction to the book, Krakauer wrote, "I was haunted by the particulars of the boy's starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own." Like McCandless, Krakauer had hitchhiked to Alaska in his early twenties. There, he set off into the wilderness to climb the Devil's Thumb, a forbidding peak, ignoring the pleas of family and friends that it was a foolhardy, dangerous undertaking. "The fact that I survived my Alaskan adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I died on the Stikine Icecap in 1977, people would have been quick to say of me, as they now say of him, that I had a death wish. … I was stirred by the mystery of death; I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The view into that swirling black vortex terrified me, but I caught sight of something elemental in that shadowy glimpse, some forbidden, fascinating riddle."
Although McCandless's death was commonly greeted with derision or apathy by Alaskans, who pointed to the arrogance inherent in his ill-equipped and untutored attempt to live off the land, Krakauer presented a sympathetic portrait of the young man and his yearnings. He wrote in the introduction to the book that in trying to understand McCandless, "I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons." In the New York Times Book Review, Thomas McNamee wrote that as Krakauer "picks through the adventures and sorrows of Christopher McCandless's brief life, the story becomes painfully moving. Mr. Krakauer's elegantly constructed narrative takes us from the ghoulish moment of the hunters' discovery [of McCandless's body] back through McCandless's childhood, the gregarious effusions and icy withdrawals that characterized his coming of age, and, in meticulous detail, the two years of restless roaming that led him to Alaska. The more we learn about him, the more mysterious McCandless becomes, and the more intriguing."
Krakauer's next book, Into Thin Air, was also the result of a request by Outside. Asked to write about the increasing commercialization of Mount Everest climbing expeditions, Krakauer joined a climbing team led by Rob Hall, who had previously ascended the peak seven times. In the article that preceded the book, "Into Thin Air," Krakauer wrote that although he had previously abandoned his childhood dream of climbing the mountain, "When the call came to join Hall's expedition, I said yes without even hesitating to catch my breath. Boyhood dreams die hard, I discovered, and good sense be damned."
In Outside online Krakauer noted that at base camp, situated at an altitude of 17,600 feet, he saw that "there's a lot of inexperienced people here—and many people would say I'm one of them—and that's sort of scary. There's a lot of people here who shouldn't be here. And maybe I shouldn't be here…. People who wouldn't have the time and the experience—but they have the money—can do this."
He added that when he finally reached the summit of Everest, "straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care." He also noted, "Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation: against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I'd coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was immediately extinguished by apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead."
As Krakauer began the long, arduous descent down the mountain, a winter storm struck, stranding several climbers behind him. Krakauer managed to reach the safety of his camp in the darkness of the storm and the coming night, and he thought the other climbers would be close behind him. He was unaware that one of his teammates was already dead and that twenty-eight climbers were still on the mountain, struggling for their lives. It was a struggle that eight climbers, including Hall, lost. Krakauer, haunted by guilt because he was unable to do anything to save any of those who died, wrote about the trek for Outside, but as in Into the Wild, he wanted to explore the events more deeply than a relatively short magazine piece would allow. He expanded the article into the bestselling book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. In the book, he wrote, "Days later … people would ask why, if the weather had begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, leading a gaggle of amateurs … into an apparent death trap? Nobody can speak for the leaders of the two guided groups involved, for both men are now dead. But I can attest that nothing I saw early on the afternoon of May 10 suggested that a murderous storm was about to bear down on us."
The book was roundly criticized by friends and families of the climbers who died, as well as by other climbers who survived; they accused Krakauer of profiting off others' tragedy and of being too judgmental of the actions of the survivors. However, in Outside, Krakauer defended himself, commenting, "In writing the book I tried very hard to recount the events truthfully, in an even-handed, sympathetic manner that did not sensationalize the tragedy or cause undue pain to friends and families of the victims." In a discussion with Outside writer Mark Bryant, Krakauer said, "Plenty of people have said to me, 'Who are you to assess someone else's role or lack of experience or skill?' But I'm a working journalist, and I was there, and I was there to do a job—to tell what happened as best I could. I certainly feel that some people are hurt by my assessments, but somebody needed to step up and tell what went on up there."
Critics, on the other hand, praised the book, and readers kept it on the best-seller list for months. In Forbes, James M. Clash wrote, "Every once in a while a work of nonfiction comes along that's as good as anything a novelist could make up. Krakauer's new book … fits the bill." In the New York Times Book Review, Alastair Scott wrote that Krakauer "has produced a narrative that is both meticulously researched and deftly constructed. Unlike the expedition, his story rushes irresistibly forward." Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite commented, "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."
In order to write the book, Krakauer filled up nine notebooks with detailed notes and observations. He told a Boldtype interviewer, "I sort of take notes the way photographers take photos. You just sort of scattershot everything, because you never know what's going to prove invaluable when you get back down…. The only time I didn't take notes was on summit day. I tried at 27,600 feet … but they're basically illegible, and they make no sense because my brain wasn't working [as a result of the low oxygen level at that altitude]." He also said that while writing the book, "I wanted more than anything else to show the complexities and ambiguities of this tragedy…. I wanted to tell the story in its full complexity."
In 2003, Krakauer departed from his series of books about the outdoors and people's passion for nature to discuss another kind of passion: religious fanaticism. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith examines the lives of polygamy-practicing Mormons who live in remote areas of the American West. According to Matthew Flamm in Entertainment Weekly, Krakauer said he wanted to understand "the terrible things people do … in the name of God."
Krakauer told Bryant, "I guess I don't try to justify climbing, or defend it, because I can't. There's no way to defend it, even to yourself, once you've been involved in something like this disaster. And yet I've continued to climb. I don't know what that says about me or the sport other than the potential power it has. What makes climbing great for me, strangely enough, is this life and death aspect. It sounds trite to say, I know, but climbing isn't just another game. It isn't just another sport. It's life itself."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 1, 1997, review of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, p. 1276; March 15, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 1211; April 1, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 1311.
Choice, October, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 334.
Christian Century, February 18, 1998, Jon Magnuson, review of Into Thin Air, p. 170.
Commonweal, December 4, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 24.
Economist, September 6, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, pp. 17-18.
Entertainment Weekly, April 25, 1997, David Hochman, "Cliff Notes," pp. 40-43; May 2, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 50; December 26, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 150; April 17, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 67; November 12, 1999, review of Into Thin Air, p. 73; February 21, 2003, Matthew Flamm, review of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, p. 153.
Far Eastern Economic Review, August 7, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 56.
Forbes, May 19, 1997, James M. Clash, review of Into Thin Air, p. 291.
Journal of the American Medical Association, April 14, 1999, Rollin James Hawley and Frederick L. Glauser, review of Into Thin Air, p. 1341.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1990, p. 159; March 1, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 357.
Kliatt, September, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 29; September, 1997, review of Into the Wild, p. 3; May, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 28; September, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 4; March, 1999, p. 63.
Library Journal, November 15, 1995, p. 96; April 1, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 117; September 15, 1997, p. 120.
London Review of Books, January 1, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 31.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, p. 9.
Maclean's, June 23, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 60.
New Statesman, August 22, 1997, Peter Gillman, review of Into Thin Air, p. 44.
Newsweek, April 21, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 76.
New Yorker, May 12, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 101.
New York Review of Books, August 14, 1997, review of Into the Wild, p. 59.
New York Times, January 4, 1996, p. C17; May 6, 1997.
New York Times Book Review, June 10, 1990, Tim Cahill, "Travel," p. 48; March 3, 1996, Jon Krakauer, "Adventures of Alexander Supertramp," p. 29; March 2, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 28; May 18, 1997, Alastair Scott, review of Into Thin Air, p. G11; June 1, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 39; July 13, 1997, review of Eiger Dreams: Ventures among Men and Mountains, p. 28; December 7, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 12; April 12, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 24; May 31, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 50.
Observer (London, England), March 8, 1998, review of Into the Wild, p. 15.
Outside, January, 1993, Jon Krakauer, "Death of an Innocent"; February, 1996; September, 1996, Jon Krakauer, "Into Thin Air"; May 20, 1997, Mark Bryant, "Everest a Year Later: False Summit."
People, February 12, 1996, p. 35; June 2, 1997, William Plummer, review of Into Thin Air, pp. 53-57.
Publishers Weekly, February 20, 1990, p. 73; October 19, 1990, p. 44; November 6, 1995, p. 76; March 17, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 63; May 5, 1997, p. 20; July 14, 1997, p. 18; September 22, 1997, p. 28.
Quill & Quire, March, 1999, review of Into Thin Air, p. 52.
San Francisco Review, January, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 48.
School Library Journal, August, 1990, p. 178; November, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 150; December, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 29.
Sports Illustrated, May 12, 1997, Ron Fimrite, review of Into Thin Air, p. 18.
Time, April 21, 1997, John Skow, review of Into Thin Air, p. 123; December 29, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 155.
Times Literary Supplement, December 26, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 6.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 23, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 6.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1998, review of Into Thin Air, p. 37.
Wall Street Journal, May 29, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. A16.
Washington Post Book World, February 23, 1997, review of Into Thin Air, p. 12.
Whole Earth Review, winter, 2001, review of Into Thin Air, p. 69.
Bold Type Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ (May 28, 2003), interview with Krakauer.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 10, 2003), Alden Mudge, review of Into Thin Air.
International Network on Personal Healing, http://www.meaning.ca/bookstore/ (April, 1998), Jamie Leggatt, review of Into Thin Air.
Outside Online, http://www.outside.com/ (April 15, 1996), Jon Krakauer, "Into Thin Air."*