When Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air first came out, I had an eerie feeling. The book described the tragic deaths that happened when several climbers were caught high on a Himalayan mountain in a severe storm in 1996.
That eerie feeling was deja vu. Because I had already read Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy, which described the tragic deaths that happened when several climbers were caught high on a Himalayan mountain in a severe storm in 1986.
It was Krakauer’s book that brought the riskiness of high-altitude mountaineering into mainstream consciousness. But it’s only one book in a vast collection of nonfiction mountaineering accounts that are gripping and often tragic. Before Into Thin Air appeared, I had already become hooked on the works of Chris Bonington, Greg Child, Arlene Blum, Julie Tullis, and many others. From Child’s tales of catching poisonous snakes in his youth, to Blum’s accounts of avalanches on Annapurna, to Bonington’s descent from a mountain with a fellow climber who had broken both legs, these books were definitely about living on the edge.
A book about mountain-climbing has a natural external quest built into it: to reach a summit, often by a new route. But the story can change midway, and on the world’s highest mountains, the goal often switches to basic survival.
The literature has now expanded beyond the classic will-we-climb-the-peak stories to books that address the ecological effects of human encroachment into pristine environments; the effects of mountaineering on the Himalayan people; the medical limits of the human body at altitudes normally reserved for jet airplanes; the psychological factors at play in such a risky activity; and the personal growth that occurs when people climb a mountain, or even attempt to climb a mountain, or even just survive the experience.
Readers with an interest in survival stories, sports, or the outdoors may want to check out the nonfiction authors I’ve listed here, in addition to David Breashears, Jennifer Jordan, Maria Coffey, and Stephen Venables, just for a start. Those who prefer fiction may wish to begin with Peak, by Roland Smith. But fair warning: These books are only for readers who can handle a survival quest in which not everyone survives.
In addition to being an armchair mountaineer, Jennifer R. Hubbard is the author of young-adult novels The Secret Year (Viking, 2010) and Try Not to Breathe (Viking, 2012).