Literature Issues in “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

Table of Contents


One of the reasons why the book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (by Jon Krakauer) was able to attain the status of a bestseller, is that, along with being utterly entertaining, it provides readers with the insight into what can be considered the Western civilization’s spiritual foundation.

That is, while exposed to this specific book, readers grow progressively enlightened, as to the actual significance of the phenomenon of people’s endowment with the so-called ‘Faustian’ mentality, which reflects one’s unconscious assumption that:

“The willpower must never cease combating obstacles, that the catastrophes of existence come as an inevitable culmination of past choices and experiences, and that the conflict is the essence of existence” (Greenwood 53).

In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while promoting the idea that one’s affiliation with the ‘Faustian’ values is the most crucial precondition for the concerned individual to be able to act as the agent of progress.

Body of the paper

The main idea, which Krakauer promotes throughout the entirety of his book, is that people’s strive to climb the world’s highest mountains can be referred to like anything, but rationale-driven. As the author pointed out: “Attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act – a triumph of desire over sensibility” (xvii).

After all, there is indeed a very little logical reasoning involved in one’s decision to face the extreme hardships of climbing, solely to be able to congratulate himself, on account of having achieved the feat.

Partially, this explains why, as of today, it became a commonplace practice among politically correct psychologists to provide mechanistic explanations to people’s strange attraction with the mountains. For example, it is often suggested that, while climbing mountains, individuals can experience the so-called ‘adrenaline rush.’

Nevertheless, I believe that it is namely the Oswald Spengler’s theory of mental phenotypes, which provides us with in-depth insight into the concerned phenomenon (Spengler 175).

According to this philosopher, in the psychological sense of this word, people can be generally categorized as ‘Apollonians,’ on the one hand, and ‘Faustians,’ on the other.

‘Apollonians’ are best described as ‘down to earth’ people – being practically minded and unimaginative, they lead the essentially animalistic existence, while remaining solely preoccupied with ‘making babies’ and with experiencing sensual pleasures, as such that constitutes their lives’ foremost priority.

As a rule, they hold irreducible views on the surrounding reality and their place within it, while striving to diminish themselves within what happened to be the affiliated natural environment – hence, these people’s tendency to seek the state of being ‘blended’ with the nature and their utilitarian approach to dealing with life-challenges (Farrenkopf 401).

The character of Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, exemplifies the ‘Apollonian’ type of individuals perfectly well.

‘Faustians,’ on the other hand, are primarily preoccupied with seeking adventures. A ‘Faustian’ thinks of its existence as a continuous quest for some higher goal. To exist, for a ‘Faustian,’ means to be constantly struggling to overcome obstacles. The process of overcoming obstacles, a ‘Faustian’ person perceives as such that represents the objective value of a ‘thing in itself.’

The living mode of a ‘Faustian’ is concerned with the ‘expansion of boundaries’ – that is, the individual in question never ceases to push away the goal that he initially aimed to reach. This is because, for a ‘Faustian,’ it is not the reaching of a particular goal that represents the foremost enjoyment in life, but being in the process of actively striving to reach such a goal.

In this respect, the character of Don Quixote (from the same novel by Cervantes) comes in rather illustrative. Spengler thought of the ‘Faustian’ spirit in people, as the driving force behind Western civilization’s rapid advancement, as we know it (Kidd 27). Being ‘natural born conquerors,’ ‘Faustians’ are naturally driven to aspire to expand the sphere of their dominance.

In light of the earlier outlined Spengler’s theory, we can well suggest that, even though it is formally concerned with the subject of mountain-climbing, Krakauer’s book is in fact about providing readers with a better understanding of how one’s ‘Faustian’ phenotype actualizes itself in reality.

After all, as it can be well inferred from the book, it is specifically people’s irrational desire to conquer and dominate, while risking the chance of death, which contributes more than anything else towards their decision to become mountain-climbers, in the first place.

As George Mallory, quoted in Krakauer’s book, pointed out: “(I want to climb it (a mountain) because it is there” (17). While keeping the above-suggested in mind, we can proceed to discuss the significance of the main motifs, contained in Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.

Among these motifs, the most memorable one is concerned with the fact that, as it was shown in the book, the process of climbing the mountain Everest is extremely dangerous. It is being estimated that, out of those climbers that had attempted to reach the peak of Everest, every fourth has died during the process. In this respect, the name of the ‘Death Zone’ (the most dangerous trekking-stretch) speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, even though that the sheer amount of hardships that climbers have to endure on their way up the mountain, should have served as a strong incentive for people to reconsider the intended undertaking of ‘conquering’ Everest, this is far from being the actual case. Quite on the contrary – the more potential-climbers grow aware of how extremely hazardous this undertaking is, the stronger is the measure of their commitment to proceed with it.

The reason for this is that ‘Faustians’ are only able to experience the sensation of being truly ‘alive,’ for as long as they are provided with the opportunity to test the strength of their willpower continually. While climbing Everest, ‘Faustian’-minded individuals do enjoy the feeling of having what it takes to be able to keep their self-preservation urges under control.

This explains why, the majority of climbers in Krakauer’s book, can be best described as the individuals, endowed with the strongly defined willpower – hence, their ability to act in such a manner, as if they were made out of steel. For example, while referring to one of his climbing-companions Scott Fischer, Krakauer states: “His (Fisher’s) will was astonishing.

It didn’t matter how much pain he was in – he would ignore it and keep going. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would turn around because he had a sore foot” (260). We can well speculate that the reason why ‘Faustians’ never skip the opportunity to put their willpower to test, is that on an unconscious level, they are aware that this qualifies them as semi-divine beings.

Therefore, even though the mountain-climbers’ obsession with mountains may seem utterly irrational, it nevertheless makes a perfectly logical sense – once assessed from the evolutionary perspective. The reason for this is that this obsession cannot be discussed outside of the concerned individuals’ ability to provide additional momentum to the pace of progress.

This simply could not be otherwise, because after having assumed complete control over their primeval/physiological urges, ‘Faustians’ are being put in the position to be able to concern themselves with pursuing several rather abstract agendas in life, such as advancing science.

Thus, there is indeed an undeniable link between one’s taste for climbing mountains, on the one hand, and the same individual’s ability to act as the agent of civilization – whatever illogical it may sound.

As it was implied earlier, ‘Faustians’ can be best defined as adventure-seekers. It is understood, of course, that they do enjoy material prosperity – just as it happened to be the case with ‘Apollonians.’ However, the material riches for this type of people are not the ends by rather the means.

This explains why, regardless of how rich they happened to be, ‘Faustians’ are known for their tendency to prefer leading a modest lifestyle, without experiencing the irrational obsession with luxury. Partially, this explains the fact that ‘Faustians’ have been traditionally regarded as particularly lucky individuals – as practice indicates, they often come out winners, after having faced the confrontation with even the most impossible circumstances.

This has to do with these people’s ability to resist ‘corruption’ in both: the material and intellectual senses of this word. In this respect, we can well mention the character of Reinhold Messner, who made a deliberate point in climbing Everest without the oxygen mask: “Reinhold Messner emerged as the leading proponent of gasless climbing, declaring that he would ascend Everest ‘by fair means’ or not at all” (275).

Despite this individual’s commitment to ‘gasless climbing’, he nevertheless was able to conquer Everest a number of times and to get away with it unharmed, whereas, many ‘oxygen supplemented’ climbers did not only fail at reaching the mountain’s summit, but they also ended up causing permanent damage to their lungs.

There is certain mysticism to it – as if the mountain Everest did sense whether the motivations, behind people’s decision to climb it, are ‘pure’ (Faustian) or not. Specifically, Everest does not tolerate individuals who decide to climb the mountain, to make money or to promote some political ideology.

Being essentially pleasure-seekers (money buys comforts in life), they simply do not have what it takes to experience the Nietzschean pleasure of imposing their willpower upon the planet’s highest mountain, just for the sake of doing it. The money-greedy character of Ian Woodall, mentioned in the book, which sustained an utter fiasco, while attempting to ‘conquer’ Everest, illustrates the validity of this suggestion perfectly well.

What is especially fascinating about Krakauer’s book is that we can well refer to it; as such, that contains clues, as to the essence of political dynamics in today’s world – even though formally speaking, this book is not related to the issue of politics even slightly.

The rationale behind this suggestion is as follows: while exposed to the book’s themes and motifs, readers grow unconsciously aware that, for just about any political undertaking to prove successful, it must be fueled by the people’s ‘Faustian’ strive to suppress the voice of ‘monkey from within.’

That is, it is specifically those politicians/governmental officials, driven by the considerations of a ‘higher reason,’ who are capable of keeping their countries on the path of progress.

For example, in light of the above-stated, the ongoing ‘revolution’ in Ukraine, concerned with the ordinary Ukrainians’ desire to join the EU is doomed to fail. The reason for this is apparent – this people’s desire is essential ‘Apollonian.’

That is, the reason why the protesting Ukrainian citizens have been ‘camping out’ in the center of Kiev for a week through the first third of December, is that they genuinely believe that, once Ukraine joins the EU, the living standards in this country will instantly become the same with those of France, for example.

The prosperity of the latter is nothing but the direct consequence of the fact that, during the time of the Great French Revolution, the protesting French citizens never ceased being preoccupied with the essentially ‘Faustian’ (abstract) subject matters – such as with advancing the cause of liberty and egalitarianism.

The simple-minded Ukrainian peasants, who constitute the bulk of protesters in Kiev, simply do not understand that for just about any revolution not to turn into a farce, it must reflect the participants’ unselfish desire to serve some higher cause. This cause, however, cannot possibly reflect the people’s primeval anxiety to fill up their stomachs with food – as it is the case with the Ukrainian ‘revolutionaries’.

Just as it was the case with the money-obsessed climbers in Krakauer’s book, many of whom ended up having their thumbs/arms frozen black (before they even reached Camp Three), the earlier mentioned Ukrainian ‘revolutionaries’, obsessed with the desire to attain an instantaneous prosperity, will end up sustaining a great damage to their health (due to cold weather), as well.

This will be the Ukrainian ‘euro’ revolution’s the only consequence.

Thus, it will only be appropriate to suggest that the motif of irrationality, explored in Krakauer’s book, should not be considered reflective of the author’s lack of understanding of what prompts people to climb the world’s highest mountains.

Quite on the contrary – it suggests that Krakauer never ceased being aware of the fact that it is namely one’s affiliation with the earlier mentioned ‘Faustian’ values, which makes the concerned individual capable of contributing to the society’s well-being.

As far, as I am being concerned, the reading of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, confirmed the legitimacy of my conviction that people’s ability to lead a socially productive lifestyle positively relates to the measure of their idealistic-mindedness.

There is indeed a good reason in assuming that, contrary to the provisions of political correctness, one’s ability to adopt a socially responsible stance in life is reflective of the genetically predetermined specifics of his or her ‘mental wiring’.


In light of the earlier provided line of argumentation, as to what can be considered the significance of the themes and motifs, contained in Krakauer’s book, the initially proposed thesis appears thoroughly valid.

Works Cited

Farrenkopf, John. “Spengler’s Historical Pessimism and the Tragedy of Our Age.” Theory and Society 22.3 (1993): 391-412. Print.

Greenwood, Susan. Anthropology of Magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009. Print.

Kidd, James. “Oswald Spengler, Technology, and Human Nature.” European Legacy 17.1(2012): 19-31. Print.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.

Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1923, Print.

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