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Books to Go

On Thin Air on Everest

June 01, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Balzar is a national correspondent for The Times. Books to Go appears twice monthly

INTO THIN AIR: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (Villard, $24.95).

Make room on your shelf of mountaineering classics. Krakauer goes there with Sir John Hunt, Chris Bonington, Walt Unsworth, Art Davidson.

Not only is Krakauer a rising literary journalist, he is a climber who went to the top of Everest in 1996 and, in the unforgiving troposphere, witnessed a fatal meeting of ambition and weather. By the time he staggered off the high slopes, nine climbers had perished. Soon three more would die. Never before had Everest killed so many in a season.

And not since New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and high-altitude Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the summit in 1953 had events on the far-off peak aroused such international interest.

Among those trying for glory were some whose qualifications have since been a matter of debate, including a New York socialite.

Krakauer went to Nepal as a writer for Outside magazine. Experienced in technical climbing but a novice at high altitudes, he would inquire into the affront against mountaineering ethos, and of course the danger, when wealthy adventurers shortcut alpine apprenticeship and try to buy their way up the world's highest mountain behind the world's strongest guides.

The result: In Krakauer's expedition alone, four of five climbers who gained the summit died in a surprise blizzard on their way down. Among them was their chief guide. He was frostbitten, fatigued and pinned down in impossible weather at 28,700 feet. His last words were to his wife via satellite phone: "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."

Since then, the climbing fraternity has absorbed itself furiously with grief, blame, recrimination, doubt and righteousness.

In this turbulent landscape of colossal mountain and giant egos, Krakauer is convincing: His grip on your emotions will leave you gasping for breath.

Quick trips:

DESIRING ITALY: Women Writers Celebrate the Passions of Country and Culture edited by Susan Cahill (Fawcett, $12, paperback). A literary companion for those of you who are Italy-bound; full of heart, rich in feel and deep in understanding. You must look elsewhere for train schedules, hotels and dinner. This is exploration of the other kind.

FRANCE: Travel Survival Kit by Steve Fallon, Daniel Robinson and Richard Nebesky (Lonely Planet, $19.95, paperback, maps, photographs).

VIETNAM: The Rough Guide by Jan Dodd and Mark Lewis (Rough Guides, $15.95, paperback, maps).

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC GUIDE TO AMERICA'S HISTORIC PLACES edited by Elizabeth Newhouse (National Geographic, $24, paperback, photographs, maps).

There's no keeping up with the large volume of guidebooks this spring. But the three entries above come from some of the best names in the business to light the imagination and put the itch to your feet. It's hard to go wrong with any of these publishers. Lonely Planet's France is an overview, Rough Guide's Vietnam is a close-up and National Geographic's Historic Places is a supplement.

SKETCHING NATURE: The Sierra Club Guide, New Edition (Sierra Club, $20, paperback, illustrations). Travel too hectic? "Vidiots" listen up: Haven't you noticed that people with sketchbook in hand seem more serene than those with Camcorders to their eye sockets? Perhaps they're on to something. This how-to volume makes drawing one's way through a trip seem plausible--from simple subjects to color compositions.

WORLDWIDE RIDING VACATIONS: Rides on 5 Continents by Arthur Sacks (Seven Hills Distributors, $14, paperback, photographs). This is a concise, author-published sampler of equestrian ranches in the U.S., Africa, Asia, Europe, South American and the Caribbean. Friends who have done it tell me that riding horses among giraffes in Kenya is a magical experience.

THE USED BOOK LOVER'S GUIDE TO THE PACIFIC COAST STATES by David S. and Susan Siegel (Book Hunter, $18.95, paperback). As the authors say, bring home more than frequent-flier miles when you travel in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. I agree. All my favorite used book stores, big and small, are described properly and listed by place and specialty.

SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE NATURAL YEAR: A Month by Month Guide to Natural Events, Southern California, Baja by Judy Wade (Fulrum, $16.95, paperback, maps, photos). What's happening? Check the seasons. This is a weekend guide to the events of the natural calendar: wildflowers, birds, fruit harvests, whale watching.

IN RUINS: The Once Great Houses of Ireland photographs by Simon Marsden, text by Duncan McLaren (Bulfinch Press, $28). This is an odd book but hard to put down: atmospheric and haunting black-and-white photos of Ireland's once-great castles and palaces, plus brief accounts of their histories.

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