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Looking Back on Into Thin Air, Part II: Coaching Krakauer to Tell the Story Only He Could Tell

I can still hear the buzzing and burping of the fax machine as it started to spit out Jon Krakauer’s first draft of “Into Thin Air.”

It was early June 1996, a few weeks after the infamous storm on Mount Everest that killed 11 climbers. An editor at Outside magazine, I’d spent the morning drinking coffee, waiting impatiently by that clunky machine, anxious to read what I knew would be a groundbreaking piece of nonfiction. I grabbed the first pages and began to read.

I discovered quickly that the storm on Everest wasn’t the only disaster. Krakauer’s first draft was not working. The problem was clear enough. The story lacked the drama and high stakes that Krakauer’s writing was famous for.  In a word, his piece was dull, boring. I knew from speaking with him after he was safe in a Kathmandu hotel that the facts of the stormy climb were compelling and dramatic. It was a gripping, wholly  human story chocked full of adventure, hubris, life-and-death decisions made in compromised states of mind, loss of limb and life. Yes, the events on Everest in 1996 were sad and tragic. AND the story Krakauer was writing could, should, WOULD be a fantastic story–a blockbuster piece–that would move readers and say something important about adventure, even what it means to be human. I read the piece a second time and immediately called Jon to discuss. The story needed major reworking.

“The problem isn’t the line-by-line writing,” I told him. “It’s the story. I think you’re missing it.”

The Everest story was huge for Krakauer’s career, and it was a pretty big deal for me, too. It had been my idea to send him to Everest to report on the increasing commercialization of the mountain. I made all the arrangements, kept close tabs on him while he was on the mountain, and did the major developmental and line editing of the piece—of course, all from the very safe confines of the Outside headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Though I joke about the first draft being a disaster, thinking back to that day, I remember that I wasn’t concerned at all. I trusted Jon, and I had little doubt that “Into Thin Air” would be a brilliant piece for three reasons: First, I knew that, in general, first drafts, even by great writers, can be way off-base. The most skilled writers can get blinded by their experiences in the field. It’s one of the hazards of reporting nonfiction—you get so filled with facts and experiences that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Second, I knew that Krakauer was a pro and would ultimately come through with a great story.

Third, I immediately saw how to fix the problem.

The trouble was that Krakauer had started the piece without an ounce of tension. It began with a long description of base camp and an introduction to some of the climbers followed by a tedious account of the climb up the mountain.

Not very scintillating. None of that stuff was important. The climb up was uneventful. The story begins those ten minutes he was on the summit, when the storm was little more than a bank of dark clouds in the distance. Or the second he starts down the mountain. Getting to the top of any big mountain is the easy part, getting home alive is the hard part.

“Let’s start this thing at the summit,” said. “Take us to the top of the world. I don’t care about the history of the mountain yet. I don’t care about the other climbers yet. I care about you. And the reader cares about you first, too. Let me feel the wind, the cold. Let me see the clouds forming in the distance. Let me feel your aching bones, your cold-singed lungs, your fatigue. Let me experience what it’s like to be in a compromised mental state due to hypoxia. Let me feel the fear you felt or the fear you should have felt but couldn’t because you were too fucking tired to feel a thing. Make me care about you. And then the story will tell itself. You got this!”

The moral of my role in the story is simple: Even great writers need somebody else to help them find the story and keep their eye on it. All great writers need good editors. They need mentors—during the writing process as well as once the story is on the page.

Though Jon was ten years my senior, I was Jon’s mentor for “Into Thin Air,” the article that would be expanded into the best-selling book.

Jon agreed to the plan. He went back to work. And the next morning, in the safety of the Outside magazine mail room, I stood by the fax machine as it began to buzz and ring. I pulled Page 1 off the carriage. I began to read. A smile came to my face. Of course, Jon had nailed it. He always did.

Here’s how the pages read. You know the rest of the story.

“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. It was the afternoon of May 10. I hadn’t slept in 57 hours. The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&M’s. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in the troposphere, there was so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.”

Since that day 23 years ago, I’ve mentored many great writers. It’s what I love to do. Please see my Coaching page if you want to find out more about my mentoring programs for up-and-coming writers. I’d love to help you write the book you’ve been dreaming of writing.

 

A former senior editor and contributing writer at Outside magazine, Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, travel writer, and book writing coach. His book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, GQ, Wired, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, George, Travel + Leisure, Thrive Global, and Outside. He coaches up-and-coming authors to write and successfully publish their books. For your free 30-minute phone consult, email Brad at brad@bradwetzler.com


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