Book Review – Master of Thin Air: Life and Death on the World’s Highest Peaks

4 stars. Australian mountaineer Andrew Lock, the 18th person to have climbed all 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters (about 26,000 feet), describes his quest in Master of Thin Air: Life and Death on the World’s Highest Peaks. The margin between life and death is extremely narrow at the altitude of a jet airliner, and his stories are gripping.

All too often, his stories are sad as the “Death Zone” at that altitude leads to a myriad of dangers: hypoxia, exposure, and altitude sickness take their toll, along with natural dangers from avalanches to crevasses to weather. Most chapters end with an epilogue that tells the fates of some of the participants, and this is a grim reminder of the high stakes of the world’s tallest summits.

Lock’s conversational tone makes for a readable account, and he’s fairly even keeled and ego-free, with a humility learned from understanding his limitations in the face of serious danger. His style of climbing is that of conquering personal challenges rather than completing a checklist, preferring alpine style (self-sufficient ascents with minimal equipment, no porters, and not using supplemental oxygen when possible) over siege style (setting up a series of fixed camps to make repeated tries for the summit).

Often the difference between survival and statistic is knowing when to turn back and try again another day, even with the summit in sight. Lock both wise and canny, and chronicles his failed attempts clearly as well, attributing his survival to keen observational skills of the mountain, listening to his intuition about when to continue and when to take a calculated risk, and simple luck.

One of the strange things about Master of Thin Air is that the successful attempts sometimes run together, where the failed attempts each stand out large. Shishapangma is usually regarded as one of the “easier” 8,000 meter peaks, yet conditions forced him to make repeated tries to gain summit–and when he does summit it, he does so with a hair-raising exposed sequence.

Andrew Lock’s story is great reading for climbers and explorers of both the real and armchair variety, and one of the best books on modern-day mountaineering.

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