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Jon Krakauer, Climbing’s Best-Known Author

Krakauer’s nonfiction works, such as Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, are among the world’s most widely-read pieces of outdoor literature.

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious. 


Jon Krakauer (April 12, 1954) is an American writer and mountaineer known for several bestselling nonfiction books. Some of his most popular works include Into the Wild, Eiger Dreams, Into Thin Air, Where Men Win Glory, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Three Cups of Deceit.

A regular correspondent for Outside, Krakauer was a member of the Adventure Consultants team involved in the infamous 1996 Everest disaster, while on assignment to report on commercialization on the mountain. His accounting of the incident, which saw eight climbers perish in a storm and led to the deadliest season in Everest history at the time, was published in the book Into Thin Air. The work won several awards, including Time magazine’s Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.

Mount Everest, scene of Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.
An accomplished climber, Jon Krakauer became best-known as a writer after the disastrous 1996 Mt. Everest expedition. His book about the event, Into Thin Air, became a New York times bestseller.

Early Life and Climbing

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1954, Krakauer was one of five children. He grew up largely in the Pacific Northwest after the family moved to Corvallis, Oregon when Krakauer was two. Krakauer began climbing at the age of eight, at his father’s encouragement, and had summited Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet) by the age of 10, in 1964. He also was a member of the tennis team during high school. He earned a degree in Environmental Studies from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, graduating in 1976.

Following college, Krakauer focused on climbing, while making a living as a commercial fisherman and carpenter around the Pacific Northwest, in Colorado, and Alaska. Of particular note, in 1977 he established a new route solo up the East Ridge of Devils Thumb (9,077 feet), a notoriously technical but picturesque peak in Alaska’s Stikine Icecap. Krakauer spent five weeks alone in the region during the process. An account of the climb and descent appears in his books Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild.

The same year, he met his future wife, Linda Mariam Moore. The couple married in 1980, living in Seattle, Washington. By the early 1980s, Krakauer was able to make a living full-time as a writer.

To date, his work has appeared in many magazines beyond the outdoor sphere, including GQ, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Smithsonian. An article he wrote for the latter publication about Rainier won a Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. A variety of essays penned during the 1980s were published together in Krakauer’s 1990 book Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, his first full-length work. During this period, among other climbs, he made a 1992 ascent of the Patagonia spire Cerro Torre (10,262 feet).

Jon Krakauer made a bold solo first ascent of the East Ridge of Devil’s Thumb outside of Petersburg, Alaska, spending five weeks alone, in 1977. (Photo: Getty Images)

Into the Wild

Into the Wild (1996), which was an expansion of a 1993 article Krakauer wrote for Outside, titled “Death of an Innocent, was Krakauer’s first mainstream success, remaining on The New York Times Bestseller List for more than two years, though its popularity has ballooned further in subsequent years.

The book covers the itinerant life of adventurer Chris McCandless and his eventual death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Today, it is a regular component of high school and college reading curriculums. Into the Wild was adapted into an eponymous Hollywood film, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch, in 2007, which was critically acclaimed, receiving two Golden Globes and two Academy Award nominations.

1996 Everest Expedition and Into Thin Air

While on assignment from Outside to report on commercialization in Himalayan mountaineering, Krakauer was a member of the Adventure Consultants team, led by Rob Hall, that attempted to summit Mt. Everest (8,048 meters) in May 1996.

Krakauer successfully summited and made it safely to camp, but four members of the team, including Hall, died in a blizzard while descending, along with Scott Fischer, leader of another commercial expedition, and three Indian climbers from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Krakauer’s account of the incident, Into Thin Air (1997), reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list and was translated into 24 languages.

Into Thin Air went on to become Time magazine’s Book of the Year and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. An analysis of the accident, which he wrote for Outside, also won a National Magazine Award.

Both Into Thin Air and the Everest disaster have been covered in film and TV on several occasions, notably in a star-studded 2015 Hollywood adaption, though Krakauer panned this effort as “total bull” in a Los Angeles Times interview. “Anyone who goes to that movie and wants a fact-based account should read Into Thin Air,” he said.

Other Works and Later Life

Krakauer and his wife moved to Boulder, Colorado after Krakauer achieved widespread success with Into Thin Air. He was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999. Per the award citation: “Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer.”

To date, Krakauer has authored eight books. His other notable other works include: Where Men Win Glory, an examination of Pat Tillman, an American football player who joined the U.S. military following 9/11 and was eventually killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan; Under the Banner of Heaven, an investigation into the history of Mormonism and a double murder committed by two fundamentalist Mormon brothers; and Three Cups of Deceit (an expose leveling accusations of mismanagement and fraud against prominent humanitarian Greg Mortenson, and his charity, Central Asia Institute.

He also served as editor of the Modern Library Exploration series, which includes a variety of nonfiction works in the field of exploration and outdoor adventure, particularly in polar regions.

Selected Works and Awards

Books

  • Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains (1990)
  • Into the Wild (1996)
  • Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (1997)
  • Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003)
  • Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009)
  • Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way (2011)
  • Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015)
  • Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk (2019)

Awards

  • Into Thin Air, Time Magazine Book of the Year (1997).
  • Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism (1997).
  • Into Thin Air, Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award (1997).
  • Into Thin Air, Finalist, Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction (1998).
  • Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1999).