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Jon Krakauer: The Unflinching Writer of Life’s Extremes (2024)

Jon Krakauer writer climber

Published on: 08/11/2023

“I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt.” — Jon Krakauer, “Into the Wild”

Jon Krakauer’s writing echoes his lifestyle: A bold, determined exploration of difficult, often dangerous terrain. His work has been described as unsparing, forthright, and rawly transparent. Much the same mindset that one must carry into a difficult climb if they want to make it back home.

There is no fourth wall for Jon Krakauer. Instead you, the reader, are right there with him as he digs to understand the how and why of other bold humans, from a young man walking into the wilderness alone (Christopher McCandless in “Into the Wild”) to Krakauer’s own experience as a member of the ill-fated 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition on Mount Everest (“Into Thin Air”), religious extremism (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) and the heartbreakingly muddled story of a brave man’s death in a war zone (“Where Men Win Glory”).

No doubt Jon Krakauer’s precise writing and nuanced, inquisitive insight are all fueled by his own life experience. And it’s evidently colored by the climbing habit — with all the attendant attention to risk, consequences, and commitment — that took root in his life at the tender age of eight.

Some might argue that he is a little too empathetic, in fact, leading to what some readers see as an outrage-inducing, inherent bias. Others laud him: Jon Krakauer has won a slew of awards, including Time magazine’s Book of the Year, an Academy Award for Literature, the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism, a National Magazine Award, and finalist placement for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

But even if you don’t agree with what this renowned American writer has to say, the way he tackles challenging issues head-on is guaranteed to make you feel something — and to think.

Early Life and Climbing

“Mountain climbing is comprehended dimly, if at all, by most of the nonclimbing world.” — Jon Krakauer in the author’s note of “Eiger Dreams”

Although he was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on April 12, 1954, Jon Krakauer’s family moved to Corvallis, Oregon when he was just two years old. Living in the Pacific Northwest must’ve made it easier for climbing to take root in him — or maybe he took root in climbing? Regardless, with his father’s encouragement, Krakauer started climbing at just eight years old. By the age of ten he had already summited 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, the fifth-highest peak in the contiguous United States.

Mt Rainier Washington United States
Mount Rainier, WA

Notable Ascents

The mountains are clearly woven into the fabric of Jon Krakauer’s life, from that early climb on Mount Rainier to the ill-fated Everest expedition. Some of his most notable summits include:

Mount Rainier (1964)

Although Krakauer’s 1964 summit of Mount Rainier might pale in comparison to his more recent accomplishments, it remains absolutely remarkable because he was only ten years old at the time.

Devil’s Thumb (1977)

Jon Krakauer spent five weeks alone near Alaska’s Stikine Ice Cap, establishing a new route on the East Ridge of the notoriously technical Devil’s Thumb.

Cerro Torre (1992)

Krakauer climbed Cerro Torre at the edge of the Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre’s sheer granite spike is considered one of the most technical climbs in the world.

Cerro Torre, Patagonia, Argentina
Cerro Torre, Patagonia, Argentina

Everest (1996)

Jon Krakauer made it to the summit of Everest and back down again, but four of the five climbers who summited with him perished as an unexpected storm swept in on the mountain.

Everest Tragedy: What happened?

Krakauer was originally assigned to spend two months at Everest Base Camp, documenting a 1996 Adventure Consultants summit expedition for Outside. But he found himself training to make the actual climb, and much to his surprise the magazine agreed to bankroll his participation.

Although Krakauer and five members of his climbing team did make it to the summit, four of them perished as a raging storm swept in on them during their descent. Krakauer has stated that he feels partly responsible for deaths of some of his teammates. A total of eight climbers died in the storm. Krakauer documented the experience candidly in an article for Outside, but felt there was more to be said. He published that “more” in the form of the book “Into Thin Air.” It became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was translated into more than 25 languages.

krakauer everest history (outside magazine)

A key figure in Krakauer’s rendering of the events was one Anatoli Boukreev, the lead climbing guide for the Mountain Madness expedition team. He was on Everest at the same time as the Adventure Consultants group Krakauer climbed with. Krakauer does not dispute Boukreev’s heroics in rescuing six clients off the storm-lashed mountain. However, he’s critical of Boukreev’s choices leading up to that point. This includes his decision to climb without supplemental oxygen, and to descend before his clients. These points are very much the object of Krakauer’s scrutiny in the book.

Writing Career

“When I was 23, I climbed this mountain in Alaska called Devil’s Thumb alone. It was incredibly dangerous, and I did it because I thought that if I did something that hard and pulled it off, my life was gonna be transformed. And of course, nothing happened. But I get the search for purpose.” — Jon Krakauer

Krakauer graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1976, with a degree in environmental studies. He quickly found himself in Alaska where he completed a notable first ascent of a route on the remote and challenging Devil’s Thumb.

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint when and where Krakauer’s first article was published. However, he was best-known for his reporting in Outside magazine. His work has also been published in the likes of National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Yorker. Also, his classic collection of essays, “Eiger Dreams,” contains essays published from 1982 to 1989. By 1983 he was able to abandon part-time construction and commercial fishing jobs and turn to writing full-time.

Jon Krakauer’s Writing Awards

Krakauer has received numerous well-earned awards for his writing prowess and investigative chops. Just a few of his notable accolades include a National Magazine Award for his analysis of the Everest accident in Outside; Time magazine’s Book of the Year for “Into Thin Air,” which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. He also received a 1999 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

jon krakauer with sean penn and joe berlinger
From left to right: Sean Penn, Jon Krakauer, and Joe Berlinger in front of the bus where Christopher McCandless spent his last days.

Top 5 Books by Jon Krakauer

“I decided I wanted to write this book because I felt like there was a lot more to tell; there was a lot I hadn’t discovered,” — Jon Krakauer, in a phone interview with the New York Times (1) about “Into the Wild.”

Although Jon Krakauer remains best-known for his wilderness and adventure-oriented titles, like “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” he’s written eight books in total. Or maybe call it ten, if you include the less-known “Iceland: Land of the Sagas” which he co-wrote with David Roberts, and the standalone, e-book or audiobook-only short story of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Of those books, five are clear standouts.

1. Into Thin Air (1997)

Into Thin Air Jon Krakauer

This story of a 1996 Everest climbing expedition gone horribly wrong helped launch Jon Krakauer into mainstream attention. Originally meant to document the expedition from a relatively safe position in Everest Base Camp, Krakauer talked his editors at Outside into letting him participate in the summit bid. He survived a harrowing descent from the summit in an unexpected storm, but four members of his climbing team — plus four more climbers from other teams — did not. This book fleshes out Krakauer’s initial coverage of the event for Outside magazine.

“Into Thin Air” was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Time Magazine’s Book of the Year, and a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.

2. Into the Wild (1996)

Into the Wild Jon Krakauer

Krakauer’s first full-length book, “Into the Wild” is an epic account of the life — and death — of Christopher Johnson McCandless, who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness with plans to live on his own in the wild. McCandless perished instead, and depending on who you talk to this is either a near-forensic investigation into McCandless’s last days, or an overly sympathetic rendering of the motivations that might have driven young McCandless into the wild.

3. Eiger Dreams (1990)

Eiger Dreams Jon Krakauer

“Eiger Dreams” is a collection of twelve of Krakauer’s best and most-beloved mountaineering essays. They were originally published from 1982 to 1989 in magazines like Outside and Smithsonian. It’s classic Krakauer at his best, and its enduring impact can be summed up in this quote from a reviewer:

“Krakauer’s rarest and most enviable skill is his ability to make himself unseen, so the stories unwind as though the reader were front-pointing up a Himalayan serac or hanging by a nubbin in an Arizona canyon.” — Christopher Solomon in Snow Country

4. Classic Krakauer (2019)

Another collection of essays, this one focuses on Krakauer’s investigative journalism, although it’s impossible to avoid the overarching threads of wilderness and risk. Topics include a wilderness therapy program run by apparent sadists and the last days of legendary surfer Mark Foo.

5. Under the Banner of Heaven (2003)

Under the Banner of Heaven Jon Krakauer

Another unflinching examination of the extreme. As opposed to extreme adventures in the mountains, this time it deals with religious extremism right here in the United States. Krakauer brings his best investigative journalism chops to bear as he details the history of Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — and murders perpetrated by splinter, extremist sects calling themselves “fundamentalist Mormons.”

Investigative Journalism

“Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer.” — Award citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters

Not all of Krakauer’s books are about extreme adventures outdoors. He chronicles other types of extremes, too, and has rightly received accolades for his coverage of extremism in books like “Three Cups of Deceit” (Krakauer’s rebuttal of author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s famous book “Three Cups of Tea”), “Under the Banner of Heaven” (Krakauer’s examination of religious extremism in the United States), and “Where Men Win Glory,” a hard look at the final days of NFL star Pat Tillman, who died on a desolate hillside in Afghanistan.

No journalist is perfect, and one of Krakauer’s distinguishing marks of ethical conduct is that he does tend to admit his mistakes. Perhaps, when one makes a career of unflinching examination of others, we must sometimes turn the same lens on ourselves.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How old is Jon Krakauer?

Jon Krakauer was born on April 12, 1954; as of this writing he is 69 years old.

Is Jon Krakauer a good climber?

When it comes to climbing, Jon Krakauer is the real deal. He summited Mount Rainier by the age of ten, put up a new route on the remote and dangerous Devil’s Thumb in Alaska in his 20s, and summited Everest in his early 40s.

Is Jon Krakauer retired?

In a 2022 interview with the Albuquerque Journal (2), Jon Krakauer stated that he was done writing books. He said they were just too much and at the age of 68, he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life sitting and writing. Instead, he plans to “go do all those other things I’ve always wanted to do.”

Did Jon Krakauer climb Everest?

Yes, Jon Krakauer really did climb Mount Everest in 1996. The experience later became the subject of the book “Into Thin Air.”

Does Jon Krakauer admire Chris McCandless?

Yes. If you’ve read Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” you really can’t miss how much he empathizes and sympathizes with Christopher McCandless’s apparent motivations, and admires McCandless’s determination to survive in the wild.


Not Forgotten
New York Times (Summer 2016)

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ author Jon Krakauer ready for SFLF as a participant, fan
Adrian Gomez (May 2022)
Albuquerque Journal

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