Skip to content

In the Mountains: Non-Fiction Books About Planes, Mountains, and When Planes and Mountains Meet

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I’ve been going through a number of reading phases. First it was the apocalypse, and now this. It started with wanting to read Into Thin Air again, and from there all it took was a quick Google search for other mountain disaster books and I was hooked. The following are the best I’ve read for your recommendational reading pleasure.


Alive: The True Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read

“On October 12, 1972, an Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying a team of rugby players crashed in the remote snowy peaks of the Andes. Ten weeks later, only sixteen of the forty-five passengers were found alive. This is the story of those ten weeks spent in the shelter of the plane’s fuselage without food and with scarcely any hope of a rescue. The survivors protected and helped one another, and came to the difficult conclusion that to live meant doing the unimaginable. Confronting nature at its most furious, two brave young men risked their lives to hike through the mountains looking for help — and ultimately found it.”

This book is very good. I enjoyed it almost as much as Into Thin Air. Not only do you get an interesting account of survival, but the book touches on some morality issues that I hope no one I know will ever have to face. It gets incredibly disturbing at times, and you can’t help but think what you’d do in the same situation.

It gets a little muddy in the chapters discussing the parents’ search for the downed plane, getting a little too religious at times. I tended to skim through these parts a little faster, wanting to get back to the account of the survivors.

The only other criticism I would have is that the book is not written by anyone who was actually in the plane crash, but rather pieced together through interviews after the fact by Piers Paul Read. It is still a very detailed account of events, and doesn’t feel like it was written by an outsider. There is a book, Miracle in the Andes, written by one of the crash victims. I didn’t get around to reading it, mostly because I didn’t think I could go there again just yet.

Did I Cry? – Yes, a little. But mostly I was too horrified to cry. The side-by-side chapters detailing the families quest to find their children and the day-to-day survival on the plane is a little chilling. There is more emotion detailing mountain search grids than there is recalling the most disturbing facts of the crash. Weirdly I would say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s more about the facts being told without embellishment or reactions.

Recommend? – Definitely. Go read this now.

Interesting Notes – This was made into a movie starring Ethan Hawke which I saw a several years ago. I was probably a little too young to be watching the movie, considering the subject matter. There might be a reason my sense of humour is a little on the disturbing side. The book is much, much better than the movie but I definitely want to see the movie again now that I’ve read the book. I remember that Ethan Hawke was in the movie yet completely forgot about John Malkovich. Weird.  


Crazy For the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad –

“In a spare, brisk prose, Ollestad tells the tragic story of the pivotal event of his life, an airplane crash into the side of a mountain that cost three lives, including his father’s, in 1979. Only 11 years old at the time, he alone survived, using the athletic skills he learned in competitive downhill skiing, amid the twisted wreckage, the bodies and the bone-chilling cold of the blizzard atop the 8,600-foot mountain. Although the narrative core of the memoir remains the horrifying plane crackup into the San Gabriel Mountains, its warm, complex soul is conveyed by the loving relationship between the former FBI agent father and his son, affectionately called the Boy Wonder, during the golden childhood years spent in wild, freewheeling Malibu and Mexico in the late 1970s.”

This book was a surprising addition to this list. It’s still biographical but by far the best written book of the lot. His prose is almost poetic at times, and the rhythm and flow of the writing is phenomenal. The other books on the list were more documentary style writing whereas Crazy for the Storm is very internal. Parallel chapters switch between surviving the plane crash and life growing up with a father that pushes you – sometimes too far – to be your best athletically. It never occurred to me that if you’re good at skiing your skills would translate to surfing as well.  I now want to move to the beach and take up surfing. Not skiing though; I’m really bad at skiing.

Did I Cry? – No, but I was deeply affected emotionally by the whole book.

Recommend? – For sure, dude. This book would be a great read for surfers, skiers, sons, fathers, children of divorce, and anyone with the spirit of adventure.

Interesting Notes – This book wasn’t at all what I was expecting when I read the summary on Amazon. I pulled this from the list of the Top 100 Editor’s Picks of the year and didn’t even realize it was non-fiction until I started reading it.

Best book title ever.

It’s also been optioned for film by Warner Bros, expected release sometime in 2012.



Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer –

“Krakauer examines what it is about Everest that has compelled so many people — including himself — to throw caution to the wind, ignore the concerns of loved ones, and willingly subject themselves to such risk, hardship, and expense. Written with emotional clarity and supported by his unimpeachable reporting, Krakauer’s eyewitness account of what happened on the roof of the world is a singular achievement.”

This was my second read of the bestselling account of the Everest Disaster in 1996. It wasn’t as riveting as the first time I read it, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I will read it again in a few years. The first time I read this book was a one sitting read – I cancelled plans to stay home and finish it. The author  attempts to be objective in his retelling of the events but it’s difficult given his involvement in the whole fiasco. He’s really a fantastic writer and you really feel like you’re with him. This book gives you a great understanding of the Sherpa system in use on Everest, and a look at how climbing the mountain has really become an expensive tourist attraction. This book made me want to attempt to climb Everest, despite the risks. With oxygen… lots of oxygen.

Did I Cry? – I think I did the first time I read it, but not so much the second time around because I knew what was going to happen. Still very emotional.

Recommend? – Yes. Go read this right now. There’s a reason it’s a best seller. Anytime I was reading it out in public (on the bus/subway/park bench) people would approach me to share how much they enjoyed reading it themselves.

Interesting Notes – There’s a TV movie adaptation of this as well, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest .

Also, the events of the book take place during the IMAX filming of Everest. Watching this film would likely be a great follow-up to reading the book as well. It’s also narrated by Liam Neeson. Bonus! I plan on doing a movie marathon of all the mountain movies that go with this list.



Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers

Left for Dead is a deeply personal story, told in first person by a variety of people who contributed to the survival of Beck Weathers during the Everest accident of 1996 that left nine climbers dead. It goes past the tragedy to discuss why Weathers got involved in climbing in the first place, his lengthy and painful recovery, and the all-important relationship with his wife, Margaret (commonly referred to as Peach). Without Peach’s hope and tenacity, it’s likely that rescue efforts would not have been continued, and Weathers may never have recovered from the hypothermic coma and its dreadful results. The story of their relationship–they were estranged at the time of the accident–is told from both perspectives, and his obsession with mountains seems almost like another family member.”

Another account of the famous Everest disaster of 1996, this time from Beck Weathers. This is more a book about Beck’s life than it is about the disaster itself. And it’s really more a book about Beck’s life-long struggle with depression. The book also goes into how his marriage and his life with his wife and kids is affected after the incidents of the disaster.

Did I Cry? – Not really. There’s a great deal of humour in this book, and I did really enjoy it, but it’s not really a crier.

Recommend? – Maybe? More about marriage than mountain climbing, I think I would recommend this book if you, friends or family are experiencing a difficult marriage, or have had to recover a marriage following a life-threatening crisis. Also would be good for anyone who has suffered from depression. It’s a great book about not taking what you have for granted.

Interesting Notes – There is a downside to corrective eye surgery. There are a lot of books called “Left for Dead”. Being left for dead kind of sucks.


Touching the Void by Joe Simpson –

“Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, had just reached the top of a 21,000-foot peak in the Andes when disaster struck. Simpson plunged off the vertical face of an ice ledge, breaking his leg. In the hours that followed, darkness fell and a blizzard raged as Yates tried to lower his friend to safety. Finally, Yates was forced to cut the rope, moments before he would have been pulled to his own death. The next three days were an impossibly grueling ordeal for both men. Yates, certain that Simpson was dead, returned to base camp consumed with grief and guilt over abandoning him. Miraculously, Simpson had survived the fall but, crippled, starving, and severely frostbitten, was trapped in a deep crevasse…”

This book is an amazing account of difficult choices and the fight for survival. I like how it’s told from the perspectives of both of the climbers, and it really delves deep emotionally (and physically) into what they were feeling at the time. It’s also written really, really well. It’s almost painful to read it because you’re right there with them, suffering. I read this book wrapped in a blankie sipping hot chocolate and still felt like I was freezing to death. I really get into the books I’m reading.

Did I Cry? – Yes. It’s very emotional. They were mostly happy, relieved tears though. That’s not really a spoiler – if the guy wrote a book about his ordeal, you can be pretty sure he didn’t die.

Recommend? – Oh yes.

It seems like I’m recommending a lot of these books. There weren’t any books on this list that I wouldn’t highly recommend. If someone can recommend a bad book about surviving a plane crash/mountaineering disaster, I’ll read it and add it to this post for a little extra variety.

Interesting Notes – Another film you can add to the Mountain Movie Marathon. I actually saw the documentary first, and then read the book many years later. They are equally good,and I’d suggest if you liked either that you take in its counterpart.


Up next, I delve into the mysteries of the human brain with books about recovering from assorted head trauma. Fun!


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, February 3, 2010 12:26 am

    It’s not a mountain, but you might find this movie interesting:

  2. tgjkennedy permalink
    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 12:54 pm

    Oooh I love Herzog. I will definitely find and watch this.

  3. Wednesday, February 10, 2010 2:11 pm

    For an intimate look at the culture of the Sherpas who make reaching the summit of Everest possible, read Beyond the Summit. It is classified as fiction but all the information about their culture, religion, and their role in mountaineering is based on solid fact and extensive research plus innumerable interviews with Sherpas who have worked on the mountain. The fictional approach was used only to gain a wider reading audience. The author led many treks to the base camp and worked with a group of Sherpas to create the first hut-to-hut system in Nepal in 1990.
    Sherpas are the true heroes of Everest. Without their assistance, very few would reach the summit. Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter’s point of view.

    Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to

    Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

    Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
    Richard Blake for Readers Views.

    A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest.

    A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

    LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

    LeBlanc’s vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

    A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there.

    This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended.”
    – John (college professor)

    Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialog. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

    This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

    Such vividly depicted images of the Everest region and the Sherpa people are the perfect scenario for the romance and adventure feats narrated. It’s a page-turner, so engrossing you end up wanting to visit Nepal! Not just novel, but perfect for those seeking to get acquainted with the culture of this country.
    By Claudia Fournier (América, Bs. As., Argentina)

  4. tgjkennedy permalink
    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 3:28 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: