Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916
Jon Krakauer is a indefatigable outdoorsman with an insatiable love of nature and a prolific writer who balances journalistic instinct for a good story with humane sensitivity for his subjects. His writing career has circled a lifelong passion for adventure, the wilderness, and mountain climbing — his most abiding interest.
Krakauer was born in Massachusetts in 1954, moved to Oregon with his family shortly thereafter, and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Krakauer has recorded in his books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster how his lifelong passion for climbing was born in the mountains of the Northwest. He was influenced early in his life by the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest's forbidding West Ridge by the American team of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, on May 22, 1963. While other boys his age idolized the American Astronauts who took humanity's first steps on the moon, young Jon was inspired by Willi Unsoeld, his personal hero and fellow Oregonian. Unsoeld, a Krakauer family friend, was frequently around when Jon was growing up, and the boy occasionally played with the oldest Unsoeld children. His first real climb, up the side of a local volcano in the nearby Cascade Range, was accomplished in the company of his father and Unsoeld when Jon was eight.
After that initial ascent, Jon's love of climbing and the wildness of the remoter reaches of nature shaped his life and subsequent career. He devoted his early adulthood to climbing mountains, always taking particular pride in his accomplishments as a "technical climber," preferring difficult ascents that very few but the elite among mountain climbers would attempt. Eschewing most of the trappings of success and stability that the vast majority of people aspire to in their lives—such as steady employment— Krakauer lived precariously, trying out jobs in various trades like carpentry and commercial fishing, in order to subsist and finance his climbing. In one interview, Krakauer tried to sum up his feelings by claiming that climbing "matters." He argued, "it's very physical, you use your mind and your body. It's like full-body chess, and it gets you to beautiful, beautiful places."
He began writing for magazines in 1974, when he was commissioned by the American Alpine Club to write an article about the first ascent of a peak in Alaska. After writing exclusively about nature and the outdoors for a time, Krakauer made the career move to major magazines, recognizing that he would be able to make a better living by diversifying his efforts. These exertions were rewarded as he proved himself both fine writer and savvy businessman; he drew upon his former experiences as a carpenter and commercial salmon fisherman for background knowledge to articles he wrote for Architectural Digest and Smithsonian magazine. After that he began writing for a variety of magazines. As Krakauer has observed to one interviewer, "It was useful, as a writer, to try out different voices and it was also smart, as a businessman." However, as he has also pointed out, he considers the writing he has done for Outside magazine to be among his best work, simply because it is in those articles that his love for the outdoors finds its true voice. His love of mountains and wilderness regions remains an enduring theme that continues to influence the important decisions in his life. Having established his career as a magazine journalist, Krakauer made the move into books. He published Eiger Dreams in 1990, a collection of twelve essays about mountaineering (most of which were originally published in either Outside or Smithsonian), and in the same year he and a fellow contributing editor for Outside, David Roberts, produced Iceland, a pictorial exploration of that country, filled with Krakauer's photography and Roberts's text. The first of Krakauer's books to cross generic borders and make an unforgettable impression on the general public was Into the Wild. This thoughtful chronicle of Chris McCandless's mysterious wanderings and premature death was originally the subject of an award-winning Outside article, titled "Death of an Innocent," that Krakauer wrote in 1992.
Krakauer joined an ill-fated attempt in 1996 to scale Mt. Everest, the world's tallest mountain. Several climbers from Krakauer's and other parties died in a sudden storm that struck while they were still struggling near the summit. Krakauer wrote a striking magazine article and later expanded it into a painfully researched, full-length book.
What compels him to write about danger and adventure, to persistently tell stories of pain, risk, and reward in his initial articles and subsequent books? He describes Into the Wild as a "meandering inquiry"—perhaps an expression of his own renaissance approach to journalism and life—at one and the same time documentary, speculative study, and affecting human testament. Krakauer chronicles both the factual particularities and the hard inner realities of a strangely affecting story even as he delves, through careful contemplation, to uncover deep structures of human nature and the enigmas of young men's often fatal fascination with the wild.
Krakauer is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and has also published articles in several other prominent magazines, including Smithsonian, National Geographic, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Architectural Digest, an impressive list that suggests the breadth and depth of his interests. He was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1994 for his original Outside article about Chris McCandless, and Into the Wild won the Banff Mountain Book Festival award for Mountain Literature in 1996. Krakauer lives in Seattle with his wife, and divides his time between writing and climbing.
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