I did not read this book when it was popular; I did not buy this book when it was popular. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in a used bookstore, nor do I know when or where I purchased it. But, having started it on a whim, I understand why this book was such a huge success.
The story is told as though everyone knows of the disaster the book discusses. Perhaps, in 1996, I did know of the disaster on Mount Everest, but I don't recall it now. At any rate, several people, including some exceedingly qualified and fit people, perished trying to climb Mount Everest. Or actually, trying to descend Mount Everest. It turns out that for most climbers, the ascent is the easy part; descending is much harder. Once the goal has been reached, and the energy expended to get to the summit, getting down is very, very difficult.
I am not even remotely a climber, and don't understand why people climb mountains. Yes, I know: "Because they are there." On that theory, lots of things could be done, but the issue is should they be done. My prejudices in the open, I have to admit that I could not put this book down. Even knowing that several people would die, and having some trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight (I believe the author said that 33 people were trying for the summit on that day), I still was mesmerized by the scope of the challenge and the determination of each person.
The author blames himself for some of the disaster. Personal blame aside, he seems to try to be fair to everyone. As with every disaster, small, seemingly insignificant choices affected the outcome. Some of those choices seem odd looking back, but at the time were determined to be the optimal choice. And some of the choices were made by people who were literally not in their right minds. The altitude apparently does very odd things to people.
All in all, this was a fascinating book, and well worth reading. Think of an airplane ride, cross-country, and that is the altitude the climbers faced. The pictures alone scared me (afraid of heights!); the text terrified me. But it was definitely a could-not-put-down read!!