Krakauer was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, as the third of five children of Carol Ann (née Jones) and Lewis Joseph Krakauer. His father was Jewish and his mother was a Unitarian, of Scandinavian descent. He was raised in Corvallis, Oregon, from the age of two. His father introduced the young Krakauer to mountaineering at the age of eight. He competed in tennis at Corvallis High School and graduated in 1972. He went on to study at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where in 1976 he received his degree in Environmental Studies. In 1977, he met former climber Linda Mariam Moore and they married in 1980. They lived in Seattle, Washington, but moved to Boulder, Colorado after the release of Into Thin Air.
After graduating from college, he spent three weeks alone in the wilderness of the Stikine Icecap region of Alaska and climbed a new route on the Devils Thumb, an experience he described in Eiger Dreams and in Into the Wild. In 1992, he made his way to Cerro Torre in the Andes of Patagonia—a sheer granite peak considered to be one of the most difficult technical climbs in the world.
Krakauer's most recognized climb was a guided ascent of Mount Everest that became known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Soon after summitting the peak, Krakauer's team met with disaster as four of his teammates (including group leader Rob Hall) perished while making their descent in the middle of a storm.
A candid recollection of the event was published in Outside and eventually in the book Into Thin Air. By the end of the 1996 climbing season, fifteen people had died on Everest, making it the deadliest single year in Everest history to that point. Since then this has been exceeded by the sixteen deaths in the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche, and the 2015 earthquake avalanche disaster (19 killed). Krakauer publicly criticized the commercialization of Mount Everest following this tragedy.
Much of Krakauer's popularity as a writer came from being a journalist for Outside magazine. In November 1983, he was able to abandon part-Time work as a fisherman and a carpenter to become a full-time writer. His freelance writing involved great variety, in addition to his many works involving mountain climbing. His writing has also appeared in Architectural Digest, National Geographic Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Smithsonian. Some of his articles (from 1982-1989) are republished in the book Eiger Dreams.
On assignment from Outside, Krakauer wrote an article focusing on two parties during his ascent of Mt. Everest: the one he was in, led by Rob Hall, and the one led by Scott Fischer, both of which successfully guided clients to the summit but experienced severe difficulty during the descent. The storm, and, in his estimation, irresponsible choices by guides of both parties, led to a number of deaths, including both head guides. Krakauer did not feel his article accurately covered the entire event in only one short account and clarified his initial statements, especially regarding the death of Andy Harris, in his later book, Into Thin Air, after extensive interviews with survivors.
Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains is a non-fiction collection of articles and essays by Jon Krakauer on mountaineering and rock climbing. It concerns a variety of topics, from ascending the Eiger Nordwand in the Swiss Alps, Denali in Alaska or K2 in the Karakoram, to the well-known rock climbers Jon Krakauer has met on his trips, such as John Gill, Adrian Popovich or the Burgess brothers, Adrian and Alan.
Into the Wild was published in 1996 and shortly thereafter spent two years on The New York Times Best Seller List. The book employs a non-linear narrative that documents the travels of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family who, in 1990, after graduating from Emory University, donated all of the money ($24,000) in his bank account to the Oxfam charity, renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp", and began a journey in the American West. After completing his journey to Alaska, McCandless' remains were found in August 1992; he had died of starvation near Lake Wentitika in Denali National Park and Preserve. In the book, Krakauer draws parallels between his own experiences, the experiences of other adventurers and those of McCandless. Into The Wild was adapted into a film, which was released on September 21, 2007.
In 1997, Krakauer expanded his September 1996 Outside article into his best known book, Into Thin Air, describing the climbing parties' experiences and the general state of Everest mountaineering at the time. Hired as a journalist by the magazine, Krakauer had participated as a client of the 1996 Everest climbing team led by Rob Hall – the team which ended up suffering the greatest casualties in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
The book reached first place on The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, was honored as "Book of the Year" by Time magazine, and was among the final three books considered for the General Non-Fiction Pulitzer Prize in 1998. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave Krakauer an Academy Award in Literature in 1999 for his work and commented that "Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer. His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general reevaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport." In the TV-movie version of the book, Krakauer was played by Christopher McDonald.
Krakauer has contributed royalties from this book to the Everest '96 Memorial Fund at the Boulder Community Foundation, which he founded as a tribute to his deceased climbing partners.
A feature film titled Everest based on the actual events of this disaster was released in 2015, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. In the film, Krakauer is portrayed by Michael Kelly. Krakauer denounced the movie, stating some of its details were fabricated and defamatory. He also expressed regret regarding Sony's rapid acquisition of the rights to the book. Director Baltasar Kormákur responded, claiming Krakauer's first-person account was not used as source material for the film, and alleged that his version of events conflicted with the plot.
In Into Thin Air, Krakauer noted that Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev, Scott Fischer's top guide on the expedition, ascended the summit without supplemental oxygen, "which didn't seem to be in their clients' best interest." He also wrote that Boukreev descended from the summit several hours ahead of his clients, and that this was "extremely unorthodox behavior for a guide." He noted however that, once he had descended to the top camp, Boukreev was heroic in his tireless rescue attempts of the missing climbers. Five months after Into Thin Air debuted, Boukreev published his own account of the Everest disaster in the book The Climb, written for him by G. Weston DeWalt.
Controversy has centered on what experienced mountaineers thought about the facts of Boukreev's performance. Galen Rowell from the American Alpine Journal wrote to Krakauer ..." the fact that every one of Boukreev's clients survived without major injuries while the clients who died or received major injuries were members of your party. Could you explain how Anatoli [Boukreev]'s shortcomings as a guide led to the survival of his clients ... ?" Conversely, Scott Fischer, the leader of Boukreev's team who died on the mountain, had complained continuously about Boukreev's shirking of responsibility and inability to meet the demands put upon him as the top guide – complaints that were documented in transcripts of radio transmissions between Fischer and his Base Camp managers. After publication of Into Thin Air and The Climb, DeWalt, Boukreev, and Krakauer became embroiled in disagreements about Krakauer's portrayal of Boukreev. Krakauer reached a détente with Boukreev in November 1997, but the Russian climber was killed by an avalanche several weeks later while climbing Annapurna.
In 2003, Under the Banner of Heaven became Krakauer's third non-fiction bestseller. The book examines extremes of religious belief, particularly fundamentalist offshoots of Mormonism. Specifically, Krakauer looks at the practice of polygamy in these offshoots and scrutinizes it in the context of the Latter Day Saints religion throughout history. Much of the focus of the book is on the Lafferty brothers, who murdered in the name of their fundamentalist faith.
In 2006, Tom Elliott and Pawel Gula produced the documentary Damned to Heaven, inspired by the book.
Robert Millet, Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, an LDS institution, reviewed the book and described it as confusing, poorly organized, misleading, erroneous, prejudicial and insulting. Mike Otterson, Director of Media Relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), told the Associated Press, "This book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian. He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things."
In response, Krakauer criticized the LDS Church hierarchy, citing the opinion of D. Michael Quinn, a historian who was excommunicated in 1993, who wrote that "The tragic reality is that there have been occasions when Church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past, but have offered to the Saints instead a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials." Krakauer wrote, "I happen to share Dr. Quinn's perspective."
In the October 25, 2007 season premiere of Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel, Krakauer mentioned being deeply embroiled in the writing of a new book, but did not reveal the title, subject, or expected date of completion. Doubleday Publishing originally planned to release the book in the fall of 2008, but postponed the launch in June of that year, announcing that Krakauer was "unhappy with the manuscript."
The book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, was released by Doubleday on September 15, 2009. It draws on the journals and letters of Pat Tillman, an NFL professional football player and U.S. Army Ranger whose death in Afghanistan made him a symbol of American sacrifice and heroism, though it also became a subject of controversy about the handling of the announcement of his death by the U.S. Army. The book draws on the journals and letters of Tillman, interviews with his wife and friends, conversations with the soldiers who served alongside him, and research Krakauer performed in Afghanistan. It also serves in part as a historical narrative, providing a general history of the civil wars in Afghanistan.
A New York Times book review, written by Dexter Filkins, stated: "..too many of the details of Tillman’s life recounted here are mostly banal and inconsequential.", but also stated, concerning Tillman's death: "While most of the facts have been reported before, Krakauer performs a valuable service by bringing them all together — particularly those about the cover-up. The details, even five years later, are nauseating to read."
Three Cups of Deceit is a 2011 e-book (later released in paperback by Anchor Books) that purports to expose mismanagement and accounting fraud committed by Greg Mortenson, the humanitarian who built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and his charity, the Central Asia Institute.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015) explores how rape is handled by colleges and the criminal justice system. The book follows several case studies of women raped in Missoula, Montana, many of them linked in some way to the University of Montana. Krakauer attempts to illuminate why many victims do not want to report their rapes to the police, and he criticizes the justice system for giving the benefit of the doubt to assailants but not to victims. Krakauer was inspired to write the book when a friend of his, a young woman, revealed to him that she had been raped.
Emily Bazelon, writing for the New York Times book review gave the book a lukewarm review, writing that the book does not fully explore its characters or fully appreciate the difficulty colleges face in trying to prevent and handle sexual assault. "Instead of delving deeply into questions of fairness as universities try to fulfill a recent government mandate to conduct their own investigations and hearings – apart from the police and the courts – Krakauer settles for bromides," Bazelon writes. "University procedures should 'swiftly identify student offenders and prevent them from reoffending, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of the accused,' he writes, asserting that this 'will be difficult, but it's not rocket science.' Maybe not, but it sure is bedeviling a lot of smart people at the moment."
As of 2004, Krakauer edits the Exploration series of the Modern Library.
Krakauer was featured during a CBS 60 Minutes report on April 17, 2011 where 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft raised questions about humanitarian Greg Mortenson and the non-profit Central Asia Institute (CAI). Krakauer questioned the accuracy of events in Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea and whether Mortenson was kidnapped by the Taliban in 1996 as described in his second book, Stones into Schools. Krakauer went on to question Mortenson's credibility through the financial practices of CAI. Krakauer had been a financial supporter of Mortenson's work and had previously donated $75,000 before becoming disillusioned with him and his management of CAI. The 60 Minutes story largely retraced the conclusions Krakauer came to as described in his e-book, Three Cups of Deceit – How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way. The e-book was released the day after the 60 Minutes piece aired.
Scott Darsney, a respected mountaineer and friend of Greg Mortenson, wrote a response to Krakauer's allegations that was published as an exclusive article in Outside magazine's online version. Darnsey's response questioned the accuracy and fairness of both the Krakauer piece and the 60 Minutes report. He further stated that Krakauer either misquoted or misunderstood what he said when interviewed by the author. Darnsey went on to say that Krakauer took Mortenson's experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan out of context and added, "If Jon Krakauer and some of Greg's detractors had taken the time to have three or more cups of tea with Greg and others—instead of one cup of tea with a select few who would discredit him—they would have found some minor problems and transgressions. But to the extent to call it all 'lies' and 'fraud'? No way." Darnsey stated in reference to the possibility that Mortenson has been dishonest in his financial dealings through CAI, "If Greg is misappropriating funds, then show me the luxury cars, fancy boats, and closets full of shoes. This is not a "ministry" or a business gone corrupt." The Outside article also touched on the allegations that Mortenson lied about being held captive by the Taliban. In light of that controversy, Darnsey stated, "Greg recounted to me his imprisonment in Waziristan when I met him in Beijing. I don't doubt that he was held against his will." Darnsey's article went on to say that Krakauer is a respected journalist and a "stickler for details and getting the facts straight", but that he felt "the research needs to continue".
In February 2012, it was reported that an investigation by the Montana Attorney General was underway.
On April 5, 2012, the Montana Attorney General's office released a report noting financial "missteps" by CAI and Greg Mortenson. The Attorney General reached a settlement for restitution from Mortenson to CAI in excess of $1 million.
According to the May 3, 2013 issue of The Los Angeles Times, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the 2012 federal dismissal by Judge Samuel Haddon in Montana, stating he had ruled in accordance to the laws and rules governing class action suits. Haddon ruled correctly that readers were not entitled to financial compensation based on any of the arguments presented by the plaintiffs. The suit was filed days after the publication of the above titled book, as well as the "60 Minutes" presentation.
According to Central Asia Institute's Board chairman, Steve Barrett, announced on October 9, 2013, that the CAI and Mortenson have fully complied with all the specific actions and repayments as negotiated by the settlement with then Attorney General (now Governor) Steve Bullock.