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Into Thin Air | Chapter 1 : Everest Summit, May 10, 1996 (29,028 feet) | Summary

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Summary

The book begins with Krakauer already at the summit of Mount Everest. He is exhausted and has a terrible cough. He has not slept for days but tries to savor the spectacular view on the bright, sunny day. It is early afternoon on May 10, 1996, the day of Rob Hall's planned summit for members of his expedition. Krakauer recognizes that the lack of oxygen has impaired his mental capacity.

Krakauer pauses to take a few photographs of the scene and of some climbers farther down the trail. He notices a blanket of clouds in the formerly bright, clear sky to the south obscuring some other Himalayan peaks but does not think they are significant. Krakauer describes the clouds as "innocuous, wispy, insubstantial." In the next paragraph, Krakauer lists the number of deaths and severe injuries that climbers suffered on May 10. He questions why none of the leaders or guides had noticed the impending change in the weather. He wonders why no one halted the climb and turned their clients around to go back down the mountain to avoid getting trapped in what would prove to be a vicious storm.

Krakauer himself is unconcerned about the weather as he heads down from Everest's summit. His only concern is his dwindling supply of oxygen. As he descends he is alarmed to see "more than a dozen people ... queued up at the base of the Step" (a particularly treacherous part of the route to the summit). He recognizes that those waiting to ascend are from three different expeditions, all of which began climbing at the same time that day.

Krakauer believes his own problem—a near empty oxygen canister—will be alleviated when Andy Harris, an experienced guide on Rob Hall's expedition, approaches him. Krakauer asks Harris to turn off the flow of oxygen from his canister to conserve it while he waits for the other ascending climbers to pass by. Harris is himself in a state of hypoxia. In his confusion, instead of turning off Krakauer's oxygen, he turns the canister valve to full flow. Almost immediately, Krakauer is out of oxygen. He must descend through some of the most exposed and dangerous stretches of the route without supplemental oxygen. But before he can descend, he must wait (without oxygen) as more climbers ascend and pass him. As he waits, Krakauer's brain gets increasingly hypoxic and confused.

Doug Hansen, another member of Hall's group, is near the end of the ascending line, and he passes Krakauer in an exhausted, half-dazed state. He and Krakauer had become friends during the expedition. Krakauer calls out encouragement to Hansen, a postal employee who worked two jobs to save enough money to realize his dream of summiting Everest. Scott Fischer, the leader of another expedition, is the last in line to pass Krakauer. Although Fischer is a "legendary" mountaineer who had summited Everest before (without supplemental oxygen), he looks "hammered." "Just dragging ass a little ... No big deal," he tells Krakauer.

Once Fischer is past, Krakauer can clip onto the rope that leads down the mountain to Camp Four and safety. First, though, he stops at the South Summit to grab a fresh oxygen canister. He notices the clouds thickening in the sky. It is after 3 p.m. Before descending farther, he looks back at a group of climbers on the summit. They're taking the time to take pictures, wave flags, and relish their accomplishment.

Analysis

Several key themes are introduced in this chapter. Unforeseen changes in the weather may be noticed, but no one on the mountain has the knowledge to interpret wispy clouds as the portent of an imminent major storm. None of the expedition leaders or guides is willing to abandon the ascent to ensure the safety of their clients. If they do not understand the significance of the growing cloud cover, they may simply have thought all was still well. However, the physical exhaustion alone exhibited by many of the climbers should have indicated a turnaround was warranted.

Irrationality due to lack of oxygen becomes important. Even an experienced guide such as Andy Harris is disoriented by lack of oxygen. "In his hypoxically impaired state, [Harris] had mistakenly cranked the valve open to full flow, draining the [oxygen] tank." This endangers Krakauer, who is already in a state of hypoxic confusion. Krakauer realizes his oxygen situation means he "needed to get down, fast." But Harris's irrational behavior leaves Krakauer without oxygen while he waits for the long line of climbers to use the rope to get past him and up the mountain. Krakauer will also be in jeopardy as he makes his way down a dangerous section of the route without oxygen.

Oxygen is the sustainer of life high on the mountain. Krakauer is in desperate need of it, but the confusion caused by lack of the gas threatens his survival. In one sense he is lucky he was able to stand still and wait for the line of climbers to pass him during the period he was without oxygen. Exertion would have exacerbated the effects of hypoxia on his brain and further reduced his ability to think clearly. Caching fresh canisters of oxygen along the route shows that the expedition leaders are keenly aware of how important it is to the survival of their clients (and themselves).

The "traffic jam" that occurs on the ascent is caused by the commercialization and competitiveness of Everest expeditions. There are a limited number of days when the weather and other conditions seem favorable for summiting. For this reason, climbers, leaders, and guides from three different expeditions began their ascent on the same day and at the same time. All wanted to take advantage of what seemed to be perfect summiting conditions. However, their eagerness to please their clients and deliver a summit experience causes bottlenecks—a symbol used in the book to represent the pressure on commercial Everest expeditions. As delineated briefly in this chapter, bottlenecks are one reason so many climbers died or were injured on Everest May 10–11, 1996.

The security and safety of guide ropes are vital. Krakauer has to wait while the long line of people passes him because they are hooked to the guide rope that stretches along the route to the summit. The climbers are secure and unlikely to fall if they are attached to the rope. They are also far more likely to get help from the climber behind them who is also hooked onto the rope. So the rope keeps them safely on the route and together in a cohesive group. Krakauer, however, knows that he must descend via a dangerous part of the route. It is prudent of him to wait to hook onto the rope once the other climbers have passed. The rope is security and safety for him, too, even though the bottleneck means he has to waste precious time without oxygen before he can latch onto the rope and descend.

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