Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 11 : Base Camp, May 6, 1996 (17,600 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Hall's group begins its climb to the summit two vertical miles above. Krakauer finds the sun's intense heat debilitating. Krakauer then introduces Göran Kropp, a solo climber heading down from the summit. Thigh-deep snow kept Kropp from the summit on this climb, and Hall remarks on Kropp's good judgment and reiterates the importance of his rule to turn around (and not summit) at the planned time for descent. Krakauer describes Hall's intense desire to succeed and his meticulous attention to detail.

Hall has his group rest for two days at Camp Two to ready themselves for the final push to the top. Fischer appears in Hall's camp looking "uncharacteristically" upset and worried. Fischer allowed his clients to climb independently as they became more accustomed to the lack of oxygen, but that has caused problems. Several of his clients got into trouble and had to be escorted down to Base Camp. Today, Fischer has had to make a round-trip climb from Base Camp to Camp Two and back in order to help a climber in trouble. For him and those in his group who needed help, there was little or no rest just before the climb to the summit. It seems Anatoli Boukreev, one of Fischer's guides, did not stay with the clients as instructed, which is why they got in trouble on their own. Boukreev is Russian, and in Russian expeditions guides do not "babysit" clients who should be able to climb on their own.

On May 8, as scheduled, Hall's and Fischer's teams began the ascent, inching up Lhotse Face toward Camp Three. At one point a boulder hurtles down the mountain and hits Andy Harris in the chest, though he is not seriously injured. Hall is last among the climbers. At 4:30 p.m., he uses his walkie-talkie to report that some of his clients are in trouble. He asks Mike Groom, another guide, to come down and help them reach Camp Three. More than an hour later, the group enters camp with the climbers "completely out of gas." Krakauer is shocked at their state of exhaustion.

After dark, guides give each client an oxygen canister, which they'll need in the Death Zone at 25,000 feet and beyond. Krakauer then explains the lack of oxygen at that altitude and the serious, even deadly, effects it can have on climbers. He explains how some climbers, particularly the famed Reinhold Messner, managed to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen. He explains that one's reputation as an "elite" climber is secured only if one summits without extra oxygen. Krakauer then describes the oxygen system Hall's clients will use at all times and the physical deterioration not using oxygen would cause.

The Taiwanese and South African teams make camp about 100 feet below. One Taiwanese climber has an accident and falls into a crevasse. Injury and altitude sickness require his evacuation, but he dies before he's taken to Base Camp. Krakauer enumerates other accidents and illnesses, including one heart attack, but this is the first fatality. "It cast a pall over the mountain" that was only somewhat alleviated by the anticipation of summiting.

Hall learns that the Taiwanese have now decided to attempt the summit on May 10, which they'd previously promised not to do.

Analysis

The events described reflect the lack of control an expedition leader has over unforeseen events. Hall admires Göran Kropp for recognizing the need to turn around without summiting. "That showed incredibly good judgment," he said. Hall was adamant his team descend from the summit (or the mountain) no later than 2:00 p.m. "Any bloody idiot can get up this hill ... The trick is to get back down alive." Hall's words would later come to haunt Krakauer.

Fischer allows his clients free rein on the mountain, which indicates his willingness to cede control to inexperienced climbers. Giving up control cost Fischer and his clients the day or two of rest they badly needed. Fischer also lost control of his guide Boukreev. Although Fischer was incensed at Boukreev's negligence, he could not control him. Boukreev's attitude toward his job also lost him the trust of his employer and likely other climbers on Fischer's team.

The Taiwanese climber's fatal accident is an example of how unforeseen events can occur and how they affect other climbers. Another example of unforeseen mishaps occurred when a loose rock crashed down the mountain and hit Andy Harris, an experienced guide Hall depended on. Had the rock hit his head, Harris no doubt would have been killed, and his death would have affected the entire team. The symbol of rope as safety and security is obvious here. If Harris had not clipped himself to the guide rope, he would very likely have been jettisoned from the mountain.

Some guides seem to lack the feeling of comradeship and willingness to cooperate, important qualities in a guide or Sherpa. Boukreev is said to have "poor social skills," which might account for his seeming lack of concern for the clients on Fischer's team. "He just wasn't a team player," one of the guides remarks.

Lack of cooperation and betrayal of trust are revealed when the Taiwanese team shows up on the mountain and announces they also will attempt to summit on May 10. Makalu, the leader, had promised Hall and Fischer he would not have his group summit on May 10 to avoid overcrowding on the mountain. But for some unspecified reason he ignores this agreement. Perhaps he didn't take it seriously. Having the additional group summiting at the same time as the scheduled two groups foreshadows problems to come. At the end of the chapter, Krakauer notes that there will be 33 climbers heading for the summit on May 10.

After dark on May 9, Hall's guides give each climber a canister of compressed oxygen and emphasize how important it is to use it at all times (although Krakauer cannot sleep wearing his oxygen mask). Although the "elite" climbers think summiting with supplemental oxygen is "cheating," Mike Groom disagrees, even though he has accomplished this feat. As a guide, Groom has the responsibility to care for the expedition's clients, and he feels "it would be extremely irresponsible [for him] to guide the peak without using [oxygen]."

In an overt foreshadowing of the tragic events to come, Krakauer says Fischer spoke to his business partners in Seattle via satellite phone and complained about Boukreev. He also spoke of his and some of his clients' exhaustion. Krakauer remarks "these would be the last conversations they would ever have with Fischer."

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