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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 12 : Camp Three, May 9, 1996 (24,000 feet) | Summary



Early on May 9, Hall's group begins climbing toward Camp Four. Krakauer lags and turns to see about 50 climbers behind him. He hurries up toward the single rope on the Lhotse Face. To get to the front of the line, Krakauer must unclip from the rope to pass the climber in front of him. Krakauer finds using the oxygen mask troublesome, almost suffocating, but soon gets used to it. When he stops to drink some water, Krakauer marvels at the "shimmering, crystalline" view. Through his binoculars Krakauer sees above him another team of four Montenegrin climbers struggling against a strong wind and notes this is a "bad sign."

Krakauer and the rest of Hall's team rest and eat lunch at the South Col (26,000 feet). He can just see Camp Four and the innumerable used canisters discarded there. Krakauer explains why the wind intensifies at the South Col, "accelerating to unimaginable velocities" like a perpetual hurricane.

Hall's team reaches Camp Four, where Sherpas are trying to secure tents. The weather worsens during the afternoon. Lopsang Jangbu struggles into camp carrying an 80-pound load, including 30 pounds of electronic equipment for Sandy Pittman's Internet dispatches. Fischer's group then arrives in Camp Four. Krakauer learns the Montenegrin team turned back before summiting. The climbers at Camp Four suffer anxiety exacerbated by insomnia.

A South African team leader is given a tent because he is very ill with altitude sickness. Doug Hansen is also unwell. He can't eat or sleep but remains determined to summit. There are now more than 50 people at Camp Four. Thankfully, the hurricane winds abate at 7:30 in the evening, and anxiety about the weather turns to optimism. Like most climbers, Krakauer had not slept or eaten much in two days. In the middle of the night, three teams—Hall's, Fischer's, and the Taiwanese—begin the climb to the summit. Hall instructs his clients to stay within 100 meters of each other and to obey his directives in all circumstances.

Hall's instructions mean that faster climbers must stop and wait for slower climbers to catch up. Krakauer is concerned more about the time wasted than the freezing cold while he's waiting. He notices that most of Fischer's group and the Taiwanese are now together with Hall's group, forming a long line along the slope.

At 5:30 a.m., Krakauer and some others reach the Southeast Ridge, at 27,600 feet. Krakauer must wait 90 minutes for the rest of Hall's group to catch up. Meanwhile, Fischer's group and the Taiwanese pass him. Krakauer bristles at his enforced "passivity," but at 7:10 a.m. Hall lets him climb. Krakauer stops to ask after Lopsang, who is vomiting and looks weak after hauling such a heavy load. In addition, he is personally almost carrying (short-roping) Sandy Pittman toward the summit instead of guiding the team. There is no consensus in later discussions about why he was "towing" Pittman up the mountain. However, Krakauer sees this incident as a mistake and a portent of more mistakes to come.


Hall tries to keep control of his expedition. He is adamant his clients follow his directions to the letter. "I will tolerate no dissension up there," he states. He demands team members stay together even if it means some climbers must stop and wait for those behind. However, as Krakauer intimates, he had to wait for more than two hours for his teammates to catch up to him. Hall also enforced a strict timetable, and all this waiting might presage an abandonment of that strict schedule. Krakauer is uneasy at these delays and explains that one of the pleasures of climbing is it demands "self-reliance," not "passivity." However, he understands that "a responsible guide will always insist on calling the shots ... [he] can't afford to let each client make important decisions independently." Yet in circumstances where an expedition is made up of climbers of varying abilities and experience, situations often arise in which there is a tension between following the rules and accommodating each one of the climbers in a group.

Still, control may have some negative consequences depending especially on who has it. For example, Fischer wanted two Sherpas to wait at the South Col in case of emergencies. Lopsang decided to leave only one there. He also took control of short-roping Pittman up a stretch of the mountain, perhaps because he thought she was too inexperienced to make it on her own. Though it was never ascertained exactly what happened and why, either he took control of her on his own initiative, or as some claimed, Fischer asked him to help her because of her status. Whoever made the decision, its effect on Lopsang (who became ill) would impact the safety of the others in the expeditions.

Rob Hall makes an unwise decision when he persuades Doug Hansen to continue to the summit. Hansen is sick and exhausted, and he wants to turn back. He had been with Hall the last time he had to abandon the summit just a few hundred feet from the top. Hall really wants Hansen to succeed this time. Hall's decision to influence and counteract Hansen's personal decision in this way will have serious repercussions for the safety of both men.

Finally, self-control is another factor that can make or break a summit climb. Krakauer reports that within three hours of leaving the South Col, Frank Fischbeck decides to turn back. He states "something about the day just didn't feel right." When Doug Hansen stepped aside, he too expressed unease as well as ill health. Sometimes listening to your inner voice, or intuition, is a way to take control of your actions and your fate.

In contrast to control, more unforeseen circumstances arise. South African guide Bruce Herrod becomes extremely ill and must be brought into a tent. "Let him in quickly or he's going to die out here," one climber shouts. No one could foresee that a lead guide would fall ill from altitude sickness, yet Herrod showed all the signs of it, including disorientation and irrationality from lack of oxygen to the brain.

The climbers reach an altitude where supplemental oxygen is essential. Bruce Herrod is laid low by serious altitude sickness from hypoxia. Krakauer writes that Hall had his team's Sherpas stash 55 canisters of compressed oxygen at the South Col. Although the "363 pounds of bottled oxygen" may sound like a lot, Krakauer does the math and determines it would be sufficient only for a single summit attempt by 15 people. If anyone were injured or stranded and had to wait for help high on the mountain, they'd need additional oxygen, as might their rescuers.

The occurrence of bottlenecks and their effect on the climbers becomes vital. Bottlenecks represent the dangers climbers face when they must wait to ascend or descend. Bottlenecks also clearly underscore the problems the commercialization of climbing Everest has caused. If there were not so many expeditions attempting the summit, there would not be long lines of climbers waiting to clip onto a rope to get up a particularly difficult part of the ascent route. In several parts of the chapter, Krakauer notes 50 or more climbers on the mountain, most in line waiting to clip onto a rope to continue. Krakauer himself is delayed several times by long lines and bottlenecks at key points on the route. The serious danger here, as he implies, is that bottlenecks delay summiting. They force climbers to waste precious time standing in line while unforeseen circumstances may arise that can have a huge impact on the ascent.

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