Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 13 : Southeast Ridge, May 10, 1996 (27,600 feet) | Summary



The region above the South Col is the Death Zone, where lack of oxygen can easily lead to hypoxia. Krakauer describes the two canisters each climber carries and those stashed for later use. Rope is also essential for this part of the route. As Hall's and Fischer's were the first expeditions that year, ropes had not previously been fixed along the route. Hall and Fischer conferred and decided each would send two Sherpas 90 minutes ahead of the clients to install fixed lines along the route to the summit. Alarmingly, no Sherpas had left Camp Four late the previous night. No one knows why—perhaps the wind was too strong for climbing. Some guides claimed to have heard that the plan to put in rope ahead of time had been abandoned.

Krakauer and Ang Dorje are climbing far ahead of the other climbers, but Hall had forbidden them to proceed any farther. Had they been able to move farther, they might have been able to fix needed rope. Instead, they must sit and wait, watching the sunrise. Krakauer describes the ill feeling and competitiveness between Ang Dorje and Lopsang. Krakauer states Ang Dorje seems "sullen" while they're waiting.

Just beyond the Balcony (28,000 feet), Krakauer hits the first bottleneck. Facing a "series of massive rock steps that require rope for safe passage," the climbers "huddled restlessly" while they wait more than an hour for guide Neal Beidleman to install and anchor guide ropes along this section of the route. Valuable time is being wasted. Then Hall's client Yasuko Namba gets tired of waiting and decides to make her way to the front of the line. She nearly causes a catastrophe as she hooks herself to the rope before Beidleman has anchored it. Guide Mike Groom grabs her just in time before she puts all her weight on the unanchored rope. Had she done so, both she and Beidleman would have hurtled down the slope.

The "traffic jam" gets worse, and Krakauer worries about making the summit before Hall's planned turnaround time of between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. Some climbers assume turnaround is 1:00 p.m., but at 11:00 a.m. while waiting for the rope to get fixed, or anchored, ahead, Hall figures the summit is still three hours away. Three climbers who don't believe they can make the summit in time turn around and descend.

The fixed line ends at a steep, snowy area of the South Summit. Krakauer and three guides must sit and wait for the Sherpas to set lines on the Hillary Step and from there to the summit. Not only is Boukreev climbing without extra oxygen, he is not even carrying a backpack with vital first-aid supplies, rope, and other essential rescue gear. While waiting, Krakauer falls into a "hypoxic stupor." Beidleman asks Ang Dorje to help string rope, but the Sherpa refuses. Alarmed at the growing line of climbers down below, two guides and Krakauer help set the rope. They work for an hour, finishing at 1:00 p.m.

Once he reaches 29,000 feet, hypoxia makes Krakauer feel "calm ... disengaged." The guides help climbers up the "near-vertical" Hillary Step leading to the summit. Climbing the Hillary Step is difficult and slow. Near the top, Krakauer realizes his second oxygen canister is nearly empty, and he still needs oxygen to descend. Krakauer asks Beidleman if he might climb to the summit ahead of everyone else to conserve oxygen. Beidleman says, "Go for it. I'll take care of the rope." Instead of feeling elated at the summit, Krakauer feels "apprehension" about the descent.


The theme of teamwork and caring, or lack of same, is played out here. Personal conflict between Sherpas means that some essential preparations are left undone.

Hall and Fischer might have had more control over the climbing situation, but it's unclear if they did or did not have a plan to have the Sherpas leave Camp Four early to fix lines. Confusion about who was responsible for setting line meant that no line was anchored prior to the climbers reaching difficult parts of the route where it was essential. It is unclear and unknowable whose fault this was; the overcrowding seemingly caused expeditions to become disorganized, and this disorder seems to have led to no one knowing who was to do what and, later, why certain vital preparations were never made. The time wasted getting things in order completely upset the leaders' supposedly exacting schedules. Most climbers seemed to spend more time waiting than climbing, and a great deal of time was wasted. Only a few climbers took control of their personal situation and left to descend the mountain.

Teamwork and caring seemed to break down just at the critical juncture when life depended on it. First, Sherpa guides abandoned their important roles as team leaders and guides by feuding. Their personal animosity and competition for employment seemed to outweigh their commitment to helping the climbers by setting line. For Boukreev, carrying a backpack with emergency gear was too difficult. He needed to lighten his load because he had chosen to summit without supplemental oxygen. It seems that his dedication to "pure," oxygen-less climbing took precedence over his duties to the expedition. (Boukreev will acquit himself of selfishness later on.) It is also possible Fischer should have taken more control of Boukreev and insisted he use oxygen and/or carry emergency supplies. Even Krakauer seems to ignore his teammates. When he realizes he's running out of oxygen, he abandons setting rope for the other climbers so he can make it to the summit while he still has some oxygen left.

Yasuko Nambo's "impatience and inexperience ... nearly caused a disaster." She gets tired of waiting and selfishly pushes forward to pass other climbers in her determination to reach the summit. She cares more for her personal accomplishment than for the other climbers patiently (or impatiently) waiting to ascend. In the process. Not only does she disregard her teammates, she fails to recognize the peril she puts Beidleman, the rope-setting guide, in. She seems "like she was in a trance" as she hooks onto a rope before Beidleman has anchored it. Had Groom not seen this and stopped her in time, it is likely she and Beidleman would have hurtled down the mountain to their deaths.

The overcrowding and the long lines arise because crucial rope guides have not been set along particularly difficult parts of the route. Until three guides and Krakauer spend an hour anchoring rope along the route, no one can proceed. This leads to massive bottlenecks at key points on the route—areas where few experienced climbers can ascend without a guide rope. So 50 or more climbers spend hours waiting for the guide ropes to be anchored. Meanwhile, time is passing. Because of disorganization in setting rope, the turnaround time is fast approaching, although most climbers are still waiting far behind waiting to ascend. Because of the rope problem it seems like there is no chance that the expedition leaders can get their clients to the summit by the safety deadline. Rope line to the summit was not completed until after 1:00 p.m., the original ideal turnaround time for Rob Hall. However, at this time practically all the climbers were waiting far below to ascend.

Bottlenecks abound here. In one place after another, the lack of rope causes a traffic jam among the ascending climbers. Time passes as they stand and wait for the anchor rope, but this wasted time will have dire consequences. The fact that there are three expeditions on the mountain at the same time only makes the bottlenecks worse. It ensures that those at the end of the line will not even approach the summit before it's long past the time to head back down.

For most climbers, oxygen is essential to sustain life in the Death Zone. Ang Dorje, who is not using supplemental oxygen, claims to have seen "ghosts" in the night. As Krakauer climbs ever higher, he says, "I felt drugged ... thoroughly insulated from external stimuli." When he summits, Krakauer feels like he's "underwater, [with] life moving at quarter speed." Insufficient oxygen, even with an oxygen canister, is making climbers incoherent and irrational. Their brains are impaired even with supplemental oxygen. Krakauer notices his second canister of oxygen is nearly depleted, which is an ominous sign of what may happen on the descent (or to other climbers still waiting to summit).

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