Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 14 : Summit, 1:12 P.M., May 10, 1996 (29,028 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Krakauer spends just moments on the summit and then begins to descend. He passes Beidleman and Martin Adams, a Fischer client, heading up. Krakauer notices a few wispy clouds forming around other Himalayan peaks in the southern sky but thinks nothing of it. Adams, a pilot, later tells Krakauer that in his experience wispy clouds are sometimes the "crowns of robust thunderheads." Fifteen minutes after leaving the summit, Krakauer reaches the Hillary Step, where he encounters a large group of climbers heading toward the summit. Again, Krakauer must wait until the long line of climbers go past him.

To save air while he's waiting, Krakauer asks Andy Harris to turn the valve on his oxygen canister to the "off" position, but Harris, confused by hypoxia, mistakenly turns the valve to the full "on" position. In a few minutes, Krakauer's oxygen is used up. Still, the numerous climbers from all three expeditions trudge past him. Soon, Boukreev and Adams are waiting behind Krakauer to descend after summiting.

Krakauer is feeling dizzy, like he's about to "black out." When he finally gets to continue his descent, he's "frantic" to reach the South Summit where his third canister of oxygen awaits. All told, he would spend more than an hour waiting near the summit without supplemental oxygen. Krakauer uses a rope to descend until it runs out. He's wary of continuing without either a rope or extra oxygen. Krakauer sees Andy Harris on the South Summit sorting through oxygen canisters. When Krakauer asks Andy to give him one, Harris tells him, "They're all empty." Luckily, Mike Groom arrives and gives Krakauer his oxygen canister. Krakauer descends to the South Summit.

At the South Summit Krakauer finds that at least six canisters were full, not empty. Altitude hypoxia had confused Harris about the condition of the canisters. Krakauer gets a full oxygen canister and continues his descent. It's 3:30 p.m., and clouds are forming as snow begins to fall. Krakauer can barely see where he's going. He meets Hall, Harris, and Hansen on their way up and gets Hall's permission to head down to Camp Four alone. When he reaches the Balcony, he sees Beck Weathers standing alone, shivering. A medical condition has left Weathers essentially blind. His vision had been deteriorating, but he'd climbed thus far by following the climber ahead of him. He was waiting for Hall, who said he'd guide him down if his vision did not improve, but Hall was now heading up. Krakauer offers to guide Weathers down, but Weathers prefers to wait for Mike Groom and Namba, who have a rope and are (supposedly) right behind Krakauer.

Krakauer continues down, but snowfall obscures the route, and high winds have erased the climbers' footprints. Krakauer navigates by identifying landmarks he'd memorized earlier. It's 6:00 p.m., and a full-blown blizzard with 90-mph winds is pounding the mountain. As he attaches to a line left by the Montenegrin team, Krakauer suddenly realizes he's out of oxygen again. It's been three hours since he attached his new oxygen canister, and now it's depleted. He feels like he is outside of his body and even discusses altitude-induced hallucinations.

When he's only 200 vertical feet from Camp Four (it's 6:30 p.m.), Krakauer discovers he must descend over ice without a rope. He's overwhelmed, so he spends 45 minutes just sitting in the snow. Then, he thinks he sees Andy Harris, in "appalling condition," approaching. Harris asks the "way to the tents," and Krakauer points but warns him about the ice-covered incline he must cross. As Krakauer is talking, Harris abruptly walks forward, sits down and slides over the ice until his body begins to tumble. At the foot of the ice slope, Harris gets up and waves to show he's fine. Krakauer sees Harris approach Camp Four, then throws off his backpack, and starts down the ice. About 25 minutes later, Krakauer is at Camp Four. He "was more exhausted than [he] had ever been in [his] life" as he collapses into a tent. He thinks "everything turned out great" but says he will later learn how wrong he is.

Analysis

Experience and the unforeseen and unknowable become crucial at the beginning of this chapter. No one—except the airline pilot, Martin Adams—had the experience to correctly interpret what those "wispy clouds" signified. After the expedition, Krakauer would learn from Martin Adams that only someone having the meteorological knowledge and experience (and the view of clouds from above) would be able to recognize those wisps as the tops of thunderclouds. Storms are common on Everest, but no one in charge of any expedition (Adams was a client) had this cloud-reading experience and expertise. With this knowledge, disaster might have been averted. At the end of the chapter, the fate of the other climbers is not known to Krakauer, who's collapsed from exhaustion in his tent.

The most prominent theme in this chapter is irrationality. Many of the climbers, from clients to guides, seem to be affected by altitude-induced hypoxia. They are unable to think clearly or to correctly understand situations and so act rationally. Andy Harris, an experienced guide, imperils Krakauer when he mistakenly turns his oxygen canister on instead of off. Krakauer is lucky he got some oxygen from Mike Groom. Harris's was not a mistake of carelessness; it was due to his inability to focus and concentrate. When his oxygen is gone, Krakauer recognizes that his "cognitive functions ... went into a nosedive ... I felt like I'd been slipped an overdose of a powerful sedative." He waits so long for the line of climbers to pass he enters a state of "hypoxic imbecility" and feels dizzy and faint.

Another instance of hypoxic brain impairment will have terrible consequences: Harris is so confused he mistakenly thinks the cached oxygen canisters on the South Summit are all empty. They are not, but his later insistence will lead to tragedy for other climbers. Krakauer thinks he saw Harris while sitting at the top of the ice slope. Harris slides and tumbles down the ice incline, a dangerous move, as he could have slid off the mountain, which further highlights how truly impaired his thinking is. Krakauer is sure he sees Harris only 60 feet from Camp Four and feels confident Harris is safe.

It is likely already after 2 p.m. when Krakauer meets Hall and Hansen heading up toward the summit. Hall's "strict" schedule seems to have been jettisoned as he guides Hansen up the mountain. Krakauer doesn't comment on the time, because Hall is supposedly in control of events. As Krakauer describes it, "We had been specifically indoctrinated not to question our guides' judgment. The thought never entered my crippled mind that Andy might in fact be in terrible straits—that a guide might urgently need help from me." Krakauer later feels terrible guilt about not helping Andy Harris. Beck Weathers also seeks help, but only from someone in control. Weathers refuses help from Krakauer in order to wait for the guide, Mike Groom. This is another instance of imperiling yourself to get assistance from someone in control—Krakauer was just a client, not a guide.

Rob Hall bemoans the fact that several of his clients left the mountain and failed to summit, something that might hurt his business and its competitiveness relative to other expedition businesses. Getting more people to the summit might be why he told Beck Weathers to wait for him when Weathers lost his eyesight. It might also be considered that knowing about Weathers's eye condition should have made Hall refuse to allow him to climb at all. Hall is so eager to have his clients summit that he agrees with Weathers's assertion that his vision will improve. Weathers promised Hall he'd wait for Hall to descend, even though Weathers is freezing standing out in the blizzard. His deference to control is revealed when Weathers says, "I saw no reason to break my promise to Rob." He will follow the rules of the man supposedly in control.

Oxygen, and the lack of it, is of huge importance and is mentioned throughout the chapter. It is what Krakauer desperately needs, what is causing Harris's cognitive impairment and life-threatening misjudgments, and what is sapping everyone's strength and ability to think. Bottlenecks that occur as members of the three expeditions slowly climb toward the summit not only force Krakauer to wait a long time without oxygen for them to pass, but—more urgently—waste precious time. Perhaps had these bottlenecks not occurred, climbers might have been able to descend to Camp Four before the blizzard was in full force. Likely the bottlenecks caused Hall to attempt the summit with Doug Hansen even after the scheduled turnaround time was past.

Finally, the security of the guide ropes plays an important role in what happened. Krakauer just sits down in the snow for nearly an hour because he hesitates to attempt the ice slope without guide ropes. Climbers need the security of ropes to navigate the mountain; when such security is absent, climbers are dangerously imperiled.

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