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Into Thin Air | Chapter 15 : Summit, 1:25 P.M., May 10, 1996 (29,028 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Just before 2:00 p.m., Beidleman and Harris summit with clients. Fischer is still not seen ascending. Beidleman is concerned but does not speak up, because he's not a head guide. The plan was Fischer would turn the climbers around even if they had not summited by 2:00 p.m. Neither Lopsang nor Fischer are in view, and neither Beidleman nor Harris has a walkie-talkie to contact them. Beidleman sits on the summit "for a very long time" waiting for Fischer. Hall has not yet reached the summit and has not turned back at his 2:00 p.m. deadline.

Pittman collapses at 2:10 p.m., as she approaches the summit. Her third canister of oxygen is empty, but Lopsang Sherpa has a spare and helps her summit. Then Hall, Groom, and Namba reach the summit. Hall thinks Doug Hansen is climbing near the summit. Hall will wait for Hansen to summit and then head down. He says, "Everything's fine." What Hall doesn't know is that Hansen is far behind and won't summit until after 4:00 p.m.

At 3:10 p.m., Beidleman heads down with Pittman and other climbers. At the Hillary Step, they meet Fischer on his way up. They wave at each other. Beidleman is worried about Pittman, who is very weak and collapses again. He gives her an emergency shot of Dex, a drug that counters the effects of altitude sickness. Still, Pittman remains semicomatose; her oxygen canister is near empty. Beidleman slides her down a slope, and within 20 minutes she revives somewhat.

Fischer arrives at the summit at 3:40 p.m. He is exhausted and sick from lack of rest the day before. Fischer is also ill with an intestinal parasite he picked up years earlier, but nobody comments on Fischer's wasted appearance and slow pace.

At 5:00 p.m., Mike Groom and Namba are descending and arrive at the Balcony, 500 feet below the ridge. Groom sees Martin Adams alone below them, lost in the snowstorm. But when Adams sees Groom he climbs back toward the Balcony. Adams is without oxygen but tries to descend on his own to Camp Four. Groom sees a figure in the snow. It's Beck Weathers, who's been waiting for Groom to guide him down. "Beck was hopelessly blind," Groom remembered, but he guides Weathers toward Camp Four.

Namba's oxygen runs out 500 feet above the South Col. She sits in the snow, refusing to move. She's irrational and won't remove her oxygen mask. By now, Weathers is collapsing, and Groom almost has to carry him downslope. At 6:45 p.m., Beidleman grabs Namba and drags her down the slope. Only 200 feet from the camp, the storm becomes a hurricane, and visibility is almost nil. As Beidleman nears the South Col, the batteries on climbers' headlamps die. It's 7:30 p.m. and very dark. It soon becomes clear the group "has no idea where they were." Beidleman knew they "were in trouble." The guides and climbers stumble around "blindly" for two hours. At 10:00 p.m., they nearly fall off a cliff. Beidleman realizes that staggering around hoping to stumble on the camp is foolhardy and dangerous, so he has the climbers huddle together to wait out the storm. They are 15 minutes of horizontal walking from Camp Four but don't know it. One climber leaves his tent at Camp Four to bang on pots and shine lights to show the stranded climbers where the camp is. But the storm is too strong and too loud. Everyone else in camp is too cold or exhausted to help search for the climbers.

At midnight the storm breaks, and the huddled climbers think they can now find their way back to camp, but three of the climbers are too weak to walk. Beidleman understands he must get to Camp Four and organize a rescue party to save the climbers or they will die. He, Groom, and some others go for help, leaving behind the disabled climbers. At 12:45 a.m. (May 11), Beidleman and his group stagger into Camp Four.

Boukreev, who had left the summit alone at 2:00 p.m., tries to help the stranded climbers. But without a radio and with such poor visibility, he has no idea where they are. Sherpas who might have aided in the rescue cannot because of an accident in camp. Hutchison and Boukreev do not coordinate their efforts to organize a rescue team, and most people they try to rouse are too exhausted for a rescue. Finally, Boukreev and Madsen, a client, find the climbers. Namba seemed to be dead but was not. Boukreev and Madsen each help one climber to the camp. They reach Camp Four at 4:30 a.m., while Weathers and Namba remain a short distance away.

Analysis

Expedition leaders had been clear about setting a deadline for the time all climbers had to begin the descent from the mountain whether they had summited or not. However, expedition leaders abandon their set timetable in order to get more clients to the summit. Krakauer tells how exhausted climbers struggle up the mountain, nearing the peak, even many hours past the time that the leaders—those in control of their clients—had insisted they should have turned around. The leaders ostensibly had control of expedition planning, but clearly they lost control of the climbers, the schedule, and the events on the mountain once the expedition to the summit is underway. For example, Beidleman sits and waits on the mountain for a long time knowing he should have turned the climbers around. Yet he "didn't feel comfortable telling clients ... they had to go down ... Scott [Fischer] agreed that would be his responsibility. But for whatever reason it didn't happen." The reason is partly the lack of control and partly other issues, including bottlenecks, altitude sickness, and the weather.

Neither the leaders nor the guides had correctly interpreted the wispy clouds in the sky as signs of an oncoming storm. The expedition leaders experience further loss of control when the unforeseen—a hurricane-force blizzard—rages around the climbers. Weather is changeable and uncontrollable, but this storm would not have been so deadly and destructive had the leaders adhered to the timetable (and done other things), over which they did have control.

For a number of reasons, including waiting for fixed lines to be set and bottlenecks, climbers are left waiting in queues to summit while leaders and guides are left waiting for straggling climbers. This eats up even more time beyond the turnaround deadline and makes climbers much more vulnerable to the effects of the oncoming storm. The lack of communications equipment—something the leaders should have planned better and had more control over—makes the waiting and near dissolution of the climbing groups much more dangerous, even inevitable. Thus, the conditions that delayed the climb and the lack of communication with those who might have been able to assist if or when things went wrong were crucial to the disaster that ensued.

Beidleman waits at the summit for Fischer, who is weakened by exhaustion and an infection. Yet at no time did Fischer relinquish control because he realized he was incapable. So while Beidleman waits, Fischer is still struggling up the mountain. They could not know each other's position because they weren't able to communicate through electronic equipment. This brings up another form of control—hierarchy. Beidleman is not a head guide, so he feels it's not his place to tell "clients who'd paid $65,000 that they had to go down." As the "third" guide, he "didn't always speak up when maybe [he] should have, and now [he] kick[s] [himself] for it." Beidleman wanted to descend on time, but his lower status inhibited him. So he stayed on the summit way past the deadline and waited for Fischer and other climbers to reach him.

Beidleman's comments come from his understanding of commercial competition among expeditions. When people pay so much money for an experience, businesses (and especially relatively low-level employees of these businesses) are hesitant about failing to deliver the paid-for experience. It is also possible Fischer didn't disclose his exhaustion and his illness because he thought it would negatively impact his business in the future.

The rescue effort is hampered by another unforeseen event. Two Sherpas Hutchison tried to enlist in the rescue got carbon monoxide poisoning while preparing food for the returning climbers at Camp Four. The cooking area had insufficient ventilation, and the inhalation of carbon monoxide made the Sherpas ill—one was vomiting blood. They were so debilitated they could not assist with the rescue. The other Sherpas at Camp Four were too exhausted to help. It is arguable that the expedition leaders should have hired more Sherpas to stay in Camp Four in case of emergencies such as this one. Doing so would have shown they had better control during unforeseen events and in emergencies.

The irrationality, incoherence, and disorientation that result from altitude sickness and hypoxia play an important role in this chapter. Beck Weathers is completely delusional and irrational as he stands for hours in the blizzard waiting for Mike Groom to help him down to camp. It does not seem reasonable for him to refuse help from others in such a dire situation, especially as he is virtually blind by the time Groom encounters him. Yasuko Namba also exhibits irrational behavior when she refuses to take off her oxygen mask even though her oxygen canister is empty. By keeping the mask on she is essentially suffocating herself. Beck Weathers has lost all touch with reality when the rescuers finally locate him and Namba. He says, "Hey, I've got this all figured out" and then stands up facing the raging wind with his arms outstretched. A few seconds later a blast of wind knocks him over, and he is lost from view. Martin Adams is seen wandering around in the blizzard because he's so impaired and "disoriented" he doesn't know where he is. Only when he sees Groom does he correct his error. Finally, Krakauer admits he was too "incoherent" to join the rescuers. He is so impaired he can barely respond to their request for help.

Hall states confidently, "Doug [Hansen] is just coming up over the horizon," but he has no way of knowing that. He has not been in contact with Hansen, who is in fact far below, so Hansen's exact position is unknowable. Beidleman, Groom, and some clients "stagger blindly" in the blizzard, completely lost. "It was total chaos," Beidleman says later. The blizzard made their location and the way back to camp impossible. Here again, had all guides (even clients, perhaps) been given radios or walkie-talkies (with spare batteries), becoming lost in unknown terrain might have been avoided.

Team spirit and caring for team members are vital in such extreme circumstances, yet they were not always in evidence. For example, some guides on the expeditions sharply criticized Boukreev for descending from the summit alone at 2:00 p.m. He left clients up there without a guide. In his own defense, Boukreev claimed he felt he would be in a better position to rescue clients and carry oxygen canisters to them in case of emergency if he was well-rested at Camp Four. There is some logic to this, and Boukreev is the guide who found the group of climbers huddled in the snow. However, many claim his abandonment of clients at the summit indicated his lack of team spirit and lack of caring for the climbers. They assert his behavior engendered a lack of trust in him among guides and clients alike. Lack of caring seems to be evident when none of the Sherpas or climbers resting at Camp Four feel able to help in the rescue. They say they are too exhausted, and this may be true. They may have been physically unable to help, even though their refusal to help may seem uncaring and callous.

The entire group huddled with Beidleman on the slope had empty oxygen canisters. Without oxygen, their condition deteriorated. Pittman, Namba, and other climbers ran out of oxygen here and also at other times. Namba became seriously disoriented and exhausted by lack of oxygen. Pittman was only revived by a replenished supply of bottled oxygen and a shot of Dex. The condition of these climbers was so dire, one climber simply "curled up in a ball and hoped that death would come quickly." When Boukreev and Hutchison find the climbers, they give new oxygen canisters to the two climbers they can help down to camp. But Weathers and Namba had to be left on the slope without oxygen. Namba seemed nearly dead by this time.

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