Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 16 : South Col, 6:00 A.M., May 11, 1996 (26,000 feet) | Summary



Early the next morning, Krakauer is awakened and told that no one can find Andy Harris. The storm is over and the weather clear, but he can't find any trace of Harris in camp. Krakauer goes to the site at the foot of the ice slope he saw Harris slide down the previous day, and he follows the path he saw Harris take very close to camp. But there is no trace of Harris. Krakauer realizes if, at the last place he'd seen him, Harris had not walked left toward the tents, he would likely have fallen 4,000 feet to his death. Krakauer sees crampon tracks near the cliff edge.

The day before, Krakauer had assured Hutchison he'd seen Harris enter Camp Four, and Hutchison had radioed that information to Base Camp. Now it seems Krakauer had made a terrible mistake and Harris was likely dead.

Base Camp is speaking to Hall, who is on the summit ridge calling for help. Krakauer is told Weathers and Namba are dead and Fischer is missing. Climbers at Camp Four want to radio this news to Base Camp, but their radio batteries are dead. David Breashears contacts Woodall, whose South African team has a more powerful radio. He asks Woodall if they can use his radio to coordinate a rescue for the missing and dying climbers, but "Woodall said no."

Krakauer recounts his July interview with Martin Adams after the Outside magazine article is published. Adams tells Krakauer he recognized him, by his red suit, on his way down the mountain. After extricating himself from a couple of mishaps in crevasses, Adams recounts how he approached a climber sitting in the snow and asked him the way to the tents. The man sitting in the snow points in the direction of the tents. "Yeah, that's what I thought," Adams had said. He then trips and proceeds to slide headfirst down the ice slope on his chest. Adams's ice axe stops his fall. He picks himself up and walks into Camp Four. Krakauer is stunned and asks Adams if he, Krakauer, might have been the guy sitting in the snow. At first Adams is unsure, but when Krakauer tells of his encounter with the man he assumed was Andy Harris, Adams is convinced that it was Krakauer he'd met near the ice slope. Krakauer is shocked and upset. For two months, he'd been recounting how he met Andy Harris at the ice slope. Now he realizes it wasn't Harris but Adams. So Harris had not fallen off an ice cliff, but he was missing. Where was he? What had happened to him?


Krakauer admits that he was very disoriented at the time he sat in the snow at the top of the ice slope. His impaired reasoning might have caused him to mistake Adams for Harris. He also realizes when he reported the day before that "I saw [Harris] walk to the edge of the camp with my own eyes," he probably really believed that, even though he lost sight of Harris well outside of the camp. Again, this error was likely due to exhaustion and impaired reasoning. Krakauer realizes how irrational his assumption was as he's looking for Harris the next morning. In his more rested and oxygenated state, he believes Harris might have taken a wrong turn and walked off a high cliff instead of taking the right turn and walking into camp. Yet Krakauer knows he had been "exhausted and stupid with altitude sickness" at the time he last saw the man he thought was Harris.

Krakauer feels guilty about his mistake, even though he knows that his mind was "debilitated" while he was sitting in the snow. He describes the differences in height, weight, accent, and other features that distinguish Harris from Adams. He berates himself for not being able to tell one from the other out on the mountain, but his mind was not functioning properly at the time.

Adams also acted under the effects of altitude sickness. When Adams saw Krakauer sitting in the snow, Adams did not recognize him. Krakauer's true mental debility, and the poor visibility during the storm on May 10, made it impossible for him to know Harris (or the man who slid down the ice slope) had actually made it back to Camp Four. Yet the next morning he insists he saw Harris enter the camp. Because of his mental impairment, Krakauer was unable to know whom he was speaking with. During the interview, Adams tells him, "I'd say you've got some explaining to do"—especially to Harris's friends and family. But in the midst of the terrible blizzard, Adams, too, was unable to "know" he was speaking with Krakauer. He just spoke to some climber sitting in the snow. The confluence of the blizzard and hypoxic disorientation made it difficult, if not impossible, for the climbers on the mountain to recognize each other. For this reason, some climbers were lost in the storm. Their fate is unknowable—they simply disappeared while on the mountain.

When all the radio batteries at Camp Four die at about the same time, it's obvious the expedition leaders had not had sufficient control over expedition planning. Had the expedition leaders exhibited true control over every exigency that might occur during the climb, they would have had a sufficient number of extra batteries on hand or stashed at the camp. Experienced leaders, such as Hall and Fischer, should have realized how vital being able to communicate with Base Camp would be if an emergency arose. They were likely overconfident they'd done enough; additional batteries would just add weight to the supplies, which had to be lugged up the mountain. But their lack of control and foresight and their overconfidence made the disaster much worse.

Finally, there is Ian Woodall's unconscionable arrogance, selfishness, and uncaring attitude toward climbers with other expeditions. He is in camp on the South Col with a working radio but refuses to let Brearshears use it to try to save the lives of desperate climbers—a shockingly immoral act that very likely contributed to the deaths of climbers who otherwise might have been rescued.

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