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Into Thin Air | Chapter 17 : Summit, 3:40 P.M., May 10, 1996 (29,028 feet) | Summary

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Summary

At 3:40 p.m. on May 10, Scott Fischer, Lopsang Sherpa, and Rob Hall are on the summit. Hall waits impatiently for Doug Hansen. Fischer is unwell and starts down. Although his oxygen canister is full, Fischer removes his mask. Makalu, his Sherpas, and Lopsang Sherpa descend.

At 4:00 p.m., Hall sees Hansen struggle up a ridge and goes down to help him. It's two hours past Hall's set turnaround time, but he helps Hansen to the summit. They stay there for a minute or two and then begin their descent. Lopsang Sherpa waits to help them across a treacherous part of the route and then hurries down to catch up with Fischer.

At the Hillary Step, Hansen runs out of oxygen and nearly collapses. Twice Hall radios for help and more oxygen. Hall does not know there are two full canisters waiting for them at the South Col. Andy Harris, at the South Col, is in a state of "hypoxic dementia." Harris tells Hall all the canisters are empty; that's not true, but Harris is too confused to realize it. Groom overhears the radio conversation and tries to tell Hall about the full canisters. But Groom's radio malfunctions, and he can't get through. He hears Harris repeat that all canisters are empty. Another climber at Base Camp begs Hall to leave Hansen to get oxygen. But Hall will not abandon him. At 2:46 a.m. (May 11), the climber hears Hall yelling, "Keep moving," supposedly to Hansen.

Hall tries to help Hansen descend, but Hansen is too weak to navigate the Hillary Step. At 5:00 p.m. Groom gets through to Hall and tells him about the available oxygen. Lopsang Sherpa arrives at the South Col and convinces Harris some canisters are full. Harris asks Lopsang to help him carry two oxygen canisters up to Hall and Hansen, but Lopsang refuses. He says he must help only those in his own, Fischer's, group. Lopsang descends as Harris struggles upward carrying the two canisters.

Fischer is too exhausted to rappel, so he slides down on his back. Once down, though, he must walk across deep snow to get back to the route. Lopsang sees Fischer and descends to help him. Lopsang reaches Fischer at 6:00 p.m. and puts an oxygen mask on him. Lopsang secures a rope to Fischer and slowly guides him toward the South Col. Below the Balcony, Fischer becomes unable to walk. By 8:00 p.m. in the midst of the blizzard, Lopsang and Fischer are huddled together in the snow. Makalu arrives, exhausted. His Sherpas deposit him next to Fischer and then descend by themselves. At about 9:00 p.m., Fischer asks Lopsang to go down and bring Boukreev up to help. Lopsang agrees and leaves. He gets lost in the storm but finally makes it to Camp Four at midnight and tells Boukreev to go help Fischer and then collapses in his tent.

In the wee hours of May 11, Hall's radio transmissions are "confused," even though he supposedly has two full canisters of oxygen. Hall says Harris was with him but is not with him "now." At 5:31 a.m. Hall takes a dose of Dex and clears his oxygen mask of ice. He's worried about Harris's disappearance. When asked about Hansen, Hall replies, "Doug is gone." As the sun begins to rise, Hall hopes it will warm him enough to walk. By 9:00 a.m. Hall has cleared his oxygen mask of ice. His friends below urge him to descend.

At 9:30 a.m., two Sherpas leave Camp Four and climb toward Hall on the South Summit. The wind is so strong, they're forced to abandon their climb before they reach Hall. At about the same time, two Sherpas from Fischer's expedition leave to find him and bring him and Makalu down. When they find Fischer, he is unresponsive and barely breathing. They leave him there and help Makalu down.

Despite repeated efforts to convince Hall to descend, he cannot. He wants a hot drink and asks that another rescue team arrive by the next morning. He says he can survive another night on the mountain. Twelve days later, Breashears and the IMAX team find Hall's frozen body on the South Summit.

Analysis

Had Hall adhered to his planned timetable, both he and Hansen might have survived. Hall could have sent Hansen back down at the scheduled turnaround time, but he sincerely wanted Hansen to realize his dream of summiting. Once at the summit, Hall could have saved himself, but he was loyal to Hansen and would not abandon him. Krakauer thinks that it's because of what happened when Hansen climbed with Hall the previous year. Krakauer describes how on that climb, Hall had turned Hansen around on schedule when Hansen was very close to the summit. Perhaps this time Hall wants to give Hansen his summit experience. This time Hall helps Hansen cover the final 40 feet to the summit. Hall is loyal to Hansen, a repeat customer but also someone whom the reader can tell Hall really cares about. As one climber says later, "Hall ... wouldn't consider going down without Hansen ... even though leaving Doug was his only choice" if he wanted to survive. Hall's desire for Hansen to reach the summit forces Hall to give up control of his schedule. The climbers do not reach the summit until at least two hours beyond Hall's "rigid" turnaround time.

Waiting for Hansen means Hall loses control over his schedule and, to a great extent, over his expedition. Hall is certainly aware by this point that a storm is on the way, but he cedes the control an expedition organizer should have to help Hansen finally summit Everest. When Krakauer imagines Hall, Hansen, and Harris struggling from the Hillary Step toward the South Summit, he reflects on how the storm is forcing the men to take 10 hours to make what is normally a half-hour descent. Of course, expedition leaders have no control over the weather, but the question arises whether Hall should have anticipated the storm and correctly interpreted its signs before holding near the summit for so long.

An aspect of the caring theme is the judgment made by the rescuers that Fischer was beyond help (almost dead), so they leave him and instead rescue Makalu. Could they have made the effort to save both climbers? Was their judgment sound? It's possible that using triage to determine which climber can or can't be saved is the best way to save at least the one most likely to survive. Or is it? Commercial competitiveness in the guise of loyalty also affects cooperation and caring between different expeditions. When he realizes that there are two canisters full of oxygen at the South Col, Harris asks Lopsang Sherpa to help him carry them up to Hall and Hansen. Lopsang refuses because he is "supposed to take care of just my group. I have to take care of Scott. So I say to Andy, no." Lopsang's loyalty is admirable, but Fischer is now in trouble. Perhaps if Lopsang had helped Harris, the oxygen would have reached Hall and Hansen more quickly, which might possibly have improved their chances of survival.

Note, too, that the lack of extra batteries for the radio, or having extra backup radios, has a devastating impact on the rescue. Mike Groom's radio malfunctions, and he can't tell Hall there's extra oxygen at the South Summit. Had leaders foreseen that radios and walkie-talkies might malfunction and taken control to ensure extras were stashed at strategic sites along the route, Hall and Hansen might have gotten needed oxygen in time to save themselves.

Some unknowable situations continue to arise as well. Although Andy Harris was with Hall and Hansen, he seems to have disappeared. Hall says he doesn't know where Harris is, and he was very "concerned" about him. Later, searchers report that they cannot find his body. Andy Harris had brought oxygen to Hall and Hansen, but the next thing the reader learns is Andy has disappeared, his whereabouts unknown.

Related to unknowability is the irrationality due to lack of oxygen that severely affects some climbers still high on the mountain. Harris, of course, is impaired when he keeps insisting that there are no full oxygen canisters on the South Summit, which delays getting vital oxygen to Hall and Hansen stranded higher up the mountain. When Lopsang descends and finds Fischer, he describes him as "acting crazy," repeating that he's "going to jump." Lopsang must tie him to a rope to keep him from leaping off the mountain. Then there's Hall, who becomes increasingly confused and disoriented the longer he stays on the summit ridge. His speech becomes "slurred" and almost unintelligible. Harris, too, was irrational, as is evident when Hall reports that Harris had left his jacket at the ridge. Why would he remove warm clothing unless he was mentally unstable and confused?

Hall's actions on the summit ridge may reflect his overconfidence, though irrationality from hypoxia cannot be ruled out. When Hall learns the rescue party coming for him had been forced by the weather to turn back, he says he "can last another night here if you send up a couple of boys with some Sherpa tea first thing in the morning." Hall has already been near the summit for many hours. His oxygen won't last the night, and his hands are severely frostbitten. When he speaks to his wife in New Zealand via satellite phone, he tells her "in a slow, horribly distorted voice ... 'Please don't worry too much.'" These misleading words may not result from Hall's failing reasoning. Perhaps he's cogent enough to say these words to reassure her. In any event, they are the last words anyone will hear him speak.

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