Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 18 : Northeast Ridge, May 10, 1996 (28,550 feet) | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is in some ways an aside that shows how cruel and indifferent the culture of those who summit Everest can be. At the same time Hall and Hansen are summiting, climbers from Ladakh, India, radio they have reached the summit. It's 4:00 p.m. The climbers were from a noncommercial expedition that approached Everest from Tibet. What the climbers did not know was they were more than 400 feet below the summit, but the storm made climbing and visibility so bad they were unaware of this fact. They descended while the storm raged.

At the same time that the Ladakhis had begun to climb, two Japanese climbers and three Sherpas also left the Northeast Ridge to summit. As the Japanese climbers ascend, they see one of the Ladakhi climbers lying in the snow, terribly frostbitten but alive. He had been there all night without oxygen or shelter, and he is moaning in pain. So intent are the Japanese climbers to summit, however, they leave the man there and continue to climb. After climbing a steep ridge, the Japanese climbers come across two more Ladakhis, one near death and the other crouched in the snow. The Japanese offer no help or oxygen and continue to climb toward the summit. They reach the summit at 11:45 a.m. (Rob Hall is a half-hour below them on the Southeast Ridge.)

When the Japanese descend from the summit, they again pass the two Ladakhi climbers. One now appears to be dead, and the other is alive but tangled in a fixed rope. One Sherpa with the Japanese team untangles the climber, and then they all continue down the mountain. They pass the site where the single Ladakhi had been, but he's nowhere in sight. A week later, another Ladakhi expedition finds all three Ladakhi climbers dead on the mountain. They leave the bodies where they fell.

Analysis

The theme of caring and cooperation—or lack of same—is the crux of this chapter. Krakauer describes these events to show how the selfish impulse to achieve the summit can so easily overcome the most basic human compassion. The Japanese climbers and their Sherpas on their way up the mountain might have been able to help the struggling Ladakhi climbers, but they chose not to. Their indifference was motivated by what was more important to them—getting to summit Everest. Had they stopped and offered oxygen to the fallen Ladakhis, possibly one or more of the struggling hikers might have survived. But the Japanese climbers were unwilling to "waste" time on caring for others, so they "turned their backs" on the suffering of others. Possibly the Sherpas with them might have wanted to help the Ladakhis, but Sherpas usually take their cues from the climbers who hire them. The narrator does not know if the Sherpas had asked the Japanese climbers if they could stop and help. If they had, the Japanese climbers likely would have said no. The indifference of these climbers highlights the selfish egotism of climbers focused solely on getting to the summit no matter what the cost to others.

On the descent, one Sherpa does stop to untangle the Ladakhi entangled in a rope. Perhaps because the summit had already been achieved, the Japanese agreed to let him do this, or perhaps he did it on his own initiative. In any case, once he was freed from the rope, the Ladakhi was not offered oxygen or any other assistance. A week later, his body was noticed by another Ladakhi expedition that climbed right past him and his dead fellow climber. They were as uncaring and indifferent as the Japanese, although there was nothing they could do at that point. Still, no effort was made to find the single Ladakhi climber who seems to have just disappeared.

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