Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 19 : South Col, 7:30 A.M., May 11, 1996 (26,000 feet) | Summary

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Summary

This chapter resumes the expedition narrative. On the morning of May 11, after he returns from the summit, Krakauer spends an hour searching the South Col, in vain, for Andy Harris. Radio reports reveal that Rob Hall is in terrible condition and in real danger of dying. Doug Hansen is dead. Reports indicate that Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba are also dead after having spent the night on the South Col. Fischer and Makalu are believed dead as well.

Krakauer spent the night at Camp Four (26,000 feet) without supplemental oxygen, and he's feeling disoriented. He discusses the relationship between the need for supplemental oxygen and expeditions' acclimatization procedures. Krakauer searches for a canister with some oxygen in it but can't find one. The other climbers he comes across are in terrible shape. None of the guides are in camp—they're all missing or stranded.

Hutchison, a climber, organizes a team of four Sherpas to go look for Weathers and Namba, who had been left on the Col when Boukreev brought down Pittman, Madsen, and another climber. With Boukreev's directions, they quickly find them buried in the snow. Namba is covered with a "three-inch-thick carapace of ice." Amazingly, she is still breathing, but her exposed hands are frozen solid. Hutchison believes she's near death. Weathers is also caked in ice but still alive and mumbling, though seriously damaged by frostbite. Weathers cannot sit or stand. Hutchison asks the Sherpas for advice, and they recommend the climbers be left to die, as they are near death and would probably expire while being dragged back to camp. Hutchison is emotionally devastated, but back in camp his decision is approved by the other climbers.

Meanwhile, Beidleman herds his group's climbers down to Camp Two. Sherpas climb to help the group, but a rock fall occurs, some rocks hitting a Sherpa twice in the head. The others help the injured Sherpa down toward Camp Two. Boukreev remains at Camp Four to wait for Fischer.

The IMAX team led by Breashears and Viesturs and two other expeditions organize to rescue Rob Hall and other desperate climbers. They give the climbers at Camp Four some of their oxygen canisters. Then they climb to rescue Hall, Fischer, and Makalu. Before they leave, they see a figure staggering toward the camp. It's Beck Weathers, and he's in terrible condition from frostbite. Weathers later reported that he'd lain on the ice all night and all day, exposed to the storm and the cold. He was near death but suddenly woke up and realized he'd better get up and save himself. Though half blind and partly frozen, he began walking. Somehow, he stumbled into Camp Four. Climbers there call immediately for a doctor to treat Weathers's frostbite. They try to warm his body with extra sleeping bags and hot-water bottles, but Weathers is so ill they don't expect him to live.

Three Sherpas arrive in camp with a severely debilitated Makalu. They'd left Fischer, who was in terrible condition. Boukreev, however, will not abandon Fischer, so at 5:00 p.m. on May 10, in the worst of the storm, he climbs to find and save him. Boukreev finds him two or three hours later. Fischer had had no oxygen, his hands were bare and frozen, and he'd started removing his outer clothing. He's dead, and Boukreev leaves him there.

At camp the storm becomes so intense it nearly collapses all the tents. Krakauer pictures Hall up on the mountain unsheltered in this howling storm. The next morning as they pack up to descend, Krakauer sees Ang Dorje weeping. He feels responsible that Rob Hall is lost. Weathers remains at Camp Four, as he's too sick to be moved. Krakauer is amazed he's still alive, but he's in "hideous" condition. When Krakauer checks on him, he discovers Weathers had been screaming for hours for help, but the howling wind and flapping tents made it impossible for anyone to hear him. Krakauer helps him as best he can. He radios Base Camp and is told to descend, so he gets members of another expedition to care for Weathers.

Analysis

There is no oxygen left at Camp Four. Krakauer and the other climbers are exhausted and disoriented. Krakauer reports he's in a "robotic state of detachment" and "emotionally anesthetized." He even thinks he's beginning to see things and wonders if the hallucinations are a prelude to his descent "into the nightmarish territory of the mad." It is likely most of the other climbers at Camp Four are in a similarly precarious state of mind.

Krakauer explains to readers the relationship between oxygen availability and the acclimatization process used by most expeditions. Apparently, the accepted acclimatization procedure works well only if all climbers have a ready and constant supply of supplemental oxygen. During this climb, of course, this was not the case. The question arises about whether this situation resulted from poor planning and control or because of the ferocity of the storm. In this case it was both, but the question still remains whether the expedition leaders should always anticipate and plan for storms such as the one which hit that May and have enough oxygen on hand for any contingency.

There are no guides at Camp Four. This unforeseen circumstance hinders the climbers from taking more forceful and useful action to help themselves and rescue those still missing on the mountain. All the expedition leaders and guides are either missing up on the mountain or so debilitated they cannot lead. Should such a scenario have been foreseen and planned for by the expedition leaders?

In the absence of leaders and guides, a climber organizes a rescue party with Sherpas. Hutchison cares deeply about the plight of those climbers still missing on the mountain, but he is disoriented due to hypoxia. Krakauer describes how Hutchison starts to leave camp even though he forgot to put on his boots. Hutchison and the Sherpas quickly find the bodies of Weathers and Namba, but the Sherpas recommend that the climbers are so near death that they be left to die on the mountain. The Sherpas should not be accused of not caring about the climbers. Their extensive experience on summit expeditions likely showed them when a climber is worth the rescue effort and when a climber is beyond help. Nevertheless, Hutchison is distraught, even though those in Camp Four say he did the right thing. "It was a classic case of triage," Krakauer explains. Triage is a way of determining who can be helped and who is beyond help. When there are limited resources available, rescuers help only those who are deemed able to survive the rescue. Climbers who are nearly dead are left to die so the climber in better condition can be saved.

In a similar situation, the Sherpas who went to rescue Fischer and Makalu return only with a debilitated Makalu. They found Fischer in a dreadful condition at 27,200 feet; his condition was so dire he was near death. The Sherpas decided to leave him there so they could save Makalu.

Ang Dorje's desolation about Hall's likely death shows Sherpas care deeply about members of their expedition. Ang Dorje was dedicated to Hall and to helping all members of his team. He is racked with guilt because he was unable to save Hall or other climbers with Hall's expedition. When he hears that Hall and others in the group are dead, "he couldn't help but blame himself." For Ang Dorje, "his role on this earth [is] keeping people safe."

David Breashears and Ed Viesturs stop their filming for IMAX and climb up to help those at Camp Four. They bring more than 50 canisters of oxygen, as well as functioning radios and spare batteries. They care enough about the fate and condition of the other climbers to jeopardize their expensive filmmaking to help them.

When the climbers and filmmakers at Camp Four see Beck Weathers hobble into camp, they immediately call for a doctor and help him as best they can on their own. Most climbers think it's a miracle that he revived up on the mountain and was able to make his way down to camp. Everyone in Camp Four mobilizes to do what they can to care for Weathers. After the wind storm, Krakauer finally hears Weathers in his tent screaming. He'd been calling all night out on the mountain, but no one heard him over the howling gale. Krakauer goes into Weathers's tent and is so overcome by the horrendous condition Weathers is in, he sobs openly. Krakauer does what he can to help Weathers, and then members of another expedition take over so Krakauer can descend with his team.

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