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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 2 : Dehra Dun, India, 1852 (3,234 feet) | Summary



In this chapter Krakauer provides some history of Mount Everest and those who climbed it. He begins with its "discovery" by a British survey group in India in 1852. Peak XV, as it was called, was found to be the tallest in the world. In 1865 the peak was christened Mount Everest in honor of Sir George Everest, a previous surveyor general in British India. Typically, the British dismissed the local names for the mountain. In Tibet it's called Jomolungma, or "goddess mother of the world." In Nepal it's called Sagarmatha, or "goddess of the sky." Flanks of the mountain occur in both countries.

Westerners thought of it differently. When Everest was measured as the highest peak in the world, explorers and adventurers just had to try to "conquer" it by climbing to its summit. Fifteen expeditions tried to reach the top, and 24 climbers died before anyone reached the summit. Krakauer recounts the grueling ordeal of early climbers. Several expeditions came within a few hundred feet of the summit before having to turn around because of exhaustion and snow blindness. Krakauer also provides a brief geological and geographical description of Everest and its relation to Nepal and Tibet.

On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine began their trek to the summit. Another climber saw the men climbing laboriously toward the mountaintop. The two climbers were five hours behind schedule, and the weather was beginning to turn. Neither Mallory nor Irvine returned to their tent that night, and neither man was ever seen again. It is not known if they reached the summit or died trying.

In the spring of 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay planned and provisioned several camps along the route to Everest's summit. In the wee hours of May 28, they began their ascent. By 10 a.m., they encountered what Hillary described as "the most formidable-looking problem on the ridge—a rock step some forty feet high—smooth and almost holdless—a barrier beyond our feeble strength to overcome." Undaunted, Tenzing Norgay played out rope that Hillary carried upward through a cleft in the rock. Hillary and Tenzing finally made it up what became known as the Hillary Step—one of the most dangerous and difficult sections of the route up Everest. By noon on May 29, the two men stood on the summit of Mount Everest—the first ever to do so. They became world-famous.

In 1963 two Americans, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, reached the summit via a route on the more difficult West Ridge of the mountain.

Krakauer then changes tack and describes how he became an avid climber and mountaineer whose secret dream was one day to summit Everest. He describes the dedication of most climbers, who are "macho" in their "intense competition" to "impress one another" with their alpine skills and daring. Krakauer explains how many climbers viewed Everest with "snobbish" dismissal because only wealthy dilettantes could afford to hire a guide to get them to the top. When Dick Bass, an amateur climber, summited Everest in 1985 to complete his ascent of the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the seven continents), the lure of Everest grew. Bass inspired "regular guys" such as Krakauer to believe summiting Everest might be possible.

Krakauer explores the increasing popularity of Everest expeditions, the enormous amounts of money climbers pay to join an expedition, and how Nepal gains revenue by charging climbers for the privilege of using the mountain. In 1993 15 expeditions led 294 climbers up the mountain. Some purists, Krakauer reports, recognized that commercialization had "debased and profaned" what had been a sacred mountain.

Krakauer describes how he got to join Hall's expedition after being assigned to write an article about the commercialization of Everest for Outside magazine. Krakauer was keenly aware that 130 people had already died trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest.


George Mallory was the climber who made famous the statement that climbers tackled Everest "because it's there." This rather flippant attitude reveals the competitive spirit that impels climbers to summit Everest as well as the tallest peaks on all seven continents. Although climbing Everest to challenge one's own endurance and skill might be considered a worthy pursuit, Krakauer seems to stress the competitiveness and "macho" attitude most mountaineers have toward the mountains they "conquer" as well as toward each other. Krakauer underlines this arrogance when he writes: "Prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free-soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware." Considering the number of people who died attempting to summit Everest, this would seem to be arrogance and foolhardiness in the extreme. The purpose seemsto be not a test of your own skill, but a demonstration to others that you are stronger, even more superhuman, than they are. However, Krakauer admits that being part of a climbing expedition does provide "a sense of community, as well." S, comradeship and team cooperation were also valued among climbers.

Early mountaineers had their own form of arrogance. After Edmund Hillary summited Everest, the British press crowed that now "the summit of the world was, so to speak, [British]." No mention was made of Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who guided Hillary to the top. Conquest and ownership, rather than respect, motivated Western climbers and colored their attitude and behavior on the mountain.

The more modern goal of reaching the Seven Summits is another example of hubris, or arrogance. Climbers had denigrated summiting Everest when it was only extremely wealthy clients who could afford to be escorted up the mountain by guides who provided for their every need. Yet the Seven Summits ignited the imagination of mountaineers and became a life goal for many of them.

Increasing commercialization is emphasized here. As more wealthy people felt the allure of Everest's peak, more for-profit expedition companies formed to cater to them. Soon the nations bordering the flanks of Everest rightly demanded their share of the money pouring into expedition businesses. Thousands of dollars were paid by expeditions to the host nation, and this led expedition leaders to raise the rates for clients. Commercialization was a boon for expedition leaders and guides and to some extent for Sherpas. It was also a boost for the egos of the very rich, who could afford a guided expedition they could brag about later. The allure of the mountaintop caused many people to forget how deadly dangerous summiting Everest could be.

Krakauer describes what might be considered the ultimate absurdity of the commercialization of Everest. Rich clients who paid to summit the mountain but were unable to do so because of adverse conditions sometimes sued the expedition company. They sought "damages" from their expedition guides because they felt they had "bought a guaranteed ticket to the summit."

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