Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 21 : Everest Base Camp, May 13, 1996 (17,600 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Back at Base Camp, Krakauer is overcome with grief and guilt: he had survived while others died. Neal Beidleman leads a memorial service for the 12 people who died on the mountain. Mike Groom and others who are severely frostbitten are taken by helicopter to the hospital.

Krakauer and the other survivors hike from Base Camp to Pheriche. On May 16, a helicopter carries them to a town near the Namche Bazaar. There, relatives of Yasuko Namba ask about how she died. Namba's death is headline news in Japan, and swarms of reporters demand an explanation from the climbers. When they land in Kathmandu, reporters and television news crews surround them, asking for news about Namba. The climbers are also interviewed by irate representatives from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism.

At his hotel, Krakauer falls into a deep depression. He can't stop crying; he is so hurt and ashamed. On May 19 he flies back to Seattle carrying duffel bags filled with Doug Hansen's belongings and gives them to Hansen's waiting family. At home, Krakauer revels in the comforts of a warm, safe home in the United States.

Krakauer reflects on the thrill and risks of mountaineering. He blames himself for both his action and inaction in saving Andy Harris. Because he mistook Adams for Harris and then misled others that Harris was safe in Camp Four when actually he was wandering lost on the mountain, Krakauer believes he played a "direct role" in Harris's death. He also blames himself for resting in his tent instead of trying to save Namba. Krakauer contacts a fellow climber, who tries to convince him that he's not guilty of anything. The climber says, "In the condition you were in at the time, what could you have possibly done for her?" Krakauer gets the point but can't shake his feelings of guilt.

Krakauer thinks that with so many people flocking to Everest, a disaster of this magnitude was probably "overdue." But he does question why it happened to Hall's expedition. Hall had a reputation as the best prepared and safest expedition leader on Everest. Perhaps Hall became complacent and cocky regarding his safety record. Krakauer notes that before 1996 Hall had experienced exceptionally good weather during his Everest expeditions. Krakauer thinks about Hall's abandonment of his usually rigid time schedule and its relationship to building his mountaineering business. The other factor Krakauer understands as critically important is altitude sickness and the effects of hypoxia on climbers.

Krakauer reviews the changes that have been contemplated to make summiting Everest safer. He also discusses why these changes may not be implemented. Money is one factor—for both expedition businesses, which would have to spend a lot more to hire a guide for each client, and the nations, such as Nepal, which derive significant revenue from climbers' fees. Krakauer concludes that climbing Everest will always be risky and no regulations or rules will ever make it completely safe. When climbers enter the Death Zone, terrible, unforeseen events and situations can occur. And climbers are people who "idealize risk."

As an example of this, Krakauer describes how, after helping Hall's and Fischer's climbers, Breashears and the IMAX crew decide to try for the summit. This astounds and worries Breashear's wife. "After all that happened, I couldn't believe they'd really go back up there," she says. But there's lot of money invested in the film, and the climbers are highly experienced. On May 22 Ed Viesters and Breashears reach the summit. While climbing, they see the bodies of Hall and Fischer. On their descent, they pass the members of the South African team—including Woodall and his climbers and Sherpas—heading for the summit. Far behind is Bruce Herrod, a co-leader of Woodall's team. Breashears stops to talk to the exhausted climber. He reiterates that "getting to the summit is easy ... it's getting back down that's hard."

Woodall and his team make the summit the next morning, but Herrod is far behind on the slope. Woodall and others begin their descent while Herrod is still struggling up the Southeast Ridge. As they pass Herrod, they give him a radio and tell him where he can find more oxygen canisters. Herrod continues up and summits at 5:00 p.m. (Woodall and the rest are back at Camp Four). When he's ready to descend, clouds make visibility almost nil high on the mountain. Herrod radios camp saying he's fine and begins his descent. He is never heard from again and is presumed dead.

Analysis

Krakauer felt a comradeship and a responsibility to care for the other climbers on the expeditions led by Hall and Fischer. He cannot shake the feeling that he could have done more to care for his teammates who were in the worst trouble they could possibly be in. He berates himself for resting in his tent—for thinking of himself—when he should have thought only of fellow climbers who were in danger. Even the argument from another climber that there was nothing he could have done does not assuage Krakauer's guilt at his inaction when teammates needed saving.

Krakauer's feelings of guilt contrast sharply with Woodall's seeming indifference to Bruce Herrod. Although Herrod is an experienced climber and a co-leader of the South African expedition, Woodall and his team leave him alone on the mountain as night falls and cloud cover decreases visibility. Herrod says he's fine, but while Woodall and the others on his team are back in their tents, Herrod is alone and disappears while descending from the summit. No one with Woodall's team offers to stay with Herrod in case he runs into trouble either going up or descending Everest.

While Krakauer and no doubt others who were on the expedition are coming to terms with the raw emotions they are feeling, they are bombarded by the Japanese press, which demands information about how and why Namba died. The possible loss of tourist revenue rouses the Nepal Ministry of Tourism, which wants to find a way to stanch the bleeding and so continue their revenue stream from mountain climbers. The commercialization of climbing to the top of Mount Everest, whether it's exploited by the press and other news media or by an angry ministry, becomes an assault on Krakauer's depth of feeling and depression.

Krakauer discusses the tragedy in terms of how it affected the expedition businesses involved. Krakauer reveals that the year before, Hall had failed to get any of his climbers to the summit. He had stuck to his schedule and turned everyone around before they reached the top. He may have figured that this "failure" would negatively affect his business, so he would be more flexible on the 1996 climb. There was also intense competition between Hall and Fischer and their business success. Krakauer thinks that having failed to summit in 1995, Hall's business would be further damaged if in 1996 Fischer's team summited while Hall's did not. So Hall abandoned the strict rules, including the vital time schedule he usually imposed during expeditions, to ensure his climbers summited.

Krakauer thinks Hall may be guilty of hubris; he may have become cocky because he thought he was "adept at getting climbers of all abilities up and down Everest," something he frequently bragged about. In a way, Hall's overconfidence may have rested on pure luck. Krakauer describes how "season after season ... Rob had brilliant weather on summit day," which may have made him overconfident his meteorological luck would hold. Krakauer notes, however, "the gale of May 10, though violent, was nothing extraordinary; it was a fairly typical Everest squall." So a run of good luck and overconfidence in his ability to lead an expedition may have blunted Hall's perception of what was really needed to prepare for any eventuality while summiting.

But is such thorough control even possible considering the extreme conditions Everest presents? Krakauer insists that "on Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance." He says even the highest degree of planning and lots of strict rules cannot guarantee the safety of climbers summiting the mountain. At very high altitudes, most events and situations are capricious, unforeseen, and unknowable. No expedition leader can impose rules that can control events or ameliorate their effects in such forbidding climates. In fact, he remarks, "danger was an essential component of the game—without it climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions." Not only is taking risks the whole point, but climbers are so overconfident as to call high-altitude climbing a "game." Krakauer implies climbers must accept the consequences—even death—the risk in this "game" presents. If they seek thrills and dangers of this magnitude, they must accept that sometimes they must pay the ultimate price.

Krakauer then delineates further some changes that could be made to climbing regulations or practices that might make it safer or less lethal. Expedition leaders could take more control over their climbs if they hired one guide for each client on the climb. Though this would no doubt make climbing Everest even more expensive, it would ensure each client was roped to a guide all along the route. In terms of oxygen, Krakauer notes some have recommended no supplemental oxygen should be provided for climbers. This, he explains, would weed out those inexperienced climbers most likely to become exhausted and disabled from hypoxia. If implemented, this rule would have the added benefit of reducing or eliminating bottlenecks along the route because there would be far fewer climbers on the slopes.

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