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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 4 : Phakding, March 31, 1996 (9,186 feet) | Summary



Krakauer and the expedition team begin the trek to Base Camp, spending the first night in the hamlet of Phakding. The nights are cold because of the altitude, but because the Everest area is situated just beyond the tropics, when the sun comes out during the day it gets quite hot. After four river crossings, mostly on rickety bridges, Krakauer is sweating from the heat. The group passes terrace farms and strings of Buddhist prayer flags. The trail to Base Camp is crowded with yaks and Sherpas carrying supplies, as well as with trekkers and Buddhist monks.

The group stops in the town of Namche Bazaar, a commercial hub for climbers and Sherpas. Krakauer enters the Khumbu Lodge and talks with some of his teammates. He meets the quiet, experienced Australian guide Mike Groom. Later, the dinner conversation is dominated by three wealthy doctors who will climb with Hall's group. Krakauer likes the wit of Stuart Hutchison and John Taske but finds the political harangues of Beck Weathers off-putting.

After some climbers insult a Nepali waiter, Krakauer discusses Sherpas and their culture. Sherpas are a mountain people and devout Buddhists living mainly in Nepal but also in Tibet and northeastern India. Khumbu, in a valley near Everest, is the heart of Nepali Sherpa country. Sherpa life is difficult. There are no roads or vehicles, and high-altitude farming is a struggle. Sherpas are physiologically better able to endure the rarified Himalayan air because most Sherpa villages are located between 9,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. Sherpa blood contains higher than normal levels of hemoglobin and so carries more oxygen. Since Everest opened to tourists, the Sherpa economy has relied increasingly on the tourist trade and especially on Sherpa expedition guides. Twelve to fifteen Sherpas accompany each expedition. Although 53 Sherpas have died climbing Everest, competition is fierce for the limited number of jobs. Sherpas are paid only between $1,400 and $2,500 per expedition, which is still far more than the $160 per year most nonclimbing Sherpas earn. The Sherpa economy is further boosted when the climbers use local lodges and restaurants. Sherpa culture is becoming increasingly westernized as Himalayan tourism expands.

After three days of acclimatization in Namche, Hall's group treks toward the Everest Base Camp. The view of the mountains is spectacular. When they reach Tengboche, the largest and holiest Buddhist monastery in Khombu, a Sherpa arranges for Krakauer to meet the head lama, who blesses him and tells him to carry a blessed silk scarf on his climb.

Krakauer refers to the rest of the trek as an "ambrosial blur" because of the excess of beautiful scenery he passes through. He often walks with Doug Hansen and enjoys chatting with Andy Harris. Andy tells them about his partner, Fiona McPherson, a doctor with whom he is building a house. Fiona had previously worked at a clinic funded by the Himalayan Rescue Association, which aids injured climbers and treats altitude sickness. The clinic has saved many lives. Before it opened, hundreds of climbers died from altitude sickness. Rob Hall also married a doctor he met at the clinic—Jan Arnold.

On the group's first night in Pheriche, the conversation turns toward the hazards of climbing Everest. The next day, the group reaches Khumbu Glacier, the start of the southern route to Everest's summit. They pass a memorial to 20 climbers, mostly Sherpas, who died on previous expeditions. At 16,000 feet, Krakauer begins to feel light-headed and short of breath. Because there was deep snowfall, the group stops at an incredibly filthy, pestilential lodge in the village of Lobuje. There are so many expeditions the lodge is completely full, so Hall's group sleeps in the main room.

A Sherpa arrives to tell everyone that another of Hall's Sherpas has fallen into a crevasse. He'd been rescued by other Sherpas but was seriously injured. It seems the accident occurred because the Sherpa was not using a rope, even though Hall claimed that he hired only the best Sherpas. Hall is upset and has his group wait in Lobuje for another day. Krakauer shares Hall's criticism of other expedition leaders who do not properly train their expedition's Sherpas or who are careless about enforcing safety rules. Krakauer explains why ropes are essential on the more hazardous stretches of the route to the summit. One climber recalls previously seeing an un-roped Sherpa fall to his death.


There is a good deal of arrogance on display in this chapter. The wealthy clients on Hall's expedition reveal a certain bigotry when dealing with a Sherpa waiter. They act superior and are insulting in treating the waiter as a stereotype rather than as a person worthy of respect. This may presage their attitude to Sherpas on the climb, which would not bode well for safety or group cohesion.

Another instance of arrogance occurs after dinner in Pheriche when the group discusses the risks of climbing Everest. The more experienced guides remark that "sooner or later a major disaster involving a large number of clients is inevitable." Another climber then tells Krakauer that he's heard from Rob Hall that "Rob's feeling was that it wouldn't be him; he was just worried about 'having to save another team's ass' and when the unavoidable calamity struck, he was 'sure it would occur on the more dangerous north side'" of Mount Everest. If this statement is true, it reveals Hall is not only arrogant but overconfident. He is so sure of his own climbing ability and expedition organization, he's certain the "inevitable" disaster could not possibly happen to him or any of his expedition clients as they climb Everest.

The commercialization of Everest has had some devastating environmental effects. Denuding the forests surrounding Sherpa villages for firewood is likely made worse by having to keep hundreds of trekker tourists warm as they head toward Everest. Once the slopes of the valley are treeless, mudslides become a lethal threat to those living in the valley. The dreadful conditions in the lodges of Lobuje are testament to the huge influx of trekkers to the area. The lodges are full to overflowing with climbers, and the owners seem unable to keep the facilities clean and sanitary. Krakauer states at his Lobuje lodge climbers came "from a dozen different expeditions." Because Khumbu Glacier is on the route to Everest, it is likely all these expeditions have been planned to start their climb at about the same time. The crowds of climbers ascending Everest simultaneously or nearly simultaneously will create "traffic jams" on the mountain, which, the reader will learn, can be deadly. Thus, the bottleneck at the Lobuje lodge foreshadows the bottlenecks to come later on the Everest ascent.

In a rare example of noncommercial altruism regarding Everest expeditions, the text describes how the doctors and other medical professionals who work at the clinic do so without pay. The physicians apply for this prestigious posting through the Himalayan Rescue Association. They donate their time and expertise—and even pay their own travel expenses—just to help any Everest climber who needs medical attention, not for personal gain.

There are other examples of foreshadowing. As Krakauer and the group trek toward Everest, he looks up and sees the summit of the mountain. Krakauer notices the "horizontal plume of condensation stream[ing] from the summit like frozen smoke, betraying the violence of the jet-stream winds." This foreshadows the changing and violent weather conditions the expedition will experience as its climbers approach the summit. Another instance of foreshadowing occurs when the head lama at the Buddhist monastery instructs Krakauer to be sure to wear the blessed silk scarf when he summits Everest. The scarf, says the lama, "will please God and keep you from harm." Perhaps the holy man foresees the "harm" that awaits Krakauer and Hall's group.

Readers learn of some of the many accidents and deaths that have occurred over the years, presaging the tragic events soon to transpire. Fifty-three Sherpas have died on Everest expeditions. Krakauer discusses the hundreds of climbers who have died from the effects of altitude sickness. As the expedition members trek toward the Khumbu Glacier, they pass a memorial to 20 climbers, most of them Sherpas, who died on Everest. Even Krakauer's initial symptoms of altitude sickness—light-headedness and shortness of breath—forebode how altitude will affect the expedition on the mountain.

The accident involving a Sherpa who fell into a crevasse foreshadows accidents to come. It touches on the theme of control and unforeseen circumstances. Rob Hall had a strict rule that everyone on the mountain use the ropes, yet he could not foresee that a climber would ignore this rule. The accident also introduces the symbol of rope as representing safety and security. The Sherpa who fell was not hooked to a rope as he navigated what he thought was a fairly "gentle" section of an Everest glacier. That's why he slipped and fell. Had he been latched to the rope, he would have been secure and would not have fallen. This accident also implies the theme of overconfidence. The injured Sherpa may have been overconfident he could cross this innocuous-seeming stretch of the route without considering its hazards. The reader learns Hall insisted everyone hook onto a rope whenever possible. So climbing without rope was "a serious violation of mountain protocol" and safety guidelines.

Another climber is described as plunging 2,000 feet, "screaming" to his death after failing to clip his short safety tether to a rope. Overconfidence, inexperience, and arrogance played their parts, as well. The man who fell and died was "young and cocky and inexperienced." He "didn't think it was really necessary to clip onto the rope." This overconfident, inexperienced climber paid the ultimate price for choosing to avoid the rope.

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