Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 5 : Lobuje, April 8, 1996 (16,200 feet) | Summary

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Summary

At the beginning of the chapter, the reader learns that it took 35 Sherpas to get the injured Sherpa (mentioned in the previous chapter) down the mountain and to safety and treatment. With the accident dealt with successfully, Rob Hall gives his team the go-ahead to trek on to the Base Camp on their own.

The relief the team members feel at leaving Lobuje is overwhelming. Most are just glad to be rid of the filthy accommodations, but some team members have become ill from the experience. Bad food has caused some intestinal ailments. Andy Harris is especially hard-hit and quite ill. Krakauer's cough has worsened. Andy is so weak and dehydrated from his illness that Krakauer stays with him to help him slowly walk toward Base Camp. Krakauer describes the beauty of parts of the glacier, which are "translucent ... glisten[ing] like polished onyx." The meltwater beneath the glacier creates "a ghostly harmonic rumble that resonates through the body of the glacier." At the crest of a slope, Hall's team sees a flat stretch of glacier covered with more than 300 tents, each probably containing two climbers. They climb the final rise and see a sign "Welcome to Everest Base Camp." Their altitude is 17,600 feet. They would live at Base Camp for six weeks while they acclimated to the altitude.

Upon arrival, Krakauer notes the Base Camp where the Hall expedition sets up camp seems well-provisioned for his clients. It has all the "creature comforts" his clients could want, including fresh food (hauled in by yak) in a well-equipped mess tent, a library and stereo system, and solar-powered electric lights. Communication was provided by a satellite phone and fax. There was even room service: Sherpas served hot tea "in bed" to clients waking up in their tents.

This relative luxury had, over time, left Everest covered with trash and garbage. Krakauer explains how Hall and his friend and rival, Scott Fischer, were among the main organizers of Everest cleanups. In 1990 about five tons of trash were collected and carried down the mountain. By 1996 Nepal required each expedition to pay a $4,000 fee, which would be refunded only if the team removed all their trash from the mountain.

Hall, Krakauer reports, was the unofficial leader of Base Camp because he was respected by everyone on the mountain. His status was even confirmed by his "rivals," who still sought his advice. Scott Fischer was one of Hall's chief expedition rivals. Before becoming business rivals, Hall and Fischer had been fellow mountaineers and had helped each other in emergencies. Hall was more careful and better organized than Fischer. For his part, Fischer is described as a risk-taker who sought out dangerous challenges. Krakauer describes how on several occasions Fischer had climbing accidents that might have taken his life. But the fact he survived seems only to have encouraged Fischer to take even more risks. He counted on his "luck" to keep him safe and alive. Scott Fischer lived dangerously because he wanted to be the world's best climber, so he pushed himself "beyond any physical limitations."

To make a living as a climber, Fischer started his Mountain Madness expedition business. The name was apt, reflecting his enthusiasm and his "what-me-worry" approach to climbing. Mountain Madness became one of the main competitors of Hall's Adventure Consultant business. Their rivalry sharpened when Fischer's Mountain Madness began offering Everest expeditions, just as Hall did.

In his pursuit of media attention Fischer had been the one to persuade Krakauer to actually climb Everest as part of his magazine article. At first Krakauer was slated to join Fischer's Mountain Madness expedition. But when Hall offered Outside magazine a better deal, the magazine assigned Krakauer to climb with Adventure Consultants. For a time Fischer was "apoplectic." He'd craved the publicity Outside would give his business. Yet as Krakauer reports, he and Fischer got along very amicably when they met at Base Camp; there were no grudges or hard feelings.

Krakauer reminds readers that despite the relative luxury of Base Camp, it was three miles above sea level. Krakauer and other climbers suffered the effects of altitude sickness, including severe headaches, dizziness, gasping for breath, lack of appetite, and extreme weight loss. Minor cuts would not heal, and Krakauer's cough got worse.

Krakauer got to know, like, and trust Doug Hansen. Hansen was "strong" and "driven." He had extensive climbing experience but had failed, by just a few hundred feet, to summit Everest on a previous Hall-led expedition. He's determined to reach the summit on this expedition. Doug was an ordinary guy and well-liked. He sent postcards to his local elementary school where the children had sold T-shirts to help Doug pay for this Everest expedition. Doug had just met a woman, Karen, and he thought this relationship might be serious. He joked he needed "to get Everest out of [his] system" so he could spend his time with Karen.

Krakauer admits to spending too much mental energy worrying about how well he'll handle the "Death Zone" that is 25,000 feet and above on the mountain. Hall tries to allay Krakauer's fears by explaining how the group's timed forays to ever higher elevations would acclimate them to handle the conditions during the climb to the summit.

Analysis

Krakauer describes a heroic example of cooperation and teamwork among climbers. Thirty-five Sherpas from different expeditions had worked together to get the injured Sherpa safely down the mountain and to medical care. Comradeship and caring are also in evidence when Krakauer stays behind to help Andy, who was weak and very ill, walk slowly toward Base Camp. He will arrive later than everyone else, but helping a teammate is far more important to him. Cooperation when climbing was also paramount when Hall and Fischer were young climbers. Fischer and his climbing partner, Ed Viesturs, helped Hall when his climbing partner, Gary Ball, was severely impaired by altitude sickness on a climb.

The rivalry between Hall and Fischer underscores the competition among expedition leaders and the commercialization of Everest. Both expedition leaders wanted to have Krakauer climb Everest with them because, as they openly admitted, it would gain them publicity and boost their business. According to Krakauer, Fischer did some of his most daring and dangerous climbing feats to gain publicity and attention—as well as respect. One climber who knew Fischer well claimed that Fischer wanted publicity to gain respect as a world-class mountaineer: "The money itself didn't seem terribly important to Fischer. He cared little for material things but he hungered for respect ... [and] in the [mountaineering] culture in which he lived, money was the prevailing gauge of success."

Both Fischer and Hall sought and generally received corporate funding for their earlier expeditions. Both organized their climbers to help clean up the trash on the mountain at least partly as a way to get good PR—though both climbers had a genuine respect for the mountain, as well. In May 1996 Fischer was leading an Everest summit expedition for the first time. His area of Base Camp flew a large flag with the logo of the corporation that had helped fund the climb.

Hall openly admitted he wanted Krakauer on his expedition, not for Krakauer himself, but for the publicity his climb would generate for Adventure Consultants. The deal Hall made with Outside magazine was for a long period of free advertising in the magazine. With these ads, he attracted more rich American clients. Fischer could not match Hall's deal, so Outside signed up with Hall's Adventure Consultants. Despite this competition—and the fact it was publicity, not Krakauer, both competitors were truly interested in—it is to Fischer's credit he was open and friendly to Krakauer once they were both heading for Everest. They were on separate expeditions but would be on the mountain at about the same time.

Overconfidence and experience figure prominently in this chapter, as well. Fischer especially had "a reputation for a harrowing, damn-the-torpedoes approach to ascent." Because he had survived accidents that could easily have killed him, Fischer thought his good luck would always be with him. This made him take even greater risks. One friend described Fischer as "[not] the kind of guy who would turn around because he had a sore foot ... he was driven." Now married and a father, Fischer claimed to be "more conservative." But he explained his view of climbing dangers this way: "When accidents happen, I think it's always human error. So that's what I want to eliminate." He also claimed that "I believe 100 percent I'm coming back [from this summiting of Everest] ... My wife believes 100 percent I'm coming back. She isn't concerned about me at all when I'm guiding because I'm gonna make all the right choices." Fischer's overconfidence in his luck and ability is by definition misplaced.

As Krakauer has already explained, unforeseen events and circumstances can happen near the summit of Mount Everest. No one can be confident they will survive by making the right choices. This is especially true considering the disorientation climbers experience near the summit. A climber is unlikely to make "the right choices" without oxygen and a properly functioning brain. Remember, too, some of the choices expedition leaders make are motivated by the need to get as many of their clients up Everest as possible. Their business success depends on it. As a fierce competitor with other expedition businesses, it's possible Fischer would not make the "right choices" if it compromised his business.

Earlier in Seattle, Fischer made even more outlandish statements revealing his overconfidence and misunderstanding of the value of experience. He told Krakauer, "Hey, experience is overrated. It's not the altitude that's important, it's your attitude, bro. You'll do fine ... We've got the big E figured out, we've got it totally wired. These days, I'm telling you, we've built a yellow brick road to the summit." Almost unbelievably, Fischer discounts the huge effects altitude and lack of oxygen have on the success of an expedition and the survival of its members. Fischer's overconfidence seems to portend the catastrophe to come.

Doug Hansen also expresses a degree of overconfidence. It is true that Hansen has a lot of mountaineering experience; on his last ascent of Everest with Rob Hall, he had to turn around just 330 feet from the summit. Hall turned his group around because it was getting late and the snowpack was very deep and unstable. In addition to his last Everest summit attempt, Hansen has extensive solo mountaineering experience and is highly skilled. Krakauer thought him "fully capable of looking after himself on the heights. If anyone was going to reach the summit from our expedition, I assumed it would be Doug." Both Hansen and Fischer believe having great mountaineering skills provides a type of control that can subdue the mountain and make the summit reachable no matter what the conditions near the summit.

In contrast, at the end of the chapter, Krakauer is plagued by worry about the Death Zone, the region of Everest above 25,000 feet. In his thoughts, Krakauer admits "technical expertise counted for next to nothing on Everest and I'd spent less time at high altitude than virtually every other climber present. Indeed, here at Base Camp—the mere toe of Everest—I was already higher than I'd ever been in my life." Krakauer describes the effects of altitude he's feeling. He then has the sobering realization the oxygen level at Base Camp is half what it is at sea level. How, he wonders, will his body and brain react to the summit where there's only one-third the amount of oxygen as at sea level? Oxygen, the symbol and molecule of life, will be the key. Yet Hall intrudes again with a half-joking reference that reveals his confidence in his acclimatization routine: "It's worked thirty-nine times so far, pal." So how could there possibly be problems this time?

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