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Into Thin Air | Chapter 6 : Everest Base Camp, April 12, 1996 (17,600 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Krakauer begins this chapter by praising the organizational and planning skills of Rob Hall, who has seen to it all his clients are provided for and doing well at Base Camp. He has Sherpas provisioning four other camps on the route up the mountain, each about 2,000 feet higher than the one below. They cache food, fuel, and—crucially—oxygen canisters at each of the four camps. The climb to the summit would begin from Camp Four, at 26,000 feet.

Acclimatization would occur when climbers trekked from Base Camp to Camp One, 2,000 feet above. They'd then return to Base Camp. Next, they'd climb to Camp Two and return. At each leg, they'd spend enough time to acclimatize to the higher altitude. Before the first trek to Camp One, climbers donned all their climbing gear. As the climbers prepare, Krakauer learns some of his teammates didn't have the time to train by actually climbing; most raised their fitness on gym exercise equipment. They were fit but had no recent experience in mountain climbing. Krakauer chides himself for being a "snob." Maybe they were abler and more skilled than he gave them credit for.

The route to Camp One followed the Khumbu Glacier. Beyond 23,000 feet the ice in the Western Cwm valley fractured into crevasses, some of which had to be crossed on ladders stretching across the abysses. Though it sounds scary, Krakauer asserts these ladder crossings are "predictable and manageable." The climbers also had to navigate the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on the South Col part of the route. At 20,000 feet the glacier falls abruptly, forming a "precipitous drop" requiring great technical skill to negotiate. To make matters worse, the glacier moves down this icefall at a rate of "between three and four feet a day." Thus, the climbers have to be ready for shifting ice as well as changing conditions in the ice. The moving ice forms huge ice splinters and truly massive ice blocks, called seracs, the climbers have to get past. These building-sized blocks of ice could fall over at any time, and climbers have been crushed and killed by them. From 1963 to this 1996 expedition, 18 climbers had already died climbing this icefall.

The other expeditions on the Everest route cooperated in arranging for safe passage through the icefall. In 1996 it was Rob Hall's turn to make the icefall as safe as possible. Before clients arrived, Hall's team of Sherpas found the safest route through the icefall. They strung out a mile or more of rope anchored to the ice and positioned ladders over the wider crevasses. All these preparations had been made before Hall's group set out for Camp One.

As he's ready to leave Base Camp, Krakauer is unnerved by his "inner voice" screaming at him something is not right; what he's about to do is too dangerous. He ignores his "chicken little" instinct and follows the group to the Khumbu Icefall. After all, he'd climbed over or through others before, so why should this one be different? But it was different. In previous icefall climbs, all the climbers hooked themselves not only to the guide rope but to each other. The Khumbu Icefall, though, was so treacherous that the climbers hooked individually to the guide rope, not to each other. Each climber was attached to the guide rope via a three-foot-long safety tether that ended in a snap link that was attached to the guide rope. The climber got up the icefall by sliding the link up and along the rope.

Despite the best planning, things could go wrong. While Krakauer was crossing a ladder, a serac collapsed nearby. The ladder quivered, and Krakauer was frozen with fear. He also reports it is not uncommon for the anchors holding ladders and ropes to come undone when sunlight melts the ice they are embedded in. Krakauer's experience of the climb is paradoxical: he describes the region around this icefall as a place with "phantasmal beauty" at the same time he thinks a "malevolent god" created it. When the group faces a steeply leaning building-sized block of ice looming over them, they realize great skill and speed will be needed to get over it. Krakauer states he cannot climb quickly because he is short of breath caused by the thin air.

About four hours after leaving Base Camp, the climbers reach the top of the icefall. Krakauer is exhausted and then remembers he and the others will have to climb the icefall seven more times during the acclimatization process. Not everyone got to the top of it by the hour Hall set for the team to turn around and head down.

Krakauer reports most of the climbers in his group looked like "solid" climbers whom he felt he could trust. However, the youngest member of the group did not pace himself well. He dashed up the first part of the icefall but then lost steam. By the time he reached to top, he was "in agony" at the back of the line of climbers. Two other members of the team, Weathers and Namba, almost fell off the ladders. Krakauer was slightly uneasy, but Hall proclaimed this first foray a success.

In an hour, the group is back at Base Camp. As they descend, the sun glares down on them. By the time Krakauer gets to Base Camp, he's got a terrible migraine headache. It takes hours of lying in his tent for the headache—likely caused by the intense sun in his eyes—to ease.

Krakauer ends this chapter by discussing how mountaineering—and this expedition in particular—has strained his marriage. His wife, Linda, had been a climber, but she did not like the risks Krakauer was taking or the long periods he was away from home. Yet Krakauer cannot give up mountaineering, because he loves it so much. Eventually she accepts this. At Base Camp, Krakauer gets a satellite phone call from his wife, and this sets him thinking of how upset she was when she learned he would be climbing Everest.

Analysis

Krakauer describes how Rob Hall meticulously planned to "lay siege to the mountain," which is a reminder of the arrogant, irrational attitude toward nature that Westerners brought to their Everest experience. However, he praises Hall for his careful planning and provisioning of the route up the mountain. Hall does take control over those aspects of the climb he is able to control. He stashes food, fuel, and oxygen canisters at key sites along the route up the mountain. Some things can be controlled, although they cannot guarantee a successful summiting.

Experience—and inexperience—will have significant effects on the expedition. Although Krakauer observes that most of the climbers in the group are skilled, and he feels good about their ability and endurance, he points out elementary mistakes and the lack of skills among some expedition members. For example, some climbers were wearing new hiking boots. As even ordinary people know, it's good to try out new boots to make sure they fit comfortably before wearing them on a 10-mile hike. Krakauer wonders if these climbers "knew the chance they were taking by coming to Everest with untried footwear." Krakauer chalks it up to inexperience; wearing new boots that have not been broken in can lead to "debilitating foot injuries," something a climber does not want while summiting Everest.

In another example of carelessness and inexperience, one climber was getting ready to leave Base Camp only to find that his crampons did not fit on his boots. Any experienced climber would have tested the fit before reaching the base of Mount Everest. Luckily, Rob Hall used a tool kit to get the crampons to fit, but such a mistake might be a portent of more lethal mistakes later on. Finally, when the youngest member of the group tries to show off by launching himself into the climb at an unsustainable pace, he endangers both himself and the group. His overconfidence and arrogance—to be the fastest and therefore the best climber—quickly exhaust him. Others must wait for him to drag himself to the top of the icefall.

Krakauer is also concerned that many in his group did not train for the Everest climb by climbing actual mountains. Mountain climbing would have honed the mountaineering skills that they'd need on Everest. Instead, they used gym equipment to get "fit." But being fit is not the same as having the skill set to get safely up and down Everest's summit. To think working out in a gym is sufficient is another mistake an inexperienced climber might make, and it too might have dire consequences during summiting.

Then there were the two group members who faltered crossing the ladders that spanned crevasses. This is a skill that every expedition member should have mastered, as it is vital to preventing fatal accidents. Practicing with crampons on ladders before hitting the slopes of Everest would have likely improved their skill in this area, but the climbers may have been too inexperienced to recognize the need for this type of practice or to master the skill even if they had practiced.

The icefall itself is a site of uncertainty that can undo whatever control the expedition leader may have tried to impose in planning its crossing. Krakauer states the ice is constantly moving; huge blocks of leaning ice can fall over and crush climbers at any instant. Such unforeseen circumstances can obliterate all the planning and control the expedition leader tries to impose on the mountain. This doesn't mean the leader should not try to plan and control for safety, but it underscores the unforeseen and changing conditions on the mountain that can wreak havoc with the best-planned expedition. Krakauer experiences the shaking of the ladder he is crossing when a nearby serac collapses. He had to be experienced enough not to panic when it happened. Other unforeseen dangers, such as a ladder or rope anchor "melting out," must be accepted and taken into account by guides and climbers alike.

A good example of comradeship and cooperation is revealed when all expedition leaders agree to choose one expedition each year to establish and secure a route through the icefall. Although at first Rob Hall objects to having to pay a fee for this service, he comes to accept its wisdom. One team thus helps all other teams by securing rope and ladders and caching provisions that will be needed by all the expedition groups.

Rope as security is crucial here. Ropes are anchored to the ice along the most navigable route up the icefall. Each climber attaches to the rope to aid their difficult climb up this treacherous part of the Everest route. Each climber clips to the rope separately, which somewhat undermines the role of cooperation, but the logistics of navigating the icefall makes if safer for each individual to hook onto the rope solo.

Even though the climbers are far below the summit, oxygen becomes very important. Krakauer admits his inability to work his way quickly over a massive, looming serac because the lack of oxygen has exhausted him and made him short of breath. Feeling these effects so far from the summit may foreshadow worse effects to come.

The effects of intense sunlight and its ultraviolet (UV) rays on the eyes is another danger readers learn about in this chapter. Krakauer is laid low with a painful migraine most likely caused by his eyes being bombarded for hours with intense UV rays. Despite his extensive mountaineering experience, he is still felled by what may seem insignificant (sunlight) but can be very debilitating and threatening if it occurs on the final ascent.

Finally, when Krakauer discusses this expedition with his wife, he displays a high degree of confidence that may be real or may be intended simply to calm her anxiety. He admits to himself that before he left Seattle he was "in the grip of the Everest mystique ... I wanted to climb the mountain as badly as I'd ever wanted anything in my life." He assures his wife that he'll be fine: "I'm not going to get killed ... Don't be melodramatic." In reality, she was not being "melodramatic"; she was expressing reasonable concern. It was Krakauer who was unreasonably overconfident.

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