Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 7 : Camp One, April 13, 1996 (19,500 feet) | Summary

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Summary

Krakauer notes some of the expeditions climbing at the same time as Hall's contained clients whose experience was "thin." Krakauer then tells about a foolhardy expedition organized in 1947 by a wholly inexperienced Canadian man. The man convinces two Sherpas to accompany him up Everest, though they doubted his mountaineering skills. The trio was caught in a howling storm at 22,000 feet and had to turn back. Earlier, an Englishman disguised as a Buddhist monk climbed with his Sherpas to 22,700 feet. A storm forced them to turn back, but the Brit wouldn't give up. After resting at a camp, he tried again. A year later, his frozen body was discovered by another climber.

Krakauer discusses the contentious issue of who decides who belongs on these expeditions. Should those with few climbing skills be denied access? Does being rich enough to pay for a guided climb automatically qualify you to attempt the summit?

While resting atop the Khumbu Icefall, Krakauer meets Pete Schoening, a "living legend" among Everest climbers. Krakauer describes some of Schoening's more amazing mountaineering feats. Once, when summiting the formidable Himalayan mountain K2, one man in Schoening's group got a life-threatening, altitude-induced blood clot. As Schoening and others lowered the man down the slope, disaster struck: one man slipped and dragged four other climbers off the mountain with him. As they slid off the slope, Schoening somehow managed to wrap his rope around his shoulders and pull them back up. Now, he was climbing with Fischer's Mountain Madness expedition to "avoid the ... hassle of arranging for [his own] permit, oxygen, [and] other provisions."

Krakauer introduces other highly experienced members of Fischer's team. He compares their high-altitude experience with the lack of experience among Hall's clients. Yet even Hall's relatively inexperienced clients had more experience in mountain climbing than members of other expeditions on Everest that May. One group was a noncommercial expedition from Taiwan whose members were dangerously unskilled. Krakauer relates how the Taiwanese team had been stranded on Mt. McKinley in the United States and had to be rescued. Still, the leader of that Taiwanese expedition, Gau Ming Ho, also called Makalu, remained oddly upbeat, yelling "Victory! Victory!" after his rescue. Krakauer describes the real fear the other expedition leaders had—they might be forced to imperil their own clients to help the hapless Taiwanese if calamity struck.

Krakauer then discusses the team from South Africa, led by Ian Woodall. This privately funded expedition had been given President Nelson Mandela's personal blessing because it would be the first mixed-race group from post-apartheid South Africa to summit Everest. The expedition was a source of national pride. Though some members of the group were experienced climbers, most were not.

One day, Krakauer came across three members of the South African expedition leaving for Kathmandu. They called Woodall a "control freak" they didn't trust. As Krakauer tells it, Woodall lied about his military and mountaineering experience in order to get to lead this expedition. He was "boastful" about his (nonexistent) reputation as a mountaineer. Woodall lied about his military field experience and lied when he had deliberately not gotten a permit for the one black woman on the team (so she could not climb). After the only black man on the team quit, the goal of having a mixed-race team died. Among Woodall's "numerous deceits," unearthed documents showed he was not even South African but British. Krakauer lists more deceptions and describes the international scandal surrounding Woodall and his actions. But the egotistical man just didn't care. He used threats—even of murder—to get his way. Pretty soon, most of those involved characterized Woodall's expedition as "deranged" and the man himself unstable and unreliable. Unsurprisingly, most climbers quit Woodall's team. Those who remained had little experience and few mountaineering skills.

Between Woodall's crazed egotism and the unskilled Taiwanese team's irrepressible and unfounded optimism, Hall and Fischer had reasonable cause to worry about the consequences of sharing the route to the summit with these groups.

Analysis

Krakauer spends most of this chapter describing the inexperience of other climbers on the mountain that May. He says "half the population at Base Camp was clinically delusional" about their mountaineering skills and their ability to summit Everest. Krakauer sets the stage for his exploration of inexperience by describing two inexperienced climbers who failed to summit and one who died in the attempt. He then admits, worryingly, that none of the clients on Hall's expedition had ever climbed a summit more than 8,000 meters (26,250 feet) above sea level.

Among the "marginally qualified dreamers" on Everest was a Taiwanese team led by Gau Ming Ho, also called Makalu, who had a terrible record for safety and competence. The bad reputation of the Taiwanese group was well known, but the irrepressibly upbeat Makalu evinced enthusiasm and optimism about leading his group of inexperienced climbers to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer even says it was "apparent" the Taiwan team "weren't very familiar with the standard tools and techniques of glacier travel." When he sees two of their climbers crossing a ladder in tandem, Krakauer is "shocked" at this "needlessly dangerous" behavior. Crevasse-spanning ladders are intended for one person at a time to cross. The extra weight of a second person could break the ladder and kill the climbers on it.

Krakauer writes, "The presence of the Taiwanese on Everest was a matter of grave concern to most of the other expeditions ... There was a very real fear that the Taiwanese would suffer a calamity that would compel other expeditions to come to their aid, risking further lives, to say nothing of jeopardizing the opportunity for other climbers to reach the summit." Inexperience is therefore a danger not only to the inexperienced climbers themselves but to all who are climbing at the same time they are.

Not only were Fischer and Hall worried that the Taiwanese might get into trouble on the climb to the summit, they were concerned because of the code of caring among expeditions meant they would have to be ready to help out and even rescue any Taiwanese or member of any other group who got into difficulties (or who was injured) because of Taiwanese inexperience. Krakauer recounts the story of the "legendary" Pete Schoening, who risked his own life to save a man suffering the effects of altitude sickness along with five other men helping him down the mountain. His feat of strength and bravery exemplifies the comradeship and caring among mountain climbers.

The South African team leader, Ian Woodall, represents the arrogance of some who climb Everest. However, his egotistical self-absorption and self-aggrandizement seem to go beyond mere arrogance to a type of mental instability. Woodall was megalomaniacal about his summiting of Everest. He seems to have deliberately undermined the very purpose of his expedition. First, he was an insolent control freak who alienated the only experienced mountaineers on his team—who then quit his team. He treated his team doctor so insufferably that she quit too. He lied about his mountaineering experience and deliberately, though secretly, denied the only black woman on the team the opportunity to climb. The only people left on his team were severely lacking in mountaineering experience. As news of the disintegration of his group hit the press, Woodall ignored all criticism. He dismissed the writer and photographer who were hired to document the South African ascent. He then tried as much as possible to isolate his group from other expeditions. Woodall's egotism and selfishness, and his indifference and aloofness toward other expeditions, would have dire—and unforgivable—consequences later on.

Eventually, Woodall's "numerous deceits became an international scandal, reported on the front pages of newspapers throughout the British Commonwealth." However, the businesses that contributed funds to support the climb never asked about the climbing experience of either Woodall or the other team members. The team leader's and members' experience should have been paramount in the minds of those who organized and funded them.

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