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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Chapter 8 : Camp One, April 16, 1996 (19,500 feet) | Summary



After resting at Base Camp for two days, Hall's group climbed the icefall again, heading for Camp One. Crossing the icefall was scary, but Krakauer notes he didn't feel as breathless as he did before. He is becoming acclimatized to the altitude. Hall planned for the team to spend two nights at Camp One and then head up to Camp Two for two to three days before going back to Base Camp, giving their bodies a chance to build up the stamina and hemoglobin necessary to tackle the summit at 29,000 feet, another 10,000 feet above Camp One.

At Camp One, Krakauer spends time with Ang Dorje. Krakauer tells how Ang Dorje got to be a first-class Sherpa guide, much in demand on the slopes of Everest. As his reputation grew, Ang Dorje became a Sirdar, or head Sherpa. By 1996 Ang Dorje had summited Everest three times.

The good weather at Camp One quickly turned stormy, and the team waited in tents for the weather to clear. A foot of snow had fallen, and there was evidence of avalanches in the vicinity. Two days later the team headed up to Camp Two, four miles and 1,700 feet in altitude away. It becomes extremely hot once the sun comes out. When he reaches 21,000 feet, Krakauer is disturbed to find the body of a dead climber wrapped in a blue plastic sheet.

Camp Two at 21,300 feet has about 120 tents pitched for the many climbers heading to the summit. For two days, Krakauer stays mostly in his tent suffering from a severe migraine from the altitude. The next day, feeling somewhat better, Krakauer climbs about 1,000 feet above Camp Two to further acclimate himself. He finds another dead body on the slope. Curiously, he's not as shocked seeing this second body as he had been seeing the first.

After returning from Camp Two to Base Camp, Krakauer and Andy Harris visit the South African compound. Woodall and two other climbers are away, descending the Icefall, but Krakauer speaks with the personable and enthusiastic black woman climber, Deysel. Krakauer knows that Woodall lied about getting her a permit to climb, but he doesn't have the heart to tell her.

Back at Hall's compound, Krakauer learns that one of Fischer's Sherpas collapsed at Camp Two. He had been exhausted and listless and now was "delirious" with altitude-related sickness. Fluid was accumulating in his lungs. There were no guides at Camp Two to aid the ill Sherpa. The doctor in Hall's group tells Sherpas staying with the sick man to administer drugs that counteract the effects of altitude sickness. None of the drugs help, nor does extra oxygen or putting him a Gamow bag to increase atmospheric pressure on his body.

Guides and Sherpas leave Base Camp to help. They determine the man is sick with HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema), his lungs filling with fluid. They carry him to Base Camp, where his condition seems stable, so no one calls for a helicopter to take him to the hospital. But as time passes, the Sherpa's condition deteriorates, and medical staff at the camp think he should be taken to the hospital. But a storm blows in and makes helicopter evacuation impossible. Fischer was at Camp Two, and the other Sherpas did not trust the doctor's advice to evacuate the ill man. Later, a specialist in HAPE is called to Base Camp. The Sherpa's condition shocks the specialist. A helicopter evacuation is scheduled for the following morning to take the Sherpa to Pheriche, but by then his condition is critical and he does not respond to any treatment. He dies by mid-June.

Krakauer then explains why more people off Everest knew about the death than people on the mountain. He describes the satellite and Internet links to the outside world and introduces the group making an IMAX film about summiting Everest, led by "expert climber" David Breashears.

Krakauer then introduces Sandy Pittman, a rich socialite and climber who sends news updates to NBC Interactive Media. Pittman was eager to report her summiting of Everest to complete her conquest of the Seven Summits. She had failed to summit Everest in 1994, despite having her own personal guide. Sandy Pittman has gourmet food and personal grooming items hauled up to Base Camp for her. She pampers herself and is constantly seeking publicity. Krakauer implies that her intention to summit Everest—trumpeted widely in the press—was just a ploy to get her more publicity. He quotes a newspaper article that Pittman "was known in certain elevated circles more as a social climber than mountain climber."


Krakauer is somewhat getting used to the lack of oxygen at higher elevations, but he still suffers from altitude sickness and oxygen deprivation climbing to Camp Two. He says that his "altitude-impaired gray matter" made it difficult for him at first to identify the blue-sheeted object along the route as a human body. Later, he suffers an intense migraine from the altitude. The dead bodies he comes across are a foreshadowing of things to come later in the book.

Lack of oxygen and altitude sickness figure importantly in the sickness suffered by one of Fischer's Sherpas, who shows signs of exhaustion and shortness of breath. Despite being given supplemental oxygen and even put in an atmospheric pressure bag, the man's condition continues to deteriorate. When he is finally taken to the hospital, even intubation with oxygen cannot save his life.

Apparently, the Sherpa did not mention his physical condition was impaired while he was working up at Camp Two, which might be considered arrogance. But in the case of Sherpas, it's more a case of survival. A Sherpa who has to leave an expedition for health reasons puts his career as a mountain guide in serious jeopardy. Moreover, his reputation as a Sherpa may be ruined, and he would never work again on expeditions.

Unforeseen changes in the weather factor into the survival of the Sherpa man, as does the lax scheduling of personnel at Base Camp and farther up the mountain. He cannot be helicoptered away to a hospital for treatment because of a storm system that suddenly engulfs Base Camp. His condition worsens as the doctors wait out the storm. Fischer never planned for the situation of a Sherpa falling dangerously ill. He was up near Camp Two when the Sherpa was carried down to Base Camp. Fischer's Sherpas did not trust the doctor's advice because Fischer was not there to approve it. Working alone, the doctor at Base Camp was, as one climber said, "in way over her head." No one had foreseen and prepared for this situation, so no one in authority was around to do what was necessary to help the Sherpa.

The rest of the chapter is devoted primarily to Sandy Pittman, a wealthy socialite who seems to seek publicity for herself above all else. Back home she hobnobs with millionaires and seeks to have her face splashed across as many upscale magazines as possible. Pittman seems to take up climbing as another way to get publicity. She announces that she will climb the Seven Summits, which is why she is "doing" Everest in 1996. Despite a personal guide, she had earlier failed to reach the top of Everest; now she was climbing with Fischer's group.

Pittman seems to embody both the inexperience and foolish arrogance of many Everest climbers and the commercialization of mountain climbing in the Himalayas. She does climb mountains but needs considerable help doing so. She commercializes Everest with her constant seeking after publicity. Judging by her attitude, she seems to think climbing Everest is not something that does or should entail sacrifice. When on an expedition to Antarctica, Pittman "brought this humongous duffel bag full of gourmet food that took about four people to even lift. She also brought a portable television and video player so she could watch movies in her tent." For most climbers, summiting Everest (or any of the other Seven Summits) is serious business. For a publicity hound like Pittman, it's just another location where she lives her pampered life. As a member of Fischer's group, Pittman brought with her "stacks of press clippings about herself to hand out to the other denizens of Base Camp. Within a few days Sherpa runners began to arrive on a regular basis with packages ... of Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Allure," and other high-class magazines. One member of Fischer's team recalled Pittman always "needed to be the center of attention ... she was always yapping away about herself." Experienced climbers thought her dangerously inexperienced. They called her "a grandstanding dilettante." Her lack of experience and seeming nonchalance about the seriousness of summiting could easily make her a danger to the other climbers on the mountain. To her detractors "Pittman epitomized all that was reprehensible about [the] popularization of the Seven Summits and the ensuing debasement of the world's highest mountain." Rather than respecting Everest, she seemed to diminish it as just another site where she could live her luxurious life and gain celebrity.
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