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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Context


History of Climbing Everest

Interest in climbing Mount Everest began in earnest when Westerners started exploring the remotest parts of the planet, in this case the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal and Tibet. Mount Everest did not become famous immediately upon its discovery. In 1841 Sir George Everest, a surveyor in British India, made note of the mountain and recorded its location. He named the mountain Peak XV. The peak was renamed Mount Everest in his honor in 1865.

Two ambitious mountaineers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, attempted an ascent of the huge mountain in 1924, but their attempt to reach the summit failed. It is believed that they turned back after climbing to 28,128 feet above sea level, about 900 feet shy of the summit. They were spotted high on the northeast ridge of the mountain, but they disappeared and were never seen alive again. Mallory's body was found in 1999, about 2,000 feet below the summit.

The first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest were New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay. They summited in 1953 and became world famous. They also opened the way for more mountaineers to conquer the mountain:

  • In 1963 the first American expedition, led by Swiss-American mountaineer Norman Dyhrenfurth, reached the top.
  • In 1973 teenager Shambu Tamang of Nepal became the youngest person to reach the top.
  • In 1975 Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to summit Everest.
  • In 1978 Austria's Peter Habeler and Italy's Reinhold Messner made the first ascent without using supplemental oxygen. Messner in 1980 accomplished a solo climb without supplemental oxygen to the peak of Everest.
  • In 2008 Yuichiro Miura became the oldest climber at age 75. After his record was beaten, he summited the mountain again in 2013 at age 80.
  • In 2010 Jordan Romero, age 13, broke the youngest age record.

How an Everest Climb Is Accomplished

Successfully reaching the summit of Mount Everest is a dangerous and challenging undertaking that requires an in-depth understanding of the conditions one might encounter on the mountain and being prepared to deal with them effectively.

Adjusting to the Altitude

In 1999 scientists announced that the height of Mount Everest was 29,035 feet (seven feet taller than the 29,028 mentioned in the book). This seeming growth might reflect tectonic uplift from earthquakes in the Himalayas or recent and accurate measurement data. In any case, conditions at that altitude are inimical to human survival. Climbers must therefore prepare thoroughly for the potentially deadly conditions on the mountain. It goes without saying that anyone who wants to climb Everest must be very fit and have great endurance.

One of the most important adjustments a climber must make is getting used to the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The summit of Mount Everest pierces the outer limits of the troposphere, the atmospheric layer closest to Earth's surface. The upper reaches of the mountain have oxygen levels that are about one-third what they are at sea level. (Imagine walking up steps but breathing only one of three breaths.) Every cell in the human body needs oxygen to function, so climbers must become acclimatized to the low-oxygen conditions at the highest altitudes. This is usually done by spending some days at base camps set up at different altitudes on the climbing route. There are usually four camps above the base camp with about 2,000 feet of elevation difference between each. The first, Everest Base Camp, is at an elevation of 17,600 feet. Climbers spend several days at this camp. Once they acclimate to this elevation, they climb to Camp One, which is at 19,500 feet. Camp Two is at 21,300 feet, Camp Three is at 24,000 feet, and Camp Four, where the climbers rest in tents until their summit attempt, is about 2,000 feet above that. Climbers spend time at each camp to help their bodies adjust to the thin air.

The body can adjust somewhat to low oxygen levels. More hemoglobin (which carries oxygen) may be produced in the blood. However, without sufficient acclimatization, a faster heart rate (about 140 beats per minute) and insufficient oxygen (hypoxia) can lead to dangerous, even life-threatening conditions. Too little oxygen in the blood can cause the lungs to fill with water (a condition called HAPE) or swelling of the brain (a condition called HACE). Extended acclimatization or supplemental canisters of oxygen are required to help climbers survive these conditions. At the very least, almost everyone heading for the peak of Everest at some point experiences severe headaches, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, and irritability as a result of the scarcity of oxygen in the thin air.

Weather on Everest

Although there is no weather station near the summit of Mount Everest, its climate and weather are fairly well known. A monitoring station on the South Col (16,568 feet above sea level) measures weather conditions from lower down on the mountain. The temperature on Mount Everest never rises above freezing. Even in balmy July and August the usual temperature on the mountain is –2 °F (–19 °C). Climbers who have carried thermometers and recorded temperatures as they climb have reported that –15 °F (–26 °C) is the warmest ever noted for the upper reaches of the mountain. The coldest (winter) temperature ever recorded on the summit was –41.8 °F (–41 °C), though some indications are that temperatures might sink to near –76 °F (–60 °C).

The windchill factor is considered "off the scale," with the feels-like temperature being -120° F or colder, especially during storms. Fierce winds scour the mountains, carrying snow from lower altitudes. About 18 inches (450 mm) of snow fall annually at the Everest Base Camp. Most snowfall occurs during the monsoon season (June–September), which is why most expeditions are planned for May when the weather is somewhat warmer and snow less likely. What little snow occurs at higher elevations most likely results from condensation rising from the lower reaches of the mountain. However, the wind quickly shears snow off the bare upper reaches of the peak.

Windchill is a direct result of wind speed. The highest wind speed recorded for Everest occurred in February 2004 and clocked in at 175 mph (78 meters per second). This is considered to be the maximum wind speed that likely occurs at the summit. By April the wind relaxes, and in May (the time most expeditions attempt the summit) there may even be days of calm. Climbers are advised to expect wind speeds of up to 35 mph (16 meters per second) at the summit in May.

However, at extreme elevations there is extreme variability in weather. As the jet stream courses over the mountain, it can bring a disastrous or benign change in weather in a very short time. Noticing and understanding signs that portend changing weather is important when climbing Everest.

What to Bring

A lot of gear is needed to protect and support a climber attempting to summit Everest. For those who join expeditions, much of the gear is provided by the expedition organizer. This gear may include tents, ladders, oxygen canisters, ropes and anchors, food, medicine and first aid supplies, communications equipment, and similar items.

Climbers are required to get their own clothing and personal equipment, all of which is usually specified by the expedition organizer. Clothing includes a breathable, quick-drying base layer (such as thermal underwear), topped by a mid-layer of elasticized compression tights to improve blood circulation in the legs. Add to that a mountaineering suit top layer designed for ease of movement and maximum protection from the elements. It should be filled with goose down contained in a windproof shell with a snorkel hood that covers most of the face. Similarly designed gloves are essential. Climbers must also provide their own large, snug, and highly effective polarized goggles to protect against UV rays and prevent snow blindness, as well as a wide-brimmed hat to wear on hot, sunny days when UV radiation at altitude becomes a health hazard. A face/neck gaiter or covering should be worn under the lightweight but strong helmet and hood, as it is added protection for the neck and face. Knee-high double-boots are vitally important and should be well insulated, waterproof, and breathable. A high-quality pair of crampons (metal plates with 2-inch spikes worn over ice-climbing boots to prevent slipping on the ice) are essential. The climber is also responsible for bringing an ice axe, a very warm sleeping bag, and a lightweight, streamlined backpack for changes of clothing and (lightweight) personal items.

Krakauer as Climber and Reporter

Jon Krakauer, the author of this book, wrote about his experiences climbing Mount Everest with an expedition run by Rob Hall in May 1996. As a good reporter, Krakauer spoke with and learned about the other members of the expedition and took careful notes regarding their words and his impressions. He also noted the events and conditions during the expedition. Krakauer is a well-respected mountaineer and reporter and a gifted writer. However, the reader must keep in mind that he is also a single human being. As such, he saw or experienced events only from his vantage point. He could not know what others experienced or about events happening to others in his absence.

Some critics question his objectivity, including climbers who guided other expeditions trying to summit Everest at the same time as Krakauer. Despite the fact that Krakauer interviewed everyone he could who was involved in and survived the disaster on Everest that May, his critics point out he could not possibly know for certain what others were thinking or what their motivations were. He could not know what happened at times when he was not present. Krakauer acknowledges that he fleshed out some of what characters must have felt during events he did not or could not witness, but some criticize him nonetheless for offering a subjective view of events.

Krakauer also admits his judgment was impaired by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) during the climb to the summit. Hypoxia likely left him, as well as others, disoriented and unable to think clearly. His body was also near breakdown from fatigue and the storm that battered the climbers. The author takes the blame for not acting swiftly and effectively to help other climbers in dire conditions. For these reasons, some critics advise readers to approach this book more as a novel than as a nonfiction work composed wholly of factual detail.

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