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Into Thin Air | Introduction | Summary

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Summary

The short introductory section explains why and how Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall's Everest expedition in May 1996. Krakauer was a regular contributor to Outside magazine, which wanted him to write an article about the commercialization of Mount Everest expeditions. Krakauer ended up as a climber with eight other clients on Hall's Everest expedition.

In the second paragraph, Krakauer tells the reader that members of this expedition died on the climb because of a "rogue storm" near the summit. Krakauer explains he wrote the magazine article about the tragedy on the mountain but felt it was inadequate. He wrote this book to explore and explain more fully what happened on the ascent and why people died. He says he needed to make sense out of the tragedy that left him "shaken." He also discovered the experience he and his interviewees described contained inaccurate and sometimes conflicting information. Krakauer needed to get his facts straight about what had actually occurred.

Krakauer states he interviewed everyone he could find who was on the mountain during the tragedy that occurred on May 10, 1996. He needed to get as many details as he could and cross-check various versions of events to make sure he got them right. He also corroborated client reports with radio transmission records from Everest Base Camp.

Krakauer wrote this book within one year of the incidents described in it. He wanted his account to "have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty" and convey the danger the climbers faced and their desperate struggle to save others and stay alive.

Analysis

Krakauer admits that the tragic deaths that occurred during the climb to the summit of Mount Everest "rocked [his] life to the core." The experience was so extreme and so awful, it haunted him. He felt perhaps by writing a book about it—and in the process interviewing others to get their perspective on what happened—he would relieve the trauma and guilt he felt.

The author particularly references the "staggering unreliability of the human mind at high altitude" that rendered his and others' accounts of what actually happened highly subjective, if not totally or partially unreliable. Climbers cannot think rationally or make reasonable, sensible decisions when they are eight miles above sea level and oxygen-deprived. Oxygen deprivation introduces the symbol of oxygen as the sustainer of life. Krakauer implies if more climbers had sufficient oxygen, not only might the tragedy have been averted, but they might have had a more cogent and accurate picture of what actually transpired on the ascent and decent during the storm.

Finally, the author offers the following insight about summiting Everest: "attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility." Irrationality lies at the core of the impulse to take on this incredibly dangerous, life-threatening challenge. Krakauer states that it is will or desire, not reason, that impels people to put themselves in such jeopardy. "Any person who would seriously consider [summiting Everest] is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument." Yet the reader will learn that Krakauer himself made reasoned arguments to his publisher to let him attempt to summit Everest. So Krakauer includes himself in the category of unreasonable, irrational people who are determined to climb Everest.

Krakauer may have been irrational in his desire to climb the mountain, but he was not arrogant about it. Certainly after the experience, he is racked by guilt. "I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time."

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