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Into Thin Air | Main Ideas

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Overconfidence Leads to Disaster

The book explores the ways in which overconfidence sometimes leads to bad decision-making, such as indifference to warnings a climber should heed. Krakauer describes some instances in which overconfidence led members of the expedition to take unnecessary risks—risks that jeopardized their own and the group's safety.

Experience in mountaineering is definitely beneficial for all involved in the climb but may lead to overconfidence in the ability to handle situations beyond the climber's control. Inexperience hampers the progress of others and may endanger them as well as the inexperienced climber. For example, expedition leaders may have to take more time or devote more guides to assisting inexperienced climbers. This takes away needed time and guidance that may be needed to ensure the safety and success of everyone on the expedition.

As Krakauer explains, sometimes a group has one or more members who are arrogant and/or care only or mostly about themselves. Arrogance of the "conquer nature" variety also may lead to indifference toward others and toward the environment on the mountain. This type of arrogance all too frequently dismisses danger signs as minor obstacles and instead focuses on the goal of reaching the summit. It is closely related to overconfidence but may have more insidious effects on a summiting team because the "team spirit" is often lacking in these individuals. Sometimes the leader of one group refuses to help another group that is in trouble because he or she is only interested in his or her own reputation. This level of arrogance and indifference may lead to tragedy and loss of life.

Selflessness Can Be Lifesaving

As Krakauer emphasizes, the members of an expedition are a team in which all members must trust, respect, and depend on one another. They're "all in it together," and the fate of one member often impacts the fate of all members. The book details how caring for others in your group—or in other groups you encounter on the mountain—is vital for the survival of climbers. Each person in a group needs to be able to trust all other climbers on the mountain "have their back" and will provide aid when it's needed.

Into Thin Air describes the many situations in which caring for the welfare of others on the mountain may often entail risking one's life to save someone else. Taking personal risks to help someone else in need is a type of unwritten rule when summiting Everest. During the ascent described in the book, some climbers showed astonishing bravery in their efforts to help others. Unfortunately, as Krakauer also reveals, there are some individuals who betray this trust for personal achievement or out of selfish pride and egotism. When trust is betrayed in such dangerous circumstances, tragedy may follow.

Krakauer refers to climbing Everest as often being a "macho" endeavor in which climbers compete with each other to be the hardiest, the swiftest, the most independent, experienced, self-reliant, and so on. The competitive spirit between or among group members can undermine the success of an attempt at the summit. Not all highly competitive climbers are indifferent to helping others, however. But if a climber's ego disinclines him or her to stop climbing in order to help a teammate or the group, the whole expedition may be endangered.

Dangers of Commercialization

Another type of competition discussed in the book may be more insidious and perhaps more common. Competition between commercial expedition-leading businesses is fierce, and each leader must demonstrate that he or she gets more climbers safely to the summit than other expedition leaders. This type of competition may lead to decision-making that compromises safety or other vital aspects of the climb. When recreational climbers pay between $50,000 and $100,000 to join a guided expedition to the summit of Mount Everest, there is inevitably tremendous pressure to lure these well-heeled customers to your business instead of your competitors'. Although there is generally cooperation once groups with competing leaders are on the mountain and heading toward the summit, such helpfulness cannot always be taken for granted. Today with the assistance of guides, there are more expeditions climbing Everest than ever. As the book makes clear, the sheer number of climbers these competing expedition businesses bring to the mountain may endanger climbers from all groups.

When to Bend the Rules

Krakauer describes the complex, detailed plans an expedition leader must carry out to ensure the expedition will be safe and successful. Qualified, experienced guides and Sherpas must be hired and then trained. Safety equipment, tents, medicines, communication equipment, food, oxygen canisters, ropes, and other vital supplies must be put in place on the mountain ahead of time.

As Krakauer makes clear, time itself is one of the most important elements in a safe and successful climb. A crucial part of an expedition's plan is when to begin the ascent to the summit and the time that climbers must turn around and head back down the mountain for safety reasons. The expedition leader should adhere to this timetable to the greatest degree possible, no matter its effect on the number of climbers who might not be able to reach the summit. He or she must also remain keenly aware of the weather and adjust the timing accordingly, even if it means not reaching the top of the mountain.

Krakauer explains that bending safety rules is not advisable and potentially disastrous in certain circumstances, such as the one described in the book. However, the leader must also be flexible enough to bend the rules when unforeseen circumstances arise. A sudden and ominous change in the weather is one such circumstance. Another disruption is when one group decides against all advice to begin their climb at the same time as another group. This leads to "traffic jams" on the route to the summit. Yet these backups may be beyond the power of the first group leader to control. The leader's role is not an enviable one, especially in situations of tight competition described above. In a "traffic jam" the leader must make the terrible choice between risking a delay in reaching the summit and abandoning his safety-based timetable or turning his group of climbers around and down (if possible). Then the leader is faced with a possibly very angry group of climbers who will likely bad-mouth the leader's business.

Making Irrational Decisions

At the very beginning of the book, Krakauer admits that the desire to climb Mount Everest is "by definition irrational" because it is so painful, dangerous, and life-threatening. Thus, anyone who leads, guides, or joins an Everest expedition is acting irrationally. Yet there is another type of irrationality that is more insidious than the misguided ambition to undertake a death-defying physical challenge. It is the irrationality, incoherence, and disorientation climbers experience at altitudes of 25,000 feet and above (the Death Zone). There, conditions are so harsh and changeable, one can quickly become confused and make bad decisions. If in addition a climber lacks sufficient oxygen, his or her brain cannot produce rational thoughts because brain cells need sufficient oxygen to function properly. An oxygen-deprived climber at that altitude may become not only disoriented but delusional. This high-altitude, hypoxic irrationality plays a pivotal role in the events described in this book. Hypoxia is a deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissues of the body.

After the tragedy that befalls the expeditions, Krakauer tries to figure out exactly what happened and why. Even after interviewing those who survived, he still cannot understand why events unfolded as they did. Part of the problem is the subjectivity of each participant's singular experience and how they interpreted their experience. Another important contributor to the lack of answers to these questions was the impaired reasoning of most of those involved at the time. An oxygen-deprived, delusional, and irrational mind has difficulty ordering and analyzing events. For this reason, the questions Krakauer still has about the events that occurred during the climb may never be answered.

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