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Into Thin Air | Summary

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Summary

Outside magazine assigned Jon Krakauer, an experienced climber, to write an article about the commercialization of climbing Mount Everest, which seeks to make a profit by putting climbers in a dangerous situation. The magazine sponsored him to climb with Rob Hall's expedition in May 1996. This and other expeditions on Everest turn out tragically, with 12 climbers dying on the mountain. Krakauer decides to expand his magazine article and writes this book to explore what happened and why.

Krakauer describes his journey to Nepal and the trek to Base Camp, the starting point of the expedition. He introduces the reader to the main characters on the expedition, including competing expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, some of the guides, and Doug Hansen, a climber he becomes friendly with. Krakauer explains the process of acclimatization that helps the climbers adjust to the high-altitude conditions they will experience summiting the mountain. Acclimatization involves about a month of climbs and brief stays at each of the four camps (each about 2,000 feet above the last one) above Base Camp. Some of the climbs to upper base camps are quite grueling and treacherous, including crossing crevasses on ladders and climbing ice slopes with ice axes and guide ropes. Krakauer mentions that after a while he does feel more acclimatized to the higher altitude and the low levels of oxygen high up the mountain.

Throughout the book, Krakauer describes his own experience, climbing for the first time at such altitudes, and the experiences of other climbers he introduces. Krakauer notes that some climbers are experienced mountaineers. Yet he worries that others on his team seem to be inexperienced at mountain climbing. He wonders if their inexperience, as well as the sheer number of climbers from different expeditions who are on the mountain, will cause problems during the climb. All climbers begin to feel the effects of the cold but especially the altitude, which causes loss of appetite and weight, insomnia, exhaustion, and—most importantly—mental impairment due to lack of oxygen to the brain. In the "death zone" above 25,000 feet, lack of oxygen often results in life-threatening irrationality and disorientation, as well as serious and sometimes fatal illness among climbers. The expedition does provide canisters of compressed oxygen for climbers, which are used mainly at higher altitudes.

Guides and Sherpas, Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, have set fixed lines, or rope, along the route to the summit to aid climbers during both their acclimatization period and the actual push to the summit. That climb begins in the wee hours of the morning of May 10, 1996. The climbers have been resting at Camp Four, the highest and last camp before the summit. The climb is difficult, and bottlenecks along the way make progress slow. Krakauer describes having to wait for other climbers who are using the rope to pass by along particularly difficult stretches of the route.

Daylight reveals a sunny and cloudless sky—perfect weather for climbing. Krakauer gets permission to pass slower climbers to reach the summit. Some of these slower climbers are struggling with exhaustion. While he is spending a few minutes at the summit, he notices a few "wispy clouds" in the sky. He thinks nothing of it (though more experienced climbers and one pilot who is on the team recognize the innocent-looking clouds as the tops of thunderheads). Krakauer is exhausted and heads down the mountain, though he's frustrated by having to wait for long periods of time for ascending climbers to pass by first.

Rob Hall was known as a very careful and detail-oriented expedition leader. He had told his team that a strict turnaround time (the time everyone has to head down toward Camp Four whether they've reached the summit or not) is 2:00 p.m. at the latest. Krakauer and a handful of other climbers make it to the summit and turn back down by this hour. Most of Hall's (and other expeditions') climbers are still climbing up. It turns out that most of his clients will not summit until 4:00 p.m. or later. By this time a ferocious storm is battering the mountain. Krakauer just makes it to Camp Four before the worst of the storm makes moving on the mountain treacherous with high winds, blowing snow, windchill temperatures of about –100 °F, and near zero visibility.

It's after 4:00 p.m. when Doug Hansen staggers up to the summit with the help of Rob Hall, who has been waiting for him. They spend a minute on the summit and then head down, but they get caught in the worst of the storm. Even worse, Hansen runs out of oxygen and collapses. A guide (Andy Harris) who is at the site where extra oxygen canisters are stashed is so mentally impaired he tells Hall (via radio) all the canisters are empty, which turns out to be false. Later, another guide will correct Harris's error and try to get oxygen to Hall and Hansen.

Meanwhile, a group of climbers gets lost in the blizzard. They hunker down in the snow, awaiting rescue by guides or Sherpas. The blizzard hampers the rescue, but eventually help reaches them, and several of them are helped down toward Camp Four. Two of the climbers, however, are in such bad shape they are believed to be near death. They are left on the mountain until they can be carried down later or until they die.

Communications fail as radio batteries go dead. When an alternate form of communication is established, Hall reports that Doug Hansen has died. Andy Harris had brought Hall and Hansen extra oxygen but then wandered off. It is believed Andy Harris became so mentally impaired he became lost in the blizzard. He's presumed dead, as are several other climbers. Hall is too debilitated by exhaustion and lack of oxygen to attempt to descend on his own. He waits for help, but the blizzard makes a timely rescue impossible. Hall dies on the mountain during the night. Of the two climbers who were said to be near death, one—Beck Weathers—miraculously revives and staggers into Camp Four. He's horribly frostbitten, and no one expects him to live. (He will survive, though). The other climber who'd been left with Weathers, Yasuko Namba, is not rescued and dies on the mountain. Twelve people in total die on the mountain during these expeditions in May 1996.

Krakauer writes his article but gets so many different reactions to it he decides to expand it into this book. Krakauer feels tremendous guilt at not having done enough to help rescue other climbers. He discusses how unforeseen events, such as the blizzard and not keeping a strict time schedule, affect even the most carefully planned expeditions. He reflects on the disaster and on what might have been done to prevent so many deaths. Krakauer also ponders the human impulse to risk death to reach the summit of Everest. He wonders if tragedy is inevitable and cannot be avoided (at least occasionally) when people put their lives at risk for the challenge of "conquering" Mount Everest.

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