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Into Thin Air | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into Thin Air | Symbols



Oxygen represents life on the higher reaches of Mount Everest. Lack of oxygen at high altitudes makes necessary the relatively long, gradual period of acclimatization at somewhat lower altitudes before summiting.

In the "Death Zone" above 25,000 feet, a sufficient number of oxygen canisters must be left at key staging areas before the climb begins. Everyone in the group must know where the stashes of oxygen canisters are and be sufficiently clearheaded to find them. If climbers run out of oxygen, they will become disoriented and confused. As Krakauer describes, a climber who is disoriented from lack of oxygen may be unable to locate or correctly assess the condition of the lifesaving oxygen canisters.


Ropes represent security and cohesiveness on the mountain. Sherpa guides and other climbers set out long lengths of rope along the more difficult stretches of the climb. Climbers hook onto the ropes with a latch attached to their climbing suit. Usually, most climbers in an expedition ascend the mountain in a line, one after the other, all linked to the same rope the expedition leader has had installed.

When ropes are not set, some parts of the mountain may become impossible for less experienced climbers to navigate, so ropes are required for all inexperienced climbers. A climber who cannot ascend without a rope may become an obstacle for others behind him or her, so when climbing together in a group a rope is essential. But when too many climbers from different expeditions are ascending the same route and using the same ropes, dangerous and time-wasting "traffic jams" may result.


Bottlenecks represent the problems brought by the commercialization of Mount Everest. With so many expeditions to the summit and such a short window of optimal climatic conditions for climbing, too many climbers end up at the same place at the same time along the very specific, narrow routes to the summit. Krakauer describes bottlenecks, or "traffic jams," at key sites along the summit route that forced climbers to wait hours for those ahead of them to move on. Bottlenecks are caused by "overbooking" a date and time for an attempt at the summit.

Bottlenecks also represent danger. The time wasted waiting in a long line for your turn to hook onto the rope ahead may put climbers in danger. Changes in the weather, excessive exposure to cold, and using up canister oxygen during long waits put individual climbers and entire groups in jeopardy.

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