On the morning of May 13, Krakauer is climbing down the Khumbu Icefall. When he makes it through the Icefall, he finds Caroline Mackenzie waiting for him with beer. The feeling of being safe again is so overpowering that he cries. Krakauer feels guilty that he’s survived his climb, while others have died.
Krakauer has survived the dangerous snowstorm, but his ordeal is far from over. Now that he’s safe, he’s left with his own feelings: trauma, guilt, and shame.
On Tuesday afternoon, Neal Beidleman presides over a memorial service for the dead climbers, including Scott Fischer, Doug Hansen, Yasuko Namba, and Lopsang. Shortly after the service, two Japanese journalists approach Krakauer with questions about Yasuko Namba. Krakauer realizes that he faces a “swarm of print and television reporters.” A few hours later, a helicopter takes Krakauer to the Tribhuvan Airport, where he has to answer more questions from journalists. Alone in a hotel room that night, he can’t stop weeping.
Krakauer continues to suffer from survivor’s guilt—even though he has no rational reason to blame himself for his peers’ deaths, he continues to do so. Krakauer’s trauma worsens after journalists and writers pepper him with questions about the accident, forcing Krakauer to relive some of the most difficult days of his life.
On May 19, Krakauer finally flies back to the U.S., knowing that he has a responsibility to visit Doug Hansen’s family and return Doug’s possessions. Back in Seattle, Krakauer reunites with Linda. He gains back a lot of the weight he lost, and spends time with his friends and family. Yet Everest casts a “long penumbra” over his existence. Several weeks later, Krakauer gets calls from Rob Hall’s wife, Jan Arnold, and Andy Harris’s partner, Fiona McPherson. Though Krakauer believes it’s his duty to comfort Fiona and Jan, they end up comforting him, reassuring him that Hall and Harris’s deaths weren’t his fault.
Krakauer is safe, but he’s not mentally healthy—the disaster that he’s witnessed at Mount Everest continues to haunt him for years. He feels he should be a model of comfort and kindness for Harris and Hall’s partners, but finds that he’s more emotionally fragile than either woman. While many mountaineers climb Mount Everest in order to experience the “thrill” of danger, most mountaineers, Krakauer included, are unable to deal with the trauma of actual danger.
Krakauer faces the truth about his time climbing Everest. Along with Mike Groom, he was the only person on his expedition who climbed to the summit of Everest and survived. His inaction played a decisive role in the deaths of Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba—a fact that Krakauer will never, ever forget. Krakauer tries to tell Klev Schoening about his guilt, but Klev is unable to empathize; he claims to feel no survivor’s guilt.
As one of the few survivors of the expedition, and one of only two to survive after climbing to the summit of Everest, Krakauer has a particularly strong case of survivor’s guilt. Unfortunately, he finds that the other climbers don’t share his sense of guilt, or at least refuse to talk about it.
Out of all the expeditions climbing Everest in May of 1996, it’s amazing that Rob Hall’s was the one to suffer a catastrophe, since Hall was a notoriously careful guide. But perhaps Hall’s good track record was a product of luck as much as skill: year after year, he faced excellent weather—indeed, he’d never faced a storm as dangerous as the one on the night of May 10. It’s also possible that Hall’s rivalry with Fischer encouraged Hall to break his own rules and take risks, especially since Fischer was guiding Sandy Hill Pittman, a celebrity. And finally, it’s important to remember that Hall, Fischer, and the other climbers made some very tough decisions while their brains were running low on oxygen.
Even a calm, organized leader like Rob Hall can make mistakes. On the afternoon of May 10, Hall had already made a series of mistakes that contributed to the disaster. However, the “bigger picture” is that climbing to the summit of Everest is an inherently risky proposition, even for an extremely talented climber like Hall. Even Hall, Fischer, and Harris couldn’t think clearly while using oxygen canisters—as a result, their poor decisions may have led them to make other poor decisions, leading everyone into danger.
How can we prevent a disaster like the one Krakauer experienced from ever happening again? One simple way to do so would be to ban the use of bottled oxygen for mountain climbers. This would prevent the vast majority of climbers from ever attempting to climb Everest. At the same time, Mount Everest is an intrinsically dangerous business; people die every year attempting to climb it. Indeed, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year for Everest climbers, even when taking the May 10 disaster into account. Consider, Krakauer says, what happened on Mount Everest just one week after the May 10 disaster. By May 17, an Austrian climber had succeeded in making it most of the way up Mount Everest without bottled oxygen. The next day, he began to feel ill, and then he suffered a pulmonary attack and died suddenly.
One of the biggest ironies of this book is that, as bad as the May 10 disaster was, it represents little more than a drop in the bucket compared to the total fatalities from Everest expeditions. So many people die “ordinarily” while attempting to climb Everest that 1996 turned out to be a safer-than-average year. Everest deaths are almost routine, because the conditions at the summit of Mount Everest are so dangerous—human beings simply aren’t equipped to survive at low temperatures with little oxygen, and the technology that allows them to do so is far from perfect.
David Breashears and the rest of the IMAX team succeed in making their film, even without their extra oxygen tanks. On May 24, the IMAX team runs into the remainder of the South African team, still led by Ian Woodall, and eager to make another summit attempt. The South African team succeeds in climbing to the summit; however, one of their members, Bruce Herrod, gets lost, blunders off into the dark, and becomes the twelfth Everest casualty of 1996.
It may be further proof of Ian Woodall’s incompetence as a leader that Bruce Herrod died during his expedition. However, Herrod’s death also reconfirms the fundamental dangerousness and unpredictability of Mount Everest—no expedition, no matter how talented, can climb Everest without experiencing some serious danger.