Into Thin Air

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Into Thin Air published in 1999.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was still washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres dallied to memorialize their arrival at the apex of the planet, unfurling flags and snapping photos, using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mount Everest
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Krakauer sets the scene for an impending disaster. He and his teammates have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the surface of the planet. And yet, most of them are too exhausted to savor the moment—they’ve used up all their oxygen and energy ascending, and now they have to descend to their camp, located several hundred feet below.

There are several important things to notice about this passage. First, consider that Krakauer’s teammates are wasting a lot of time at the summit—and even though they’re entitled to savor the view of Tibet and Nepal, every second they take makes it more difficult for them to make it back safely. Second, notice that Krakauer is building suspense in an overt way: at the end of this chapter, he makes it clear that a major disaster hits his expedition. In Chapter Two, Krakauer flashes back to explain how he came to be on Everest in the first place; then, much later in the book, he picks up where he left off. Even though Into Thin Air is a work of nonfiction, it’s designed to be as suspenseful as a thriller.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Two, Krakauer studies the history of mountaineering, beginning with the discovery, in 1852, that Mount Everest was the world’s highest known peak. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, mountaineering was seen as a solitary, ruggedly individualistic activity, meant for solo climbers or, at most, a duo of close friends. In short, the entire appeal of mountaineering, at least as Krakauer sees it, lies in the freedom and individualism that it affords the climber.

Krakauer contrasts old-school mountaineering with the large, cumbersome teams that pay huge sums of money to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. In the late 20th century, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to climb solo, particularly on Everest; it’s easier, though less enjoyable, for Krakauer to climb in a big group. For the rest of the book, Krakauer will study some of the major logistical challenges of group climbing.

Chapter 3 Quotes

By this time Hall was a full-time professional climber. Like most of his peers, he sought funding from corporate sponsors to pay for his expensive Himalayan expeditions. And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Rob Hall
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Rob Hall is one of the key characters in the book, and one of the most contradictory. Although he’s widely regarded as a serious, disciplined climber, his greatest talent may be for self-promotion: he knows how to get journalists to pay attention to him. Hall knows that publicity is of the utmost importance in his profession: with good publicity, he can attract high-paying clients, who’ll be willing to pay him huge sums of money to guide them to the summit of Everest.

In a way, Hall symbolizes the “new mountaineering,” as opposed to the old-fashioned, individualistic style. Hall rarely, if ever, climbs alone anymore; instead, he leads large expeditions up and down the world’s most challenging mountains. In order to succeed at this business, Hall must not only be a great climber; he must also be a great publicist.

I wasn't sure what to make of my fellow clients. In outlook and experience they were nothing like the hard-core climbers with whom I usually went into the mountains. But they seemed like nice, decent folks, and there wasn't a certifiable asshole in the entire group—at least not one who was showing his true colors at this early stage of the proceedings. Nevertheless, I didn't have much in common with any of my teammates except Doug.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after Krakauer meets his teammates, he senses that he has little in common with them. Krakauer is only able to afford to climb Mount Everest because a national magazine, Outside, sponsors his permit. Krakauer hails from a lower-middle-class background, and generally doesn’t have very much in common with the other people on his expedition (who are, with a few exceptions, the kinds of people who can afford to take a two-month, 65,000-dollar vacation to the Himalayas). Doug Hansen, the one teammate with whom Krakauer feels a close bond, is the exception that proves the rule: Hansen, like Krakauer, is only able to afford an Everest trip because of the help of other people (in Hansen’s case, the sponsorship of a local elementary school).

The passage conveys one of the major problems with group expeditions as compared with solo climbs—there’s no guarantee that the people on the group will get along with one another. As we see later in the book, this disorganization and lack of a close connection between climbers sometimes leads to major problems.

Chapter 4 Quotes

The transformation of the Khumbu culture is certainly not all for the best, but I didn't hear many Sherpas bemoaning the changes. Hard currency from trekkers and climbers, as well as grants from international relief organizations supported by trekkers and climbers, have funded schools and medical clinics, reduced infant mortality, built footbridges, and brought hydroelectric power to Namche and other villages. It seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Four, Krakauer studies some of the changes affecting Sherpas, the ethnic group that lives predominately in the Himalayas. The Sherpas are a fairly small ethnic group, and in recent decades they’ve increasingly become involved in the international mountaineering business, since, by virtue of the time they spend in high altitudes, many are natural climbers. As Krakauer notes here, many Sherpas (and Westerners observing from the outside) resent the growing commercialization of Mount Everest, and they think that Everest has become too crass and Westernized. However, Krakauer adds, it would also be naïve to claim that things were wholly better for Sherpas back in the “good old days.” While it’s certainly true that mountain tourism has harmed many aspects of Sherpa culture, it’s also true that tourism has brought new opportunities to the Sherpas: it’s given them jobs and brought wealth to their community, improving health and literacy in the process. So even if Krakauer dislikes the commercialization of Everest as much as any Sherpa, he’d be remiss if he didn’t bring up some of the benefits, too.

Chapter 5 Quotes

This was Doug's second shot at Everest with Hall. The year before, Rob had forced him and three other clients to turn back just 330 feet below the top because the hour was late and the summit ridge was buried beneath a mound of deep, unstable snow. "The summit looked sooooo close," Doug recalled with a painful laugh. "Believe me, there hasn't been a day since that I haven't thought about it." He'd been talked into returning this year by Hall, who felt sorry that Hansen had been denied the summit and had significantly discounted Hansen's fee to entice him to give it another try.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen (speaker), Rob Hall
Related Symbols: Mount Everest
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we learn more about Doug Hansen’s backstory. Hansen is a postal worker who hails from a lower-middle-class background. He was only able to afford to travel to Mount Everest because of the help of a local elementary school. However, the first time Hansen tried to climb Everest, he was forced to turn back before he reached the summit. Rob Hall, Hansen’s group leader, was so sorry for Hansen that he offered to bring Hansen back the next year, at a greatly discounted rate—an offer that Hansen eagerly accepted.

In many ways, Doug Hansen is a tragic character. Unlike most of his other teammates in 1996, he has some genuine drive—he’s determined to make it to the summit, rather than failing as he did in 1995. However, Hansen’s drive and determination ultimately prove to be fatal flaws: as we come to see, his desire to reach the summit leads him to stay out long after Krakauer, and as a result, he gets caught in a storm and freezes to death.

Chapter 6 Quotes

"If you get killed," she argued with a mix of despair and anger, "it's not just you who'll pay the price. I'll have to pay, too, you know, for the rest of my life. Doesn't that matter to you?"
"I'm not going to get killed," I answered. "Don't be melodramatic."

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Linda Krakauer (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jon Krakauer calls his wife, Linda Krakauer, who’s still back in the United States. Linda was once a gifted mountaineer, like Krakauer, but an unfortunate back injury has left her incapable of joining her husband at Everest. Here, she tells Krakauer that she’s worried about him—she knows that Everest is a dangerous place, and that there’s a slim but very real chance that Krakauer will die during his time on the mountain. Krakauer calmly tells Linda that she’s being melodramatic—a good example of dramatic irony, since, by this point in the book, we know that Krakauer’s life will, in fact, be put in danger by the events of May 10. (Furthermore, one could argue that the passage itself is highly melodramatic, since it builds suspense and cleverly plays on readers’ fears.)

Chapter 7 Quotes

“Woodall had no interest in the birth of a new South Africa. He took the dreams of the entire nation and utilized them for his own selfish purposes. Deciding to leave the expedition was the hardest decision of my life.”

Related Characters: Edmund February (speaker), Ian Woodall
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Seven, we’re introduced to Ian Woodall, one of the most unlikeable characters in the book. Woodall is the leader of a South African expedition to the summit of Mount Everest, and he’s almost universally seen as a horrible person. Woodall is supposed to lead a triumphant ascent to Everest, one that’s meant to symbolize the ascendance of South Africa itself after decades of apartheid (even though Woodall himself is British, not South African). But instead of honoring the country, Woodall uses the expedition as a vehicle to launch his own career: he hogs the attention surrounding the expedition, talks abut himself ad nauseum, and manipulates his teammates into obeying him. Woodall is so intolerable that his star climber, Edmund February (a South African man named after Sir Edmund Hillary), resigns from the team in disgust.

The passage is an interesting reminder of the link between mountain climbing and nationalist causes. Just as Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Mount Everest in the 1950s became a rallying point for the entire British Commonwealth, so was Woodall’s expedition meant to be a rallying point for the new South Africa.

Chapter 8 Quotes

When Fischer questioned Ngawang, he admitted that he'd been feeling weak, groggy, and short of breath for more than two days, so Fischer directed him to descend to Base Camp immediately. But there is an element of machismo in the Sherpa culture that makes many men extremely reluctant to acknowledge physical infirmities. Sherpas aren't supposed to get altitude illness, especially those from Rolwaling, a region famous for its powerful climbers. Those who do become sick and openly acknowledge it, moreover, will often be blacklisted from future employment on expeditions.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Scott Fischer, Ngawang Topchke
Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that a Sherpa guide named Ngawang Topchke has been suffering from serious altitude sickness. Ngawang has been feeling sick for a while, but he refuses to shirk his duties, even after his boss, Scott Fischer, orders him point-blank to go back down the mountain (the only cure for severe altitude sickness). Ngawang has been spending too much time at a high altitude, meaning that his body isn’t getting enough oxygen. Nevertheless, he continues with his work.

Why doesn’t Ngawang just go back down the mountain? Krakauer offers two distinct reasons. First, the Sherpas have a culture with an “element of machismo”—to get altitude sickness is to be weak, effeminate, and altogether unfit for climbing. Second, Ngawang Topchke may have good reason to think that, if he caves in and gets medical attention now, he’ll be “blacklisted” for the rest of his career; no one will hire him again because they’ll assume that he’s weak and unreliable.

They should have flown him out yesterday morning when they had a chance. If it had been one of Scott's clients who was this sick, instead of a Sherpa, I don't think he would have been treated so haphazardly.

Related Characters: Rob Hall (speaker), Scott Fischer, Ngawang Topchke
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ngawang Topchke begins to suffer from altitude sickness, Scott Fischer orders him to descend, so that his body can get more oxygen. However, Ngawang refuses, and continues to work at a high altitude, with the result that his condition deteriorates. Ngawang is rushed to the emergency room at Base Camp, but the doctors are unsure how best to treat him, and the head doctor at Base Camp is suffering from altitude sickness herself. As a result, Ngawang dies. In the aftermath of Ngawang’s tragic, completely preventable death, Rob Hall suggests that Ngswang died, in part, because he’s Sherpa. If a paying client had suffered from the same symptoms, it’s probable that the client would have been given better, quicker medical treatment.

It’s important to take Hall’s observations with a grain of salt. In part, Ngawang dies because he voluntarily chooses to remain at a high altitude instead of getting medical care. And it’s possible that Hall criticizes Ngawang’s treatment in order to attack Scott Fischer, Ngawang’s boss and Hall’s business rival. However, it’s also possible that Hall has a point. Ngawang isn’t a paying client in Fischer’s expedition—therefore, his life is, quite literally, less valuable to the mountaineering businesses on Everest. Perhaps, if Ngawang had been a paying client, he would have gotten faster care, and he’d still be alive.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Ian Woodall, however, declared that the South Africans would go to the top whenever they damn well pleased, probably on May 10, and anyone who didn't like it could bugger off.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Ian Woodall
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Krakauer shows some of the problems that arise when too many large groups ascend Everest around the same time. Scott Fischer and Rob Hall are trying to decide how best to organize an ascent to Mount Everest; they agree to ascend on the same day, but ask most of the other teams to refrain from doing that same, so that there won’t be too much of a “traffic jam.” However, the South African team refuses to comply with Hall and Fischer; spitefully, Ian Woodall claims that he’ll ascend whenever he’s ready, but refuses to tell anyone when this will be.

When too many large groups ascend to Everest at the same time, they run the danger of climbing to the summit simultaneously. This is a major problem, as Krakauer shows us, because it slows down the descent process at the time when clients need to be moving most quickly (due to the low oxygen in the air). There’s also no guarantee that the different groups will get along—as Woodall’s example shows, one group might refuse to cooperate with the others, jeopardizing the safety of all other groups.

Chapter 11 Quotes

"To turn around that close to the summit," Hall mused with a shake of his head on May 6 as Kropp plodded past Camp Two on his way down the mountain. "That showed incredibly good judgment on young Göran's part. I'm impressed—considerably more impressed, actually, than if he'd continued climbing and made the top."

Related Characters: Rob Hall (speaker), Göran Kropp
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of this chapter, Krakauer writes about a young Swedish mountaineer named Göran Kropp. Kropp travels a long way to climb Mount Everest, but on the morning of May 6, Kropp climbs to within a few hundred feet of the summit of Everest, decides that he doesn’t have quite enough energy to proceed safely, and turns back around. Kropp’s behavior shows incredible discipline and self-control—most mountaineers (who are, by nature, driven, motivated people) would press on ahead, ignoring the limitations of their own bodies. Kropp, however, is wise enough to understand that he’d be jeopardizing his life, and other people’s lives, if he continued to climb to the summit without sufficient energy.

The passage is important because it contrasts markedly with the behavior of some of the people on Hall and Fischer’s expeditions. Hall and Fischer’s clients lack the discipline of Kropp: they want to get their money’s worth, even if they risk their own safety in the process. As we’ll see over the course of the next few chapters, Hall and Fischer’s clients try to ascend to the summit of Everest long past the point when they should turn back, and some of them pay with their lives.

"If client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide," Boukreev told me, "this client should not be on Everest. Otherwise there can be big problems up high."

Related Characters: Anatoli Boukreev (speaker), Jon Krakauer
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

The speaker here is Anatoli Boukreev, a talented Russian climber with an unconventional philosophy of guiding other climbers. Boukreev works as a guide for Scott Fischer; however, he doesn’t hang back, like most of the other guides, and help the slower, less experienced clients. Instead, he climbs ahead of everyone else, ensuring that he’s the first one back to camp every day. Boukreev’s behavior might seem callous and neglectful, but Boukreev insists that he shouldn’t have to hang back to take care of the weaker climbers—if they really need his help that badly, they shouldn’t be on Everest in the first place.

Krakauer later shows that Boukreev’s philosophy of climbing may have contributed to a serious accident on the night of May 10, 1996—by refusing to hang back and take care of his paying clients, Boukreev may have allowed them to blunder into danger and lose their lives. However, it’s important to recognize that Boukreev has a point—a point that Krakauer seems to agree with. After reading Into Thin Air, it seems almost undeniable that too many inexperienced people try to climb Mount Everest every year—and just as Boukreev says, if they need a guide’s help that badly, they should never have come to Everest. As stubbornly unhelpful as Boukreev seems to be here, he’s also absolutely right.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different: I sincerely hoped Doug got to the top, for instance, yet I would do everything in my power to keep pushing on if he turned around.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hall’s expedition begins its climb to the summit of Mount Everest, Krakauer takes a moment to think about his relationship (or lack thereof) with his peers. Krakauer has never felt a very strong connection with the other mountaineers, and he’s worried that they’re too unfocused and unmotivated (with the notable exception of Doug Hansen). Thus, as Krakauer prepares to ascend, he feels no particular loyalty or connection to people climbing with him—in other words, if one of his teammates experiences setbacks of any kind, Krakauer will continue to the summit, rather than risking his own chances by hanging behind.

Krakauer’s comments underscore one of the flaws with large excursions to the summit of Mount Everest—the “every man for himself” philosophy works much better on a solo expedition than on a group expedition. Because everyone on Hall’s trip is dead-set on reaching the summit, the overall structure of the group is disorganized and chaotic.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Now, as Beidleman clung precariously to the rock 100 feet above the clients, the overly eager Yasuko clamped her jumar to the dangling rope before the guide had anchored his end of it. As she was about to put her full body weight on the rope—which would have pulled Beidleman off—Mike Groom intervened in the nick of time and gently scolded her for being so impatient.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Yasuko Namba, Neal Beidleman, Mike Groom
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Krakauer notes that Yasuko Namba, one of the more inexperienced people on his team, is beginning to show additional signs of her lack of mountaineering experience. As she’s about to begin her climb up a steep peak, Namba almost pulls down on a rope, the other end of which is still attached to her guide, Neal Beidleman. Had Namba pulled down on the rope, Beidleman could have fallen to his death.

The passage is important because it reminds us that some of the people on Hall’s expedition are much more experienced than others. Indeed, the differences in experience between the Krakauer’s teammates will prove to be a major problem after a dangerous snowstorm arrives on the evening of May 10. Mount Everest is an intrinsically dangerous place, where humans couldn’t ordinarily survive. Krakauer seems to believe that all but the most talented climbers should be prevented from climbing Everest, for their own safety as much as other people’s. (This passage was singled out by critics of Into Thin Air, who believed that it was unnecessarily harsh to Namba, and scapegoated her for the May 10 disaster. However, Krakauer doesn’t seem overly critical of Namba at all; he’s just stating an unpleasant fact—she was obviously underprepared for her Everest climb.)

Chapter 14 Quotes

Beck was nearly persuaded to descend with me when I made the mistake of mentioning that Mike Groom was on his way down with Yasuko, a few minutes behind me. In a day of many mistakes, this would turn out to be one of the larger ones.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Beck Weathers, Yasuko Namba, Mike Groom
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Jon Krakauer is descending from the summit of Mount Everest and returning to his tent. On the way back, he runs into Beck Weathers, one of his teammates. To Krakauer’s amazement, Weather is standing in the snow, waiting for Rob Hall to return to him. Weathers calmly explains that Rob Hall has told him to wait in the snow, since Hall is worried that Weathers, with his poor vision, will be unable to walk back to camp by himself. Krakauer tries to persuade Weathers to come back to the camp with him, but he’s unable to do so—Weathers insists that he promised Hall that he’d wait, and here he decides to at least wait for Groom and Namba, who Krakauer says are close behind him. In the end, Weathers’s decision to wait for them proves nearly fatal—he gets caught in a storm, and eventually the doctors have to amputate five of his fingers.

The passage could be considered a good example of how Rob Hall’s leadership methods sometimes create danger instead of protecting the clients against danger. Hall prides himself on running a “tight ship” and convincing his clients to obey him at all times. In this passage, Weathers obeys Hall, and suffers serious consequences for doing so. Perhaps it’s fair to say that, when descending Mount Everest, there’s no way for a team excursion to be perfectly safe—whether the team leader favors a tight, controlled operation (as Rob Hall does), or a more loose, free-wheeling one (as Scott Fischer does), it’s impossible to keep everyone completely safe at all times.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Fischer hid the fact from everyone, as well, that he may have been clinically ill during the summit attempt. In 1984, during an expedition to Nepal's Annapuma massif, he'd picked up a gastrointestinal parasite, Entamoeba histolytica, which he was unable to entirely purge from his body over the years that followed. The bug emerged from dormancy on an irregular basis, producing bouts of acute physical distress and leaving a cyst on his liver. Insisting it was nothing to worry about, Fischer mentioned the ailment to few people at Base Camp.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Scott Fischer
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that Scott Fischer, the charismatic leader of an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest on May 10, 1996, has long suffered from a gastrointestinal parasite. As a result, Fischer goes through intermittent bouts of pain and physical distress. But because of his own pride and machismo, as well as his desire to attract the most clients, Fischer doesn’t tell anyone about his condition: he’s determined to project the image of a calm, reliable, perfectly controlled mountaineer.

The passage is a good example of how the culture and overall commercialization of mountaineering, can be lethal to climbers. Fischer is a talented climber, but because he refuses to disclose his medical condition to other people, he becomes severely exhausted on the afternoon of May 10, and eventually wanders off into a deadly snowstorm and dies.

Boukreev's susceptibility to the cold was doubtless greatly exacerbated by the fact that he wasn't using supplemental oxygen; in the absence of gas he simply couldn't stop to wait for slow clients on the summit ridge without courting frostbite and hypothermia.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Anatoli Boukreev
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

Krakauer notes that, on the afternoon of May 10, 1996, Anatoli Boukreev was mostly unavailable to help his clients make their way back to camp. Despite the fact that many clients were stuck out in the cold, freezing to death, Boukreev climbed ahead of them, returned to his tent, and fell asleep. Boukreev later claimed that his decision to return to his tent was a good one, because it gave him the energy to go out later that night and search for clients who were still stranded in the snow. But, as Krakauer points out here, Boukreev only needed to return to his tent in the first place because, unlike his fellow guides, he hadn’t been breathing any supplemental oxygen, and therefore was getting very tired. Had Boukreev breathed extra oxygen, it’s likely that he would have had the energy to assist with his clients and ensure that they found their ways back to safety.

While Krakauer has a lot of respect for Boukreev, he makes it clear that he disagrees with Boukreev’s behavior. Many factors, most uncontrollable, caused the climbers’ deaths on the day of the disaster, but Boukreev’s behavior early in the day certainly didn’t help.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Was I really so debilitated that I had stared into the face of a near stranger and mistaken him for a friend with whom I'd spent the previous six weeks? And if Andy had never arrived at Camp Four after reaching the summit, what in the name of God had happened to him?

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Andy Harris, Martin Adams
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Krakauer is forced to rethink his memories of May 10, 1996. Prior to talking to Martin Adams, a fellow climber, Krakauer was convinced that he’d run into Andy Harris just outside of camp on the afternoon of May 10. After talking to Adams, however, Krakauer realizes that he may have been speaking to Adams, not Harris. Krakauer told “Harris” to walk in the direction of the tents, and warned him not to slip on the ice. Now, Krakauer is beginning to believe that he actually had such a conversation with Adams.

As Krakauer says here, it seems almost impossible that he could have mistaken Adams for Harris, or vice versa. And yet, under the circumstances, it’s perfectly understandable that Krakauer could have made such a mistake: he was deliriously tired, running low on oxygen, and eager to return to his tent. Furthermore, both men were wearing heavy mountaineering gear that obscured their features. Krakauer’s mistake might seem bizarre to the lay-reader, but it’s not uncommon at the summit of Mount Everest, where the low oxygen causes even intelligent people to make unintelligent mistakes.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Two full bottles were waiting for them at the South Summit; if Hall had known this he could have retrieved the gas fairly quickly and then climbed back up to give Hansen a fresh tank, But Andy Harris, still at the oxygen cache, in the throes of his hypoxic dementia, overheard these radio calls and broke in to tell Hall—incorrectly, just as he'd told Mike Groom and me—that all the bottles at the South Summit were empty,

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Rob Hall, Andy Harris
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Krakauer discusses Rob Hall and Doug Hansen’s experience on the afternoon of May 10. After taking too long to climb the summit, Hansen and Hall begin their descent, with Hansen running dangerously low on oxygen. Hall, knowing that he needs to get his client fresh, compressed oxygen as soon as possible, radios his guide, Andy Harris, asking if there’s any fresh oxygen waiting for them—but Harris, suffering from oxygen deprivation, mistakenly radios back that there isn’t. Had Harris given the correct answer, Hall could have run ahead, obtained some oxygen, and rushed it back to Hansen—then, both he and Hansen could have moved at a faster rate. It’s possible, then, that if Harris hadn’t given Hall the incorrect answer, Hall and Hansen would both be alive today.

The passage is a disturbing example of how one small mistake can cause a “domino effect” and endanger many people. Harris’s oxygen deprivation-caused misjudgment seriously slowed Hall and Hansen in their descent, putting them in added danger. Harris can hardly be blamed for sending Hall the wrong information, since he was running dangerously low on oxygen himself—nevertheless, his mistake reinforces the inherent danger of sending a large, disorganized group to the summit of Mount Everest.

"I'm looking forward to making you completely better when you come home," said Arnold. "I just know you're going to be rescued. Don't feel that you're alone. I'm sending all my positive energy your way!"
Before signing off, Hall told his wife, "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Rob Hall, Jan Arnold
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

In this heartbreaking passage, Rob Hall, knowing that he’s probably going to die, communicates via radio with his partner, Jan Arnold. Rob Hall has risked his own life to take care of his client, Doug Hansen, and now he’s stranded in the middle of a snowstorm, late at night. Bravely, Hall tries to sound calm and happy for Arnold, even though he’s slowly freezing to death. For her part, Arnold, not sure if she’ll ever see Rob again, tries to inspire Rob by telling him, “Don’t feel that you’re alone.”

The scene represents Rob Hall’s last appearance in Into Thin Air. It’s clear that Krakauer has great respect for Hall: he admires Hall’s bravery and calm leadership. Even if Krakauer disagrees with some of the decisions that Hall made on the afternoon of May 10, he looks up to Rob, both as a mountaineer and as a person—in the passage, Krakauer’s reverence is palpable.

Chapter 19 Quotes

There was only one choice, however difficult: let nature take its inevitable course with Beck and Yasuko, and save the group's resources for those who could actually be helped. It was a classic act of triage. When Hutchinson returned to camp he was on the verge of tears and looked like a ghost.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Beck Weathers, Stuart Hutchinson, Yasuko Namba
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

In this challenging passage, Stuart Hutchinson has organized the remaining members of Rob Hall’s expedition into a search party. Together, he and the other clients venture out into the snow to search for their peers, including Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba, neither of whom has made it back to the tents. After some searching, Hutchinson and the rescue party find Weathers and Namba in the cold, slowly dying. Here, Hutchinson, recognizing that Namba and Weathers are probably going to die whether they’re rushed to the hospital or not, makes the difficult decision to continue searching for other people with a better chance of survival.

Hutchinson’s decision might seem callous, or even cruel, but it’s probably the right one. Hutchinson, who worked as a doctor for many years, knows how to remain calm and orderly in a crisis. Thus, he doesn’t let his emotions cloud his judgment, and instead practices “triage,” as Krakauer says here—the act of ranking medical emergencies by degree of urgency or efficacy and dealing with them in that order. However, Hutchinson’s decision later proves wrong: Beck Weathers, abandoned in the snow, miraculously finds the will to walk, and trudges back to the tents. Hutchinson’s decision to continue looking may have proved too hasty, but Krakauer seems to respect his decision nonetheless—even if, as he’ll discuss in the final chapters of the book, he feels incredibly guilty for leaving Beck Weathers to die.

Upon first finding Beck in the tent, I was so shocked by his hideous condition—and by the unforgivable way that we'd let him down yet again—I nearly broke into tears. "Everything's going to be O.K.," I lied, choking back my sobs as I pulled the sleeping bags over him, zipped the tent doors shut, and tried to re-erect the damaged shelter. "Don't worry, pal. Everything's under control now."

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Beck Weathers
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Krakauer breaks down upon looking at Beck Weathers, his teammate. Beck Weathers has been through hell: he’s spent the entire night stranded in a snowstorm, and on the morning of May 11, his teammates find him, barely alive, and leave him for dead, since they assume that he’s doomed to die no matter what they do. Weathers miraculously recovers, walks back to his tent, and falls asleep. That night, Weathers, still in his tent, screams for help, but nobody responds, since nobody can hear his screams over the roaring of the wind.

Krakauer is horrified that Weathers has endured so much suffering, and he feels intensely guilty, both for leaving Weathers in the snow and for not responding to his cries for help. In this way, the passage foreshadows the survivor’s guilt that will haunt Krakauer long after he returns to the United States.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Before this year, however, Hall had had uncommonly good luck with the weather, and it might have skewed his judgment. "Season after season," confirmed David Breashears, who has been on more than a dozen Himalayan expeditions and has himself climbed Everest three times, "Rob had brilliant weather on summit day. He'd never been caught by a storm high on the mountain." In fact, the gale of May 10, though violent, was nothing extraordinary; it was a fairly typical Everest squall. If it had hit two hours later, it's likely that nobody would have died. Conversely, if it had arrived even one hour earlier, the storm could easily have killed eighteen or twenty climbers—me among them.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), David Breashears (speaker), Rob Hall
Page Number: 284-285
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 21, Krakauer writes more generally about the May 10, 1996 disaster. How could Rob Hall, one of the most careful, cautious mountaineers in the business, become embroiled in such a horrible disaster? Where did he go wrong?

Krakauer argues that Hall made a series of poor decisions on the day of the accident: he allowed various clients to go off on their own long after they should have returned to camp, and he encouraged one client to continue to the summit of Everest, even after he could tell that a storm was coming. While Hall bears some of the responsibility for the accident, then, we should also keep in mind that the disaster happened for reasons outside Hall’s—or anyone’s—control. During his time climbing Everest, Hall usually had the benefit of uncommonly good weather. Thus, when Hall saw an impending storm, he had no experience to fall back on—he didn’t know how bad the storm could get.

Krakauer’s point seems to be that the May 10 disaster was the product of uncontrollable environmental factors as much as Rob Hall’s (or anyone else’s) bad decision making. Climbing to the summit of Mount Everest is an inherently risky proposition; at the top of the world, even a great mountaineer like Hall can get into trouble.

Epilogue Quotes

For Neal Beidleman's part, he helped save the lives of five clients by guiding them down the mountain, yet he remains haunted by a death he was unable to prevent, of a client who wasn't on his team and thus wasn't even officially his responsibility.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Yasuko Namba, Neal Beidleman
Page Number: 300
Explanation and Analysis:

In this Epilogue, Krakauer writes about the intense guilt he feels for failing to help his fellow clients during the Everest disaster. He feels especially responsible for the deaths of Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba: whenever he thinks about them, he thinks about the steps he could have taken, with the benefit of hindsight, to save them.

Survivor’s guilt is an unfortunately common response to a traumatic incident—when a person survives a horrible disaster, they often believe that they must have done something wrong to survive, and begin to feel personally responsible for the deceased. Krakauer, it’s made pretty clear, is being far too harsh on himself: there’s no way he could have known that the snowstorm would end up being as deadly as it proved to be. Therefore, there’s no logical way to argue that Krakauer “failed” to save Namba and Harris. Nevertheless, Krakauer continues to feel a powerful sense of guilt—even though he knows, rationally, that he shouldn’t feel guilty.

How does one cure survivor’s guilt? Krakauer implies that the only cure is processing it through communication. Thus, he makes an effort to talk to other people who survived the accident, such as Neal Beidleman. Beidleman and Krakauer both feel the same overpowering sense of guilt for having survived the disaster unharmed. Perhaps, by talking about their pain with each other, they can fight off some of their own psychological suffering.

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