Into Thin Air

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Danger and Mortality Theme Icon
The Natural World Theme Icon
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As Krakauer sees it, there are two ways to climb a mountain: 1) by oneself, with no one else’s help; or 2) in a tour group, as part of a large commercial business (which charges its clients many tens of thousands of dollars). While both forms of mountaineering can be found on Mount Everest, Krakauer argues that it’s getting increasingly difficult to practice the first. The Nepalese government now requires all independent Everest climbers to pay a 65,000-dollar permit and join a long waiting list before climbing. It’s significantly easier for potential climbers to work through an established business than it is for them to negotiate directly with the Nepalese government. And for Krakauer, the increasing role that large businesses play in mountain climbing—in other words, the increasing commercialization of the activity—is destroying many of the most pleasurable aspects of the Everest experience.

First, and most literally, commercialization has destroyed some of the Sherpas’ homeland. To accommodate high-paying customers, most of them Americans, businesses have cut down trees and cleared fields to build lodges and hotels. With decreasing space and natural resources, many Sherpas have no choice but to work at the hotels owned by tourism companies, or work as climbers for the same companies. This brings up a second major way that commercialization has hurt Sherpa culture: it establishes an unequal relationship between wealthy, predominately Western business clients and less financially secure, predominately Sherpa employees. During his time on Everest, Krakauer is struck by the dismissive way that climbers and tourists treat their Sherpa helpers. Though the Sherpas are critical to the success of guided expeditions to the summit of Everest, most clients treat them as anonymous servants. In general, many of the guides and expedition leaders give preferential treatment to clients, since they’ve paid large sums of money to be there. However, Krakauer also stresses that it would be naïve to argue that things were entirely better for Sherpas in “the good old days,” before the onset of commercialization. Tourism businesses have lowered the unemployment rate and increased the average wealth of Sherpa households by providing consistent, well-paying jobs. Furthermore, as Krakauer points out, it would be rather condescending, even paternalistic, to claim that Sherpa culture was superior before it was “corrupted” by big business. The crass Americanization of Sherpa culture is a legitimate tragedy, and represents one of Krakauer’s major points of contention with commercialization; nevertheless, it hasn’t been tragic across the board.

The other form of commercialization that Krakauer discusses at length is the monetization of mountain climbing itself—the system whereby only a select few have the funds to pay for an Everest climb. One reason this form of commercialization is so harmful is that it creates the impression that money alone (rather than training, experience, or real dedication) can “buy” an Everest climb. Right away, Krakauer notes that most of his teammates on Everest have had very little recent experience climbing mountains—they’re naively confident that they’ll have no trouble making it to the summit, since they’ve paid for the best guides and the best equipment. The false confidence and relative inexperience of the team is partly the cause of the disaster of May 10, 1996, when six of Krakauer’s peers die, several of them because they’re relatively inexperienced climbers. A similar problem with the monetization of mountaineering is that it pushes the clients to “get their money’s worth”—after paying so much money to visit Everest, the clients refuse to turn back early, even when conditions are too dangerous to proceed. On the afternoon of May 10, many of Krakauer’s peers proceed all the way to the summit of Everest, even though they’ve been told to turn back at or before 2 pm; as Krakauer says, they refuse to drop 65,000 dollars on a trip that takes them to 500 feet below the summit of Everest. Ignoring bad weather for the glory of the summit is already a serious problem for Everest climbers, but Krakauer shows how money makes this problem even worse. In general, he strongly condemns the commercialization of Everest tourism, showing how, on the afternoon of May 10, it created a serious disaster.

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Commercialization ThemeTracker

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Commercialization Quotes in Into Thin Air

Below you will find the important quotes in Into Thin Air related to the theme of Commercialization.
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.

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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 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

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

"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 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.