Into Thin Air

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Themes and Colors
Danger and Mortality Theme Icon
The Natural World Theme Icon
Commercialization Theme Icon
Individualism and the Group Theme Icon
Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Into Thin Air, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Natural World Theme Icon

Another important theme of Into Thin Air is the natural world. Climbers choose to ascend mountains, not just because of the inherent danger of doing so (see above), but also because of the mountains’ sublime beauty and majesty—qualities that civilization cannot rival. The characters in the book believe that they can use their training, technology, and intelligence to “conquer” Everest. However, the 1996 Everest disaster provides them an unforgettable reminder of nature’s awesome power—power that human beings can never entirely understand or control.

As strange as it may sound, the natural world (and Mount Everest in particular) is a character in the book, with recognizable personality traits, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies. From the beginning, Krakauer stresses the beauty of the natural world: he offers long, vivid descriptions of Mount Everest’s vistas, and the sobering feeling of staring up at Everest’s awesome height. Mount Everest represents a unique kind of beauty: still, calm, and more than a little intimidating. But there’s a lot more to the natural world, and to Everest, than beauty. Everest is a volatile, unpredictable character, capable of moving from calm to stormy in just a few hours. Furthermore, Mount Everest is a fundamentally dangerous character, and has killed hundreds of human beings over the years. In a more academic sense, Mount Everest is a “static” character, meaning that it doesn’t change over time (or the course of the book). Although human beings have become more adept at mountain climbing in the last 150 years, Everest itself is no less dangerous, beautiful, or volatile now than it ever was.

For the most part, the human characters in the book respond to Everest, and the natural world in general, by focusing too exclusively on its beauty, while ignoring its unpredictability and fetishizing its danger. In a sense, Krakauer and the other members of his expedition are “punished” for treating the natural world as a mere thing of beauty, rather than an intimidating, lethal force that’s worthy of their respect. Rob Hall, the leader of the expedition, accidentally leads his clients into danger because he underestimates the threat of an impending storm. Because he’s been lucky with the weather for most of his years as a climber, he seriously doubts that he’ll have any trouble climbing back to camp. In the end, however, the storm on Everest claims the lives of many of Hall’s clients. At one point, Krakauer writes about the Sherpas (an ethnic group whose members live mostly in the Himalayas, and who often assist with Everest climbs) who believe that tourist climbers have “angered” the goddess of Mount Everest. While Krakauer doesn’t subscribe to this idea in any literal sense, he seems to agree with the core concept: human beings disrespect the natural world by treating it as a mere tourist destination, or an opportunity for some easy thrills. In the end, then, Into Thin Air reminds us that the natural world is too big and complex to be treated flippantly.

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The Natural World ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Natural World appears in each Chapter of Into Thin Air. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Natural World Quotes in Into Thin Air

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

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.