It is the afternoon of May 10, 1996, and Jon Krakauer, the author, hasn’t slept for 57 hours. He stands at the summit of Mount Everest, “one foot in China and the other in Nepal,” and finds that he can’t summon the energy to enjoy the moment. The air is thin, meaning that barely any oxygen is flowing to his brain, and he’s utterly exhausted. Krakauer has arrived at the summit of Mount Everest with Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climbing guide, and Andy Harris, a guide on the New Zealand team to which Krakauer belongs. He takes some photographs with Harris and Boukreev, and then, after less than five minutes, the trio begins their descent.
The book begins with a strange image: Jon Krakauer is standing in one of the most sublimely beautiful places on the planet, the summit of Mount Everest, and he’s too tired to appreciate the beauty. After only five minutes or so, he turns back and begins his descent from the highest point on Earth. As we can tell, Krakauer is a client—he’s being guided by expert mountaineers, including Andy Harris and Anatoli Boukreev.
Later on, Krakauer notes, people will wonder why he, Boukreev, and Harris continued to climb down from Everest and ignored the signs of bad weather. Krakauer had been part of a team of amateur mountain climbers who’d paid a lot of money to climb the mountain safely. Now, six dead bodies, belonging to some of the mountain climbers, have been found, two other bodies are still missing, and one of Krakauer’s teammates is missing a hand. However, Krakauer insists, when he climbed down on the afternoon of May 10, the weather looked clear.
Krakauer builds the suspense by alluding to the bad weather on the horizon—weather which, we can guess, will soon cause a horrific disaster. Into Thin Air is both a history of mountaineering in general and the story of how Krakauer’s expedition to Everest—one of the best-organized expeditions that year—fell into danger.
Krakauer begins his descent from the summit. He’s in pain, and he feels weak because there’s barely any oxygen in the air. He inhales from his oxygen tank and sees that it’s almost empty. Krakauer approaches the infamous Hillary Step, a large notch in the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest. Although Krakauer needs to descend quickly, he sees that three large teams of people are climbing up the Hillary Step, meaning that he’ll have to wait.
The passage conveys a sense of disorganization—Krakauer desperately needs to climb down to access more oxygen, but there are too many other people for him to proceed quickly. Throughout this book, Krakauer criticizes large group expeditions, and here he offers a basic reason why they can be dangerous: everyone goes at a different pace.
Krakauer asks Harris to turn off the valve in his regulator, allowing him to conserve oxygen while waiting for the three teams to climb up. Harris mistakenly turns Krakauer’s valve all the way up, and Krakauer is quickly “on the brink of losing consciousness.” There is an oxygen tank waiting for him 250 feet below, but in order to get to it he’ll need to climb Hillary’s Step. Frantically, Krakauer watches as the mountaineers slowly climb across the Step. The last one to climb across is Scott Fischer, a talented mountaineer who Krakauer has known for years.
Andy Harris is a trained, experienced mountaineer—but here, he makes a huge mistake, accidentally cutting off Krakauer’s oxygen. That a professional guide like Harris could err so greatly suggests the inherent danger of climbing Everest—in low oxygen, even a great mountaineer can become easily disoriented.
Krakauer climbs across Hillary’s Step and reaches the fresh oxygen tank. As he inhales oxygen, he looks around, and realizes that a storm is coming; there are clouds on the horizon, and it’s starting to snow. Neither Krakauer nor his teammates realize that “a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh.”