On the morning of May 6, Krakauer and the team leave Base Camp for the summit. Krakauer perspires heavily from the exertion of the climb, and his tongue swells until he can’t breathe through his mouth.
Again Krakauer shows that mountaineering isn’t all about thrills and excitement—it’s often about enduring suffering and discomfort.
On the same day, Göran Kropp, a Swedish solo climber who’d traveled from Stockholm to Nepal by bicycle, climbs down to Base Camp. He had planned to climb Mount Everest without either Sherpa support or bottled oxygen, and he was a highly experienced climber. He left for the summit on May 1, but decided to climb down on May 6 for fear that he didn’t have enough energy to finish the climb safely. Kropp’s caution impressed Hall—most climbers would have pushed ahead rather than accepting their limitations.
One of the most difficult challenges for mountain climbers is to accept their own limitations. Kropp is an interesting case because, even though he was very close to the summit, he exercised caution and decided to try again another day. Because climbers are by often ambitious, daring people, it can be very difficult for them to imitate Kropp. Nevertheless, not knowing one’s physical limitations can be deadly for a mountaineer.
On May 7, the team reaches Camp Two, and Hall declares a day of rest. Krakauer notices Fischer at Camp Two, looking irritable. Because he gave his clients a higher degree of autonomy than Hall, Fischer was forced to make a number of emergency trips back to Base Camp, mostly due to his clients’ unexpected problems. Now, Fischer was being forced to rush from Camp Two to Base Camp to help a client, Dale Kruse, who has HACE. Fischer had already to return to Base Camp because one of his guides, Anatoli Boukreev, slept late and ignored the clients, instead of paying close attention to them as Fischer had ordered. Kruse tells Krakauer that he witnessed Fischer yelling at Boukreev for shirking his duties. Kruse also notes that Boukreev, in spite of his vast mountaineering skills, isn’t good at helping others. Fischer has been working twice as hard to make up for Boukreev, and as a result he is sleeping badly and losing weight. Later on, Boukreev claims, “If client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide, this client should not be on Everest.”
In this important chapter, we begin to get a sense for the personality of Anatoli Boukreev, one of the most talented climbers on Everest in 1996. Boukreev is unique among guides because he doesn’t hang back to help the weaker, less experienced climbers—he thinks that it’s their responsibility to climb on their own. As a result, though, Fischer has to work twice as hard to make up for Boukreev. Boukreev’s guiding philosophy might seem callous and mean, but even so, it exposes one of the basic problems with organized expeditions to the summit of Everest—as Boukreev says, if a client needs that much help to climb the mountain, they really shouldn’t be climbing Everest in the first place.
On May 8, both Hall and Fischer’s teams leave Camp Two. During the climb, a boulder falls and hits Andy Harris in the chest. Luckily, Harris doesn’t suffer anything more serious than a bruise—but had the boulder been a little larger, it could have crushed him.
Other random disasters hurt the expedition members, reminding us that Everest is an inherently dangerous, unpredictable place.
Both Hall and Fischer’s team arrive at Camp Three. Krakauer is the first to arrive, and while the other team members trickle in, he chops ice—a duty that the Sherpas usually perform. Chopping ice makes Krakauer realize how important the Sherpas’ contribution is. Late in the day, Lou Kasischke and Frank Fischbeck appear, both extremely tired. The sight of Frank looking so exhausted is shocking to Krakauer—Frank seemed like the most competent climber on the team.
Krakauer gains new respect for the Sherpas after he sees them chopping ice—and after he tries to chop ice himself. Krakauer gives the impression that most of the people on the expedition never get much of an appreciation for the Sherpas’ contribution, reinforcing the point that commercialized expeditions marginalize the Sherpas.
Hall’s team gathers together to breathe compressed oxygen—a practice that has long been a staple of mountaineering. Breathing pure oxygen can protect the body from HACE and hypothermia. However, there are some “purists” who’ve argued that using oxygen is “cheating,” and that real mountaineers shouldn’t use oxygen to climb Everest. In the 1970s, a man named Reinhold Messner climbed Everest without oxygen tanks, though some suggested that he’d breathed in oxygen from a hidden tank. Hall’s team uses oxygen masks to ensure that nobody loses consciousness during a climb. As the team approaches the summit of Everest, Hall encourages his clients to sleep with their masks on.
As the group approaches the summit of Mount Everest, it becomes increasingly important for them to breathe supplemental oxygen—without it, they’d be more susceptible to hypothermia and other dangerous diseases. Supplemental oxygen will play an important part in the events of May 10, 1996; furthermore, the fact that the clients need to breathe compressed oxygen at all reminds us that Everest isn’t made for human beings—in other words, it’s inherently unsafe for people to be there.
Early the next morning, a man from the Taiwanese team, Chen Yu-Nan, goes out to use the bathroom and falls down the side of the mountain. He plunges into a crevasse, but, amazingly, survives; luckily, another Taiwanese team member wakes up and helps lift him back to the camp with a rope. The next morning Chen’s condition begins to deteriorate—within a few hours, he’s dead. Makalu Gau learns of Chen’s death, but doesn’t show any emotion; instead, he orders his team to proceed with their climb. Perhaps Gau thought that continuing the climb would be the best way to honor Chen’s memory. Despite the large number of accidents on the climb to Everest so far, Krakauer and the rest of his team try to remain focused on their mission. “There would be plenty of time for reflection,” Krakauer thinks, “after we all had summited and got back down.”
Again, Makalu Gau shows himself to be strangely indifferent to the death and suffering of other people, even his teammates. Perhaps Gau really does feel sympathy and sadness for Chen, but chooses to conceal these emotions in order to keep everyone focused on the prize—reaching the summit. If Gau were to mourn Chen now, the team might give up and refuse to keep climbing to the top of Everest. Indeed, Krakauer and his teammates seem to mirror Gau’s strategy—instead of dwelling on Chen’s death, they proceed with their journey; they’re going to climb first and ask questions later.