On the morning of May 9, Krakauer and his teammates wake up early for the day’s climb. During the climb, Krakauer steadily advances to Camp Four, located on the plateau known as the South Col, the “launching pad for the summit assault.”
For the next few chapters, the climbers (after summiting, or nearing the summit) will try to return to the flat, relatively safe South Col—tragically, not everyone will succeed.
Over the course of the afternoon the weather deteriorates. In the evening, Krakauer sits in his tent. He hears a voice saying, “Let him in quickly or he’s going to die out here!” Krakauer discovers Bruce Herrod, a deputy leader from the South Africa team, “and the sole remaining member of that expedition with real mountaineering credentials.” Bruce has gotten lost, and is suffering from severe hypothermia. Doug Hansen is also doing poorly—he hasn’t slept in days, and feels horribly nauseous. While Krakauer is sympathetic for Doug, he feels a profound disconnect from the other members of the expedition: “each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much.”
The climbers can easily become unable to make even the most basic decisions on their own, due to the thin air and the way this lack of oxygen disorients the brain. This passage sums up the problems with guided expeditions to the summit of Everest: they’re disorganized, without any strong bond or connection between the climbers; furthermore, the guides are sometimes as clueless as the clients.
Just after midnight, Hall’s team proceeds with the next stage of the climb. Fischer’s team is also climbing to the summit at this time. Furthermore, unbeknownst to Hall, the Taiwanese team is climbing up to the summit as well. An hour into the climb, two members of Hall’s team, Frank and Doug, turn back. However, Hall runs into Doug, says something to him (as Krakauer puts it, “we’ll never know what was said”), and as a result, Doug turns back and continues climbing.
One of the major problems on May 10 was that there were too many teams climbing at the same time—as we’ve already seen, the overabundance of climbers delayed Krakauer’s descent, seriously weakening him. The passage is also tragic because Doug Hansen ends up dying—had Hall not broken with procedure (it seems reasonable to assume that he said something encouraging Hansen to continue), Hansen might still be alive.
At the beginning of the expedition, Rob Hall gave his team a speech about the importance of obeying his directions on summit day. If Hall decided that conditions were too dangerous, he insisted, the team would have to turn around right away. On the morning of May 10, Hall and his team are approaching the summit of Mount Everest very slowly—since Hall ordered everyone to stay close together. As the team gets closer to the summit, Krakauer notices members of Fischer’s team and the Taiwanese team getting closer together.
Hall continues to emphasize the importance of procedure and orderliness, even as his own methods become increasingly disorganized. As we’ll see, Hall stresses the importance of a “turn back time,” but never officially announces what this time is. While Krakauer has a lot of admiration for Hall, it’s clear that Hall made a series of bad decisions that may have contributed to the May 10 disaster.
Krakauer reaches the Southeast Ridge of Everest at 5:30 am, with the understanding that he needs to wait for the rest of the team before proceeding. He’s frustrated that he can’t just continue with Fischer or the Taiwanese, but he understands why Hall wants him to wait. The most rewarding part of mountaineering, Krakauer has always felt, is self-reliance—the freedom to make decisions for oneself. As a member of a group, however, Krakauer does not have this luxury—he must obey Hall.
This passage illustrates one of the major problems with group expeditions—the strong climbers have to wait around for the weak climbers, getting weak and tired in the cold and thin air. A duo or solo expedition would never have such a problem.
At 7:10 am, Krakauer sees Hall arriving at the Southeast Ridge, and Hall gives him the go-ahead to climb. Krakauer begins climbing, and quickly passes Lopsang. Ordinarily, Lopsang would be at the front of any expedition to Everest; however, he’s tired and extremely nauseous. In part, Lopsang is sick because he’s had to carry Sandy Hill Pittman’s heavy satellite phone all morning. Furthermore, Lopsang chose to tow Pittman on a short-rope (i.e., he pulled her by a rope). As a result, Lopsang isn’t leading the group, as usual.
There were many factors that contributed to the May 10 disaster. Krakauer implies that one small factor may have been the presence of Sandy Pittman on the expedition. Pittman had a lot of heavy equipment, and Lopsang was forced to carry most of it, tiring him out. In general, the most talented mountaineers in the expedition were unusually exhausted, meaning that they couldn’t do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
It’s not clear why Lopsang chose to pull Pittman; she made it very clear that she didn’t want to be pulled. Later, Lopsang claimed that he did so because he confused her with a different, weaker client. But he also claimed that he knew Pittman was Pittman, and towed her because he thought she’d be the weakest member. There’s another mystery: it’s not clear why Pittman didn’t just untie herself from Lopsang. She claims she chose to remain tied to him because she didn’t want to disrespect him. It’s possible that Lopsang short-roped Pittman because he thought that doing so was the only way to get her to the summit, and therefore, the only way to bring good publicity to Scott Fischer, his idol.
Krakauer doesn’t explore Sandy Pittman’s relationship with Lopsang in very much detail; however, he gives the strong impression that there’s much more to this story than he’s able to report. Lopsang’s behavior toward Pittman seems highly resentful and disrespectful—perhaps it was a kind of “pay-back” for Lopsang being forced to carry Pittman’s heavy phone and other possessions. Also notice that Lopsang continues to be fiercely loyal to Scott Fischer—he wants to ensure that Pittman arrives safely and Fischer gets good press.