On May 10, each person in Hall’s team carries a 6.6-pound oxygen bottle, and is supposed to pick up a spare after arriving at the South Summit, a check-in point near the summit of Everest, just below the Hillary Step. The bottles can’t last much longer than 4 or 5 pm, meaning that climbing Everest that day is a race against the clock.
Krakauer establishes the urgency of timing on the day of May 10—everyone needs to be back at Camp Four before it’s too late in the day, and they need to travel efficiently, to ensure that they don’t run dangerously low on oxygen.
Hall expected that there would be Sherpas accompanying the team to the summit. However, it’s likely that the violent gale on the night of May 9 prevented Sherpas from climbing alongside the team. In any case, the absence of Sherpas on the morning of May 10 means that new ropes haven’t been placed on the mountain slope for the climbers to use. Lopsang has since claimed that, the night before, Hall and Fischer decided not to fix ropes because they received the “erroneous information” that another team had already fixed the ropes the day before.
Another factor contributing to the accident on May 10 was the absence of fresh ropes for climbing. It’s not clear how Hall and Fischer would have received false information about the ropes (and it’s impossible to know now, since both Hall and Fischer are dead). In all, it’s probable that we’ll never know exactly why the ropes weren’t prepared the night before.
Krakauer and Ang Dorje arrive at the Balcony—the steep mountain slope leading up to the summit—around 5:30 am. Krakauer and Ang Dorje could install ropes, but Hall has ordered them to stay with the group; installing ropes would involve running ahead. Furthermore, Ang Dorje is in an irritable mood, and has been complaining that he’s doing too much of Lopsang’s work. As a result, neither Ang Dorje nor Krakauer installs ropes on the Balcony.
In this passage, we can almost feel Krakauer’s guilt and shame. Krakauer’s decision not to set up ropes may have contributed to the disaster later that afternoon, slowing down the entire group (including Krakauer himself). Perhaps this is why Krakauer devotes so much time to describing why he didn’t install the ropes.
When other team members arrive at the Balcony, the guides begin to install ropes: they climb up to the top of the balcony with ropes tied to their bodies and then hold the ropes as their clients climb up. At this point, the inexperience of Yasuko Namba “nearly caused a disaster.” Yasuko is a brave woman, but she has no experience with high-altitude mountaineering. She is so singularly focused on making it to the top of the mountain that morning that she almost puts her full body weight on a rope before her partner has anchored his position. Had she done so, her partner could have fallen to his death.
So far, Krakauer hasn’t spent much time talking about Yasuko Namba; one gets the impression that he barely spoke to her. However, in this passage, he notes that she was somewhat inexperienced, and made a series of poor decisions even before the snowstorm. When Into Thin Air was published, some readers faulted Krakauer for being overly critical of Namba; some thought it was disrespectful, or even arrogant, to do so. Nevertheless, Krakauer isn’t wrong: had Namba pulled down on the rope, she would have killed someone.
As the morning goes on, there is a “traffic jam” at the Balcony. Too many clients are trying to climb up at the same time, and they all move very slowly. Another problem: Hall hasn’t officially announced a turn-around time—he’d suggested either 1 pm or 2 pm, but hasn’t committed to either one. Hutchinson, Kasischke, and Taske assume that the turnaround time is 1 pm—as a result, they decide to go back to Camp Four when it becomes clear that they’d never make it to the summit by 1. This is an incredibly difficult decision, since they’ve spent close to 100,000 dollars to climb to the top of Mount Everest. And yet, in the end, these three climbers “were among the few who made the right choice that day.”
Hall’s failure to give a clear turnaround time proved to be a serious lapse in judgment: he unintentionally confused his clients, with the result that some of them turned back at 1 pm, while others waited too long. As it turns out, Hutchinson, Kasischke, and Taske’s decision to turn back at 1 pm proved life-saving—had the three clients stayed out for longer, they could have gotten caught in the snowstorm and died.
Around 11 am, Krakauer is with three guides, Andy Harris, Neal Beidleman (working for Scott Fischer), and Anatoli Boukreev (also working for Fischer), approaching the Hillary Step, the last major obstacle before the summit of Everest. Krakauer notices that Boukreev uses no supplemental oxygen—something that doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of his clients. He also notices that Boukreev doesn’t have a backpack—which, ordinarily, would be full of first-aid supplies and clothes. Boukreev carried both oxygen and a backpack from Camp Four; however, he passed them to Beidleman before reaching the Balcony—he didn’t think he needed either.
Boukreev’s refusal to use supplemental oxygen arguably contributed to the May 10 disaster by making Boukreev weaker, colder, and more exhausted. Some critics and professional mountaineers have argued that Krakauer was being too harsh with Boukreev: even if refusing to breathe supplement oxygen turned out to be a bad move, Boukreev had his own, highly individualistic philosophy of climbing, which required him to rely on his own lungs, not an oxygen canister.
Krakauer and the guides proceed toward the summit, stopping to inhale condensed oxygen every three or four paces. After about half an hour, they reach the Hillary Step. Boukreev, the senior guide, goes first, extending a rope behind him as he walks. Although Boukreev does a good job, Krakauer worries that he’ll run out of oxygen before 2 pm. He tells Beidleman his concern, and Beidleman allows him to hurry on, rather than lagging behind to string up his rope. Krakauer moves toward the summit, feeling very lightheaded. Time seems to slow down. When he finally reaches the summit, “any impulse … toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.”
Although Krakauer makes some criticisms of Boukreev, he also acknowledges Boukreev’s talent as a mountaineer, and here he writes that Boukreev did an excellent job bringing everyone across the Hillary Step. At the end of this chapter, the narrative has finally come full circle: we’re back where we left Krakauer and his peers at the end of Chapter One. For the remainder of the book, Krakauer will describe the events and the aftermath of the May 10, 1996 Everest disaster.