Once he’s made it to the top of Everest, Krakauer doesn’t linger long; he hurries back to Camp Four, lest he run out of oxygen. He notices clouds in the distance, but doesn’t recognize them as storm clouds. Fifteen minutes later, Krakauer is back at the Hillary Step, waiting for the three teams to make their ways to the summit. Krakauer vaguely remembers seeing Lopsang and Sandy Pittman. He also sees Rob Hall, who seems disappointed that five of his eight clients haven’t made it to the summit.
Krakauer claims not to have known that the clouds in the distance were storm clouds; however, there has been controversy over this point, and there is some reason to believe that Hall and the other guides did recognize that there would be a serious storm that evening.
At this point, Krakauer is on the verge of blacking out. He shouts for Andy Harris to run ahead and bring him a fresh bottle of oxygen from the South Summit; Harris replies that there are no fresh bottles left. This makes Krakauer panic; luckily, another climber, who made the journey without oxygen before, offers Krakauer his bottle. When Krakauer returns to the South Summit, he sees that there are at least six full bottles. Oddly, Andy continues to claim that they were empty, probably because he hasn’t been getting enough oxygen himself. But Krakauer is so delirious that this possibility doesn’t occur to him.
Krakauer’s guilt is palpable in this section: he blames himself for not realizing that Andy Harris was suffering from serious oxygen deprivation, and needed medical attention. However, Krakauer’s obliviousness seems forgivable, considering that Krakauer himself was suffering from oxygen deprivation, too.
Around 3:30 pm, Krakauer leaves the South Summit, without either Harris or Boukreev (who are helping other clients). He asks Mike Groom, one of Hall’s guides, for permission to continue back to Camp Four on his own; Groom gives him permission. Krakauer reaches the Balcony, where he is amazed to find Beck Weathers, standing alone. Weathers explains that low temperatures impair his vision; thus, early in the morning, he fell behind. Rob Hall told Beck that he’d have to go back to Camp Four. However, Beck asked Hall if he could wait half an hour before turning back, in the event that his vision improved; Hall agreed, on the condition that, if Beck’s vision didn’t improve, he would continue to wait exactly where he was now standing. Krakauer begs Beck Weathers to come back with him—it’s getting dark, and it’s beginning to snow heavily. Beck says, “thanks anyway” and then insists that he’ll wait for Mike. In a day full of mistakes, Krakauer notes, it was a huge mistake not to convince Beck to climb down immediately.
In this chapter and the ones that follow, it can be difficult to follow what’s happening; this reflects the chaotic mood of the disaster. Krakauer’s encounter with Beck Weathers is bizarre—in retrospect, it seems like a huge mistake for Hall to tell Weathers to wait in the cold for so long. However, situations like Weathers’ may be inevitable in large group expeditions, where all the clients have different climbing abilities. Again, we can sense Krakauer’s guilt—he knows that he should have guided Weathers back to Camp Four instead of allowing him to wait by himself. Weather’s stubborn insistence that he’ll wait might suggest a flaw in Hall’s style of leadership: he forces his clients to obey his orders at all times—in this case, Weathers’s obedience to Hall nearly caused him to lose his life.
Krakauer proceeds to climb down the Balcony. The climb is difficult, since by this time there is a powerful storm. Halfway down, Krakauer realizes that he’s again out of oxygen. He feels a strange, warm feeling, and begins losing consciousness. Nevertheless, he managed to climb the rest of the way down, relying on “instinct and inertia.”
The passage emphasizes the importance of training and experience in mountaineering—Krakauer manages to climb down the Balcony because of instinct, which he’s built up over decades of climbing mountains.
A short time after Krakauer reaches the bottom of the Balcony, “Andy Harris suddenly appeared out of the gloom beside me.” His face is red and his eyes are bloodshot. Harris frantically asks Krakauer which way the tents are, and Krakauer points in the right direction. However, Krakauer warns Harris not to move too quickly, lest he slip in the ice. Harris ignores Krakauer, and slips almost immediately, seeming to break his leg. Amazingly, he stands back up and begins “lurching toward” Camp Four, before fading into the snow.
In this strange passage, Krakauer seems to cross paths with Andy Harris—however, as we later learn, it’s possible that this person wasn’t Harris at all, but a different climber. Krakauer is so exhausted and disoriented that he doesn’t make “Harris” wait up for him—instead, he allows Harris to stumble off into the cold.
Krakauer proceeds toward Camp Four at a slow pace, confused about why Harris didn’t wait for him. He eventually reaches Camp Four. As he draws closer, he realizes that he’s more exhausted than he’s ever felt in his life. Though he doesn’t realize it at the time, nineteen men and women are stranded up in the mountain, caught in the middle of a storm.
Because he was one of the first to make it back to the tents safely on May 10, Krakauer will suffer a serious case of survivor’s guilt—he blames himself for not hanging back to take care of the other climbers.