Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Neal Beidleman reaches the summit around 1:25 pm with his client, Martin Adams. There, they find Andy Harris and Anatoli Boukreev (Krakauer departed eight minutes previously). Beidleman is an aerospace engineer, as well as one of the strongest climbers in the group; however, he’s conscious of being “third in the pecking order,” after Fischer and Boukreev.
Beidleman hasn’t been an important character in the book up to this point, but he becomes one of the key heroes of the May 10, 1996 disaster, saving multiple lives.
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The three guides—Fischer, Boukreev, and Beidleman—know that they need to tell their clients to come down before they reached the top of the mountain; it’s getting later in the day, and it isn’t safe to continue climbing. Even though Fischer has said that he’ll tell his clients to climb down, he never does; nor, it would seem, does Hall. Instead, the clients continue ascending. Sandy Pittman arrives at the top of Everest at 2:10, followed by many of the other clients. Doug Hansen doesn’t make it to the summit until 4 pm.
The passage conveys the disorganization inherent to many large group expeditions; the three guides aren’t sure how to urge their clients to descend from the mountain quickly, and as a result, the descending process is slow and arduous, and during this time, a dangerous storm arrives.
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Krakauer flashes back to the previous day, May 9. That afternoon, Fischer began to feel ill, but didn’t tell anyone. He was exhausted from the non-stop climbing, but, because he was a strong, proud person, he didn’t tell anyone how he was feeling. Fischer also declined to tell his clients that he had a cyst in his liver, which gave him bouts of acute physical distress.
The culture of machismo is a serious obstacle to successful mountaineering, as we’ve already seen with Ngawang. Much like Ngawang, Fischer refuses to admit that he’s suffering from pain and exhaustion, and proceeds with his climb, endangering his life.
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The morning of May 10, Fischer gets up early and begins climbing toward the summit. Around 1 pm, on the way up, he crosses paths with Martin Adams and Anatoli Boukreev, as well as Krakauer and Andy Harris. Although Fischer is visibly exhausted and sickly-looking, nobody thinks that he’s in trouble.
Another major problem with large expeditions: the group members don’t feel confortable enough to inquire about each other’s health. Thus, nobody asks Fischer how he’s feeling, and Fischer proceeds with his climb.
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By 3:10 pm on May 10, Fischer still hasn’t made it to the summit. Beidleman, who is waiting for Fischer to join him, is getting worried. Around the same time, Pittman begins to suffer from severe altitude sickness; she nearly passes out. Beidleman orders a client to give Pittman her oxygen tank; with the extra oxygen, Pittman finds the strength to resume the descent.
Even before the storm hits, the expeditions are becoming increasingly disorganized: the differing ability levels of the different clients, combined with the exhaustion of the guides, makes the entire group extremely at-risk.
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Around 5 pm on May 10, Mike Groom and Yasuko Namba arrive at the Balcony; by this time, there is a heavy storm. Groom notices Martin Adams climbing down in the wrong direction (toward Tibet). Groom realizes that Adams is suffering from oxygen deprivation, and points Adams in the direction of the tents. Then, Groom notices Beck, still standing by the Balcony, waiting for Mike. Groom guides Beck toward the tents, accompanied by some of Fischer’s other clients. As Groom guides the clients back to the tents, Namba’s oxygen runs out; she falls to the ground, and refuses to keep moving. As Groom tries to convince Namba to keep moving, Neal Beidleman shows up and begins “dragging Namba down toward Camp Four.” By this time it is 6:45 pm, and nearly dark. In the heavy storm, visibility is less than twenty feet. Ordinarily, Beidleman and Groom would be less than fifteen minutes from Camp Four; however, in the storm, it’s almost impossible for them to reach their destination. For two hours, Beidleman, Groom, and the seven clients “staggered blindly around in the storm.” The group is terrified—they’ve run out of oxygen, and it’s getting colder.
Many of the other clients suffer from oxygen deprivation, as evidence by Martin Adams’ decision to descend in the wrong direction. Namba’s collapse marks the beginning of a serious crisis for the group—Groom and Beidleman refuse to continue without Namba, and as a result, the other clients and guides have to slow down to take care of Namba, setting off a chain reaction that endangers many other lives. The point isn’t that Yasuko Namba is to blame for the May 10 disaster (as some critics believed Krakauer was implying). Rather, Krakauer’s point is that group expeditions to Everest are inherently going to run into problems like those he describes in this chapter. Hall and Fischer’s misfortune was to get caught in an especially dangerous snowstorm at a time when their groups were especially disorganized.
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Back at Camp Four, Krakauer is sitting in his tent, very cold. Stuart Hutchinson, who’s been back since 2 pm, tells Krakauer to come outside and bang pots and pans to make enough noise for the rest of the group to find its way back; however, Krakauer is too deliriously tired to respond. Hutchinson goes outside to bang the pots and pans; however, he’s smart enough not to wander beyond the camp.
Stuart Hutchinson wisely makes noise in the hopes that he’ll be able to signal the position of Camp Four to the other climbers. In reality, though, Hutchinson’s actions accomplish very little—the howling winds of the storm drown out all other sound.
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While Hutchinson beats pots and pans, Beidleman tries to remain vigilant. Around midnight, the storm clears up, and Klev Schoening, one of the clients, convinces Beidleman that he knows where the tents are. Beidleman assembles those who can walk (not including Namba or Weathers), and staggers off toward Camp Four, knowing that if he were to wait for everyone to walk with him, they’d all freeze. Beidleman leads the clients back to Camp Four, where he finds Anatoli Boukreev.
At this point in the emergency, the guides are forced to be pragmatic. While it would be ideal to bring everyone back to Camp Four together, Beidleman senses that it’ll be impossible to do so. Instead, Beidleman tries to take a few people back and leave the others behind. Beidleman’s decision is exceptionally tough, since it involves leaving two people alone in a storm—but it probably saves lives in the end.
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That afternoon, Anatoli Boukreev had behaved extremely unusually for a professional guide; he climbed far ahead of his clients instead of helping them. He was back at Camp Four by 2 pm, drinking tea. One client claims that Boukreev “cut and ran” instead of staying to help. Boukreev told Scott Fischer that he’d be going down with Martin Adams, but in fact didn’t descend the summit with anyone. Boukreev later claims that he thought he’d be more useful if he went back to Camp Four and rested, rather than waiting out in the snow. However, Boukreev’s susceptibility to the cold was greatly increased by his decision not to use supplemental oxygen.
Krakauer reiterates some of the criticisms of Boukreev he made in earlier chapters. A rugged individualist working for a guided expedition, Boukreev refuses to hang back to take care of the other climbers, and he refuses to use supplemental oxygen, either. Boukreev’s claim that he returned to the camp to rest up, in order to better rescue the clients later, has been the subject of much controversy. Some climbers insist that Boukreev was right all along—he rested, and found the energy to save some clients later. Others argue that Boukreev wasn’t really looking out for his clients at all at this point.
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On the evening of May 10, Anatoli Boukreev sets out by himself to try to find the clients that Beidleman had left (including Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers). Boukreev tries to organize a team, but finds that the other clients are extremely disoriented. Bravely, Boukreev decides to go out into the storm alone. However, he is unable to find anyone. He returns to camp, gets better information from Beidleman about the location of the climbers, and then goes out into the storm again. This time, he finds some of the lost clients, including Weathers and Sandy Pittman. Boukreev can only bring the clients back one-by-one; while Boukreev is bringing one client back, heavy winds push Beck into the darkness, away from the other clients, and Boukreev is unable to find him again.
Although Boukreev was arguably negligent earlier in the day on May 10, he acts with remarkable bravery in the evening (something that even Krakauer admits). Boukreev risks his life by venturing out into the snowstorm, finding some of the clients, and bringing them back to safety. Viewed in slightly different ways, Boukreev could be considered the hero or the villain of the May 10 disaster—one could argue that he saved lives, or that he was forced to save the very lives he had endangered already.
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Boukreev continues to evacuate clients one-by-one. He succeeds in bringing Sandy Pittman back to Camp Four, but not Yasuko Namba. When Boukreev realizes that Namba is still out there, he cries for nearly an hour.
In spite of his criticisms, Krakauer respects Boukreev immensely; he recognizes that Boukreev is a sincerely motivated climber who wants to help his clients, and who blames himself for failing to rescue Namba. In a way, Krakauer has more in common with Boukreev than he does with the other climbers—they’re both quiet, ruggedly individualistic, fast-paced, and prone to guilt.
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