Around 3:40 pm on the afternoon of May 10, Scott Fischer climbs to the summit of Everest, along with Rob Hall, Makalu Gau, and two Sherpas from the Taiwanese team. Fischer is exhausted, and complains about his poor health. After beginning his descent, Fischer takes off his oxygen mask, for some reason.
Krakauer jumps back to tell the story from the perspective of Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Both Hall and Fischer suffer from serious oxygen deprivation—a harsh reminder that Everest can be deadly even for trained mountaineers.
Hall follows Fischer down the summit. While climbing down, Hall notices Doug Hansen climbing up—even though it’s more than two hours past Hall’s 2 pm cutoff time. Hansen tried to reach the summit last year, and had to turn back—a disappointment that Hansen is determined not to relive. Instead of ordering Hansen to turn back, Hall helps Hansen climb to the summit, and then they begin their descent. Soon afterwards, however, Hansen begins to run low on oxygen. Hall radios Andy Harris to ask if there’s fresh oxygen below. Harris wrongly tells Hall that there are no tanks. As a result, Hall and Hansen climb down slowly, in order to conserve their energy.
In this critical scene, Hall seems to compromises on his values, and decides to allow Hansen to continue with his ascent—a decision that will contribute to both of their deaths. However, Hall and Hansen still might have survived had it not been for Andy Harris, who mistakenly informed them that there was no oxygen waiting for them—had Hall known the truth, he might have gone ahead, picked up some oxygen, and climbed back to Hansen, speeding up the descent in the long run.
Around the same time, Scott Fischer is climbing down, feeling sick. Lopsang notices Fischer’s erratic behavior and tries to help him descend safely. Lopsang and Fischer encounter Makalu Gau, who is suffering from altitude sickness. Fischer tells Lopsang to keep descending, but Lopsang refuses; he insists that he’ll stay with Fischer and Makalu until they’re ready to climb down. However, after an hour or so, Lopsang relents and decides to climb down and get help. He makes it back to Camp Four around midnight, and immediately informs Anatoli Boukreev of Fischer and Makalu’s condition. Then, he goes into his tent and falls asleep “like a dead person.”
Oxygen deprivation renders most of the Everest climbers incapable of executing their duties. Gau, the leader of the Taiwanese expedition, is so weak that he can barely stand, much less climb. Notice that Lopsang is so fiercely devoted to Scott Fischer that he refuses to leave Fischer’s side until hours go by. And yet even Lopsang cannot resist the urge to go to sleep—like most of the other climbers, he’s so exhausted that he crashes as soon as he’s in his tent.
On the afternoon of May 10, a climber named Guy Cotter, a lifelong friend of Hall and Harris, is stationed at the Base Camp. Over the radio, he hears Hall desperately calling out for a bottle of oxygen for Doug Hansen. Alarmed, Cotter radioes Hall to descend from the mountain immediately; Hall refuses to descend without his client. Hours later, at two in the morning, Cotter receives another transmission from Hall, probably unintentional. In this transmission, Hall’s voice can be heard shouting, “Keep moving,” probably to Doug Hansen. So it’s possible that on the night after May 10, Hansen and Hall descended Everest in the middle of a storm. Later, around five in the morning, Hall radios that he’s gotten two oxygen canisters. So it’s possible that Hall managed to climb down the Hillary Step and access the oxygen canisters. However, it’s unclear if Hall had abandoned Hansen by this point, or if Hansen had died.
Hall and Hansen try their best to make a safe descent, but to no avail. Agonizingly, Hall is able to talk to his old friend Guy Cotter via the radio, but Cotter is unable to do anything to help Hall, other than listen. It’s unclear what happens to Hall and Hansen that night—at some point, however, Hansen dies, and Hall is forced to continue on without him. Hall’s seemingly generous decision to allow Hansen to climb to the summit after 2 pm turns out to be a death sentence; both he and Hansen are trapped in the middle of a storm, and end up paying with their lives.
After 5 am, Hall continues to climb down the mountain. He tries to breathe from his oxygen canister, but the breathing “ring” is frozen shut. At 9 am, he finally manages to de-ice his canister, and breathes fresh, concentrated oxygen. On the morning of May 11, Krakauer thinks that he sees Hall climbing down the mountain, and begins to cheer. However, it turns out that Krakauer is just looking at a rock sticking out of the mountain.
The technology that humans have developed for climbing Everest can never account for all of nature’s unpredictability and danger.
Around 9:30 am, Ang Dorje, the climbing sirdar, sets out with his assistant to rescue Hall. The rescue mission is extremely dangerous—Dorje is risking his own life by venturing out so late in the day, especially with the strong winds blowing. Around the same time, two Sherpas from Fischer’s team, Tashi Tshering and Ngawang Sya Kya, and a third Sherpa from the Taiwanese team, Tenzing Nuri, set out to rescue Fischer and Lopsang. Ngawang Sya Kya is Lopsang’s father. After climbing for a few hours, the three Sherpas find the incapacitated climbers that Lopsang was forced to abandon, including Gau and Fischer. Fischer is still alive, but he’s barely breathing; thus, the Sherpas make the difficult decision to leave Fischer and take Gau back to Camp Four. Meanwhile, Ang Dorje and his assistant search for Hall on the South Summit, but after the storm worsens, they decide to turn back. Hall radios Cotter, and asks if anyone is coming for him; Cotter delicately tells him that the rescue mission has turned back, and urges him to try to descend alone. Later, Cotter calls Hall’s partner, Jan Arnold, and connects her to Hall. Hall tries to sound cheerful, and tells Jan that he’ll be fine. He tells Jan, “I love you”—the last words anyone hears him speak. Twelve days later, rescuers find Hall’s body, buried in the snow.
While the May 10 disaster shows the disorganization of many Everest expeditions, it’s also a testament to the incredible bravery of some of the climbers. Many of the Sherpas risk their lives to help other mountaineers make their way back to Camp Four. But the rescue procedure is also morally challenging, because it forces the rescue team to make some difficult decisions—they choose to leave Fischer in the snow and carry Gau back to Camp Four, for example, a tough, pragmatic decision that saves Gau’s life but surely contributes to Fischer’s death. Tragically, Hall continues to use his radio to communicate with Cotter, only to be told that no help is on its way. Hall is blessed with the opportunity to say goodbye to his beloved partner, Jan Arnold, at least, and he tries to sound happy so as not to cause Arnold more grief. Hall’s death is one of the saddest points in the book—Krakauer clearly has a lot of respect for Hall, and emphasizes the bravery that he displayed up until the very end.