Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Krakauer and the mountaineering team march toward Everest along the Dudh Kosi, a large river. As Krakauer walks, he notes that the landscape used to be beautiful wilderness—and while it remains beautiful, it’s been converted into farmland. The team arrives at the Khumba Lodge, located at the edge of a small Sherpa town near Everest. (The Sherpas are an ethnic group that predominately live in the Himalayas.) At the lodge, Krakauer meets Mike Groom, the third guide for the expedition. Groom had his toes amputated from frostbite in the late 1980s, but he’s continued to climb ever since.
There are two important points to glean from this passage. First, the “wilderness” surrounding Mount Everest has been developed and converted into “workable land,” perhaps suggesting the commercialization of the area. Second, notice that Mike Groom—and the other guides, too—seems much more intense and driven than his clients: clearly he loves mountain climbing, or he would have given it up after losing his toes.
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The team eats dinner, and Krakauer notices that Hutchinson, Taske, and Weathers, the three doctors in the group, dominate the conversation. Taske and Weathers are both funny, though Weathers irritates Krakauer by talking too much about conservative politics. Krakauer also notices a group of American climbers demanding soda and burgers from the lodge’s Sherpa owner. The climbers behave as if the owner doesn’t speak fluent English, when she actually does.
Krakauer becomes a little irritated with some of his teammates, whom he feels are a sometimes oblivious and self-centered (even if they’re funny). Krakauer also begins to notice the overall “Americanization” of the Himalayas: Everest tourism has become so popular that clueless, disrespectful Westerners have come to dominate the area.
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The Sherpas are a small ethnic group, numbering no more than 20,000 people. They’re mountain people, Buddhists, and, because they live at high altitudes, are often superb climbers. Many Sherpas work in mountaineering, since it’s one of the most lucrative forms of business in Nepal. However, a disproportionate number of Sherpas also die on climbing expeditions. Many have criticized what they see as the destruction of Sherpa culture associated with the rise of mountaineering in Nepal: the trees of Nepalese valleys have been cut down to make way for lodges and hotels, and tourism has flooded Sherpa society with crass American culture. To be fair, tourism has also introduced better schools and hospitals to the Sherpa community, and Krakauer senses that it’s a little patronizing for Americans to “lament the loss of the good old days” of Sherpa society.
Krakauer is measured in his analysis of the Sherpa population. On one hand, it’s tragic that Everest tourism has Westernized the Himalayan region, because this has greatly changed Sherpa culture. As we saw in the previous passage, tourists often treat Sherpas as second-class people, and even guides and professional climbers seem to mirror this attitude (perhaps explaining why a disproportionate number of Sherpas die on expeditions—they’re not paying clients). However, Krakauer admits that tourism has also brought many opportunities to the Sherpas, meaning that Everest tourism hasn’t been harmful across the board.
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On April 3, the team has adjusted to the altitude, meaning that they’re ready to proceed. Before doing so, however, Krakauer visits a Buddhist monastery, where the head monk of Nepal, the rimpoche, has just finished a three-month vow of silence. A Sherpa bows to Krakauer and leads him to the main room of the monastery, where he shows Krakauer to “his Holiness” (the rimpoche). However, as Krakauer, intimidated, bows to the rimpoche, he notices some of the photographs on the wall, showing the rimpoche with Richard Gere and Steven Seagal.
Krakauer’s encounter with the rimpoche is an apt symbol for the way that Westernization has changed Himalayan culture. The influx of Westerners to the Himalayas has changed many aspects of culture there—even the Buddhist religion. One might think that someone as pure and holy as the rimpoche would remain aloof from this—and yet, apparently, he’s buddies with Gere and Seagal.
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The first six days of the climb are full of beautiful vistas, and Krakauer feels that he’s in a dream. Krakauer enjoys talking to Doug Hansen and Andy Harris. Andy explains that, while he’d never been to Everest before, he’s climbed other Himalayan peaks. He’s married to a beautiful woman named Fiona McPherson, who runs a Himalayan medical clinic. Thanks largely to the clinic’s efforts, the mortality rate for Everest climbers has gone down considerably. Rob Hall has spent a lot of time speaking with clinic workers about potential accidents. He believes that the most serious accidents take place on the north side of the mountain (which Hall’s team won’t be climbing).
At this point in the climb, the terrain is unchallenging, and Krakauer is free to appreciate the beauty of the Himalayas. However, as we’ll see, the climb is about to get much more difficult, emphasizing the point that Everest’s beauty is inseparable from its danger and capriciousness. In this passage, Krakauer also gives us some important information about Andy Harris’s life, and about more of the dangers of climbing—just a few weeks after this scene, Harris will die.
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Now 16,000 feet above sea level, the team is adjusting to the high altitude. The trail leads them past yak drivers and small villages to another small lodge in the town of Lobuje. The lodge is filthy, and Krakauer develops a bad cough from inhaling acrid smoke. On April 7, Krakauer learns that Tenzing, a Sherpa herder working for Hall, has fallen and seriously injured himself, meaning that the expedition will be delayed a few days. Krakauer notes that Hall is unusually respectful to Sherpas and sternly orders his team to pay respect to Sherpa guides. Hall is critical of other mountain guides for being too careless with the Sherpa staff—often, team leaders order Sherpa people to climb high without proper training, perhaps explaining why a disproportionate number of Sherpi guides die. Only a few months ago, a Sherpa youth named Kami Rita fell to his death because he hadn’t used the usual ropes to climb a difficult peak.
The reason that Krakauer and the other members of the expedition need to proceed slowly is that their bodies need time to adjust to the high altitude of Mount Everest. At high altitude, the air is thinner, meaning that there’s less oxygen. Humans can survive at high altitude, but their bodies need time to adapt to the changing environment. Notice, also, that Hall is unique among climbers in paying close attention to his Sherpa guides and giving them a lot of respect. While the commercialization of Everest has created a system in which Sherpas, as non-clients, are too-often treated as second-class people, Hall has genuine respect for his Sherpa employees.
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