Since 1852, human beings have known that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, and for almost as long, explorers and daredevils have been trying to climb it. In the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to climb to the summit of Everest. The half-century since Hillary and Norgay’s achievement has seen a lot of interest in mountaineering. Jon Krakauer, the author of the book, grew up worshipping Hillary, Norgay, and other mountaineers, and since his late teens, he’s been an accomplished mountain climber. Krakauer notes that, in recent decades, Everest has inspired a surprising amount of tourism: expert climbers lead guided expeditions up to the summit, charging their clients huge sums of money. In 1996, Krakauer made an arrangement with Outside magazine to write a feature article on the growing commercialization of Everest mountaineering. Into Thin Air is about Krakauer’s expedition to climb Everest, which resulted in a notorious catastrophe.
In March of 1996, Krakauer flies to Kathmandu, where he meets his guide, Rob Hall. Hall is a famous mountaineer, known for being extremely cautious and orderly with his clients. Krakauer meets some of the other people who’ll be climbing Everest with Hall, including Beck Weathers and Peter Hutchinson, both doctors, Yasuko Namba, a Japanese personnel director, and Doug Hansen, a postal worker. Krakauer gets along fairly well with his teammates, but he feels strangely disconnected from them, in part because most of them are exceedingly wealthy, and have had little actual experience climbing mountains. One notable exception is Doug Hansen, who has succeeded in paying the $65,000 permit to climb Everest with the help of a local elementary school. The previous year, Hansen attempted to climb Everest with Hall, but was forced to turn back due to an impending storm. This year, Hansen is determined to reach the summit.
Hall’s team also includes many Sherpa mountaineers. The Sherpa are a small ethnic group native to the Himalayas. Because most Sherpas grow up in high altitude, they’re natural climbers. Krakauer notes that Everest tourism has ruined some Sherpa communities and replaced them with hotels and lodges. He also points out that Sherpas, in spite of their skill at climbing, are disproportionately likely to die while climbing Everest. This is probably because many Sherpas work for climbing expeditions, and aren’t given the same high treatment as paying clients.
There are many other teams climbing Everest around the same time as Hall’s team. Scott Fischer, Hall’s friendly rival in the mountaineering business, is leading his own team to the summit, including a celebrity client, Sandy Hill Pittman, a well-known socialite. Fischer has a reputation for being more laid-back and easygoing than Hall. There is a Taiwanese team, led by a man named Makalu Gau; the previous year, the Taiwanese team had a serious accident while climbing Mount McKinley, resulting in the death of a team member. There is also a South African team, headed by an unlikeable man named Ian Woodall. Woodall initially assembled an impressive, diverse team of climbers; however, his boorishness and argumentativeness caused most of the climbers to resign, leaving Woodall with second-rate climbers. Finally, there is an IMAX team making a movie about Mount Everest; the team is led by David Breshears, an old friend of Krakauer’s. Of these teams, Hall’s is by far the most prepared and organized—in other words, the team one would least expect to suffer a serious accident.
Hall’s team proceeds with the expedition. They arrive at a Base Camp at the bottom of Everest, and for the next few weeks, they undergo a series of exercises designed to adjust their bodies to the rising elevation of the mountain. Hall slowly leads his team from Base Camp to Camp One, which is higher up, and then to Camps Two and Three. Along the way, Krakauer develops friendships with Doug Hansen, as well as Andy Harris, a likeable young guide. He also begins to respect his teammates more and more: although Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba are clearly amateurs, they’re sincere, motivated people. On the way up the mountain, Krakauer and his peers suffer from frequent bouts of nausea, dizziness, and dehydration, brought about by altitude sickness as well as the physical exertion of climbing. Krakauer has always loved the feeling of independence and freedom that mountaineering affords him, but he finds it difficult to savor the thrill of climbing Everest, because he’s part of a big group.
On Scott Fischer’s team, one of Fischer’s hired guides, Anatoli Boukreev, proves himself to be a highly talented, but strangely neglectful guide. Although it’s his job to help the weaker climbers up the mountain, Boukreev climbs ahead of everyone else, claiming that if the clients need his help that badly, they shouldn’t be on Everest at all. As a result of Boukreev’s negligence, Fischer has to work twice as hard, and, in spite of his vast experience as a climber, begins to suffer from exhaustion and altitude sickness.
By the beginning of May, Fischer and Hall’s teams, as well as the Taiwanese team, have reached Camp Four, very close to the summit of Everest. Hall announces that he and Fischer will be climbing to the summit on May 10, but unbeknownst to either of them, the Taiwanese team is planning on climbing up on the 10th as well. In preparation for the final ascent, Hall encourages his clients to breathe condensed oxygen from special canisters; this will strengthen their bodies and protect them from hypothermia and other altitude-related problems. Krakauer notices that Boukreev doesn’t use supplemental oxygen, perhaps because of his machismo and self-confidence, neither of which is uncommon among professional mountaineers.
On May 10, the teams set out for the summit. Krakauer makes it to the summit of Everest before 2 pm, the cutoff time Hall has suggested (but not confirmed) for his team; however, he runs low on oxygen, and has to turn back almost immediately. Meanwhile, other members of the team, including Hutchinson, decide to turn back earlier rather than risk being on the summit past 2 pm. Shortly after 2 pm, storm clouds appear on the horizon, and soon, there’s a massive snowstorm on the summit of Everest. Krakauer is able to make it back to Camp Four in spite of the storm. On the way back to the tent, he passes someone who he believes to be Andy Harris, and points him in the direction of the tents, not realizing that this person is suffering from severe oxygen deprivation, and can barely function. When Krakauer reaches the tent, he falls sound asleep.
Krakauer doesn’t realize it at the time, but most of the other members of his team and Fischer’s team have ben caught in a dangerous snowstorm. In part because Hall didn’t confirm a cut-off time, in part because Fischer is easygoing with his clients, and in part because of the overall stress and confusion brought on by oxygen deprivation, the climbers become highly disorganized. Scott Fischer, exhausted and oxygen-deprived, blunders off in the wrong direction, and many of Hall’s clients, including Beck Weathers, Yasuko Namba, and Doug Hansen—as well as Rob Hall himself—become lost in the storm.
At this point, it becomes impossible to know for sure what happens to some of Krakauer’s peers and teammates. Anatoli Boukreev, who, as before, has climbed ahead of his clients and made it back to Camp Four, bravely goes out into the storm to search for stranded clients, along with Neal Beidleman, a guide for Scott Fischer’s team. Beidleman and Boukreev succeed in saving several lives, including Makalu Gau’s. Boukreev also finds the dead body of Scott Fischer, which he is forced to leave in the snow.
In the absence of Rob Hall, the de facto leader of Hall’s team becomes Peter Hutchinson. Hutchinson organizes the remaining members of the team into a search party, and they succeed in finding the bodies of Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers. However, when they find Namba and Weathers, barely alive, the group makes the agonizing decision to leave them in the snow, since they’re almost certainly going to die, and the group needs to conserve its resources.
Back at Camp Four, Hutchinson and the others radio for help. Base Camp sends a team of Sherpas up to Camp Four to help, and the group begins a descent. As the group is about to descend, Beck Weathers appears outside of Camp Four. Despite being left for dead, Weathers miraculously found the strength to get up and walk back to camp. Though Krakauer wants to stay at Camp Four to take care of Weathers, Hutchinson convinces him that he needs to begin the descent or risk dying himself.
The team descends, and, once the storm dies down, helicopters arrive to take Gau and Beck Weathers to the hospital. Many climbers have died in the storm, including Yasuko Namba, Scott Fischer, Doug Hansen, Andy Harris, and Rob Hall. Krakauer is overcome with guilt: if he hadn’t gone to sleep when he reached Camp Four, he could have saved the lives of Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba. Krakauer publishes his article on the Everest climb for Outside magazine, and immediately becomes the target of much vitriol from the deceased climbers’ family members. He continues to struggle with survivor’s guilt, and finds it difficult to open up with other people about his feelings. He meets with Neal Beidleman, one of the guides for Scott Fischer’s team, and they both admit that they’re suffering from guilt for the death of Yasuko Namba.