Into Thin Air


Jon Krakauer

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As Krakauer sees it, there are two ways to climb a mountain: 1) by oneself, with no one else’s help; or 2) in a tour group, as part of a large commercial business (which charges its clients many tens of thousands of dollars). While both forms of mountaineering can be found on Mount Everest, Krakauer argues that it’s getting increasingly difficult to practice the first. The Nepalese government now requires all independent Everest climbers to pay a 65,000-dollar permit and join a long waiting list before climbing. It’s significantly easier for potential climbers to work through an established business than it is for them to negotiate directly with the Nepalese government. And for Krakauer, the increasing role that large businesses play in mountain climbing—in other words, the increasing commercialization of the activity—is destroying many of the most pleasurable aspects of the Everest experience.

First, and most literally, commercialization has destroyed some of the Sherpas’ homeland. To accommodate high-paying customers, most of them Americans, businesses have cut down trees and cleared fields to build lodges and hotels. With decreasing space and natural resources, many Sherpas have no choice but to work at the hotels owned by tourism companies, or work as climbers for the same companies. This brings up a second major way that commercialization has hurt Sherpa culture: it establishes an unequal relationship between wealthy, predominately Western business clients and less financially secure, predominately Sherpa employees. During his time on Everest, Krakauer is struck by the dismissive way that climbers and tourists treat their Sherpa helpers. Though the Sherpas are critical to the success of guided expeditions to the summit of Everest, most clients treat them as anonymous servants. In general, many of the guides and expedition leaders give preferential treatment to clients, since they’ve paid large sums of money to be there. However, Krakauer also stresses that it would be naïve to argue that things were entirely better for Sherpas in “the good old days,” before the onset of commercialization. Tourism businesses have lowered the unemployment rate and increased the average wealth of Sherpa households by providing consistent, well-paying jobs. Furthermore, as Krakauer points out, it would be rather condescending, even paternalistic, to claim that Sherpa culture was superior before it was “corrupted” by big business. The crass Americanization of Sherpa culture is a legitimate tragedy, and represents one of Krakauer’s major points of contention with commercialization; nevertheless, it hasn’t been tragic across the board.

The other form of commercialization that Krakauer discusses at length is the monetization of mountain climbing itself—the system whereby only a select few have the funds to pay for an Everest climb. One reason this form of commercialization is so harmful is that it creates the impression that money alone (rather than training, experience, or real dedication) can “buy” an Everest climb. Right away, Krakauer notes that most of his teammates on Everest have had very little recent experience climbing mountains—they’re naively confident that they’ll have no trouble making it to the summit, since they’ve paid for the best guides and the best equipment. The false confidence and relative inexperience of the team is partly the cause of the disaster of May 10, 1996, when six of Krakauer’s peers die, several of them because they’re relatively inexperienced climbers. A similar problem with the monetization of mountaineering is that it pushes the clients to “get their money’s worth”—after paying so much money to visit Everest, the clients refuse to turn back early, even when conditions are too dangerous to proceed. On the afternoon of May 10, many of Krakauer’s peers proceed all the way to the summit of Everest, even though they’ve been told to turn back at or before 2 pm; as Krakauer says, they refuse to drop 65,000 dollars on a trip that takes them to 500 feet below the summit of Everest. Ignoring bad weather for the glory of the summit is already a serious problem for Everest climbers, but Krakauer shows how money makes this problem even worse. In general, he strongly condemns the commercialization of Everest tourism, showing how, on the afternoon of May 10, it created a serious disaster.

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Commercialization Quotes in Into Thin Air

Below you will find the important quotes in Into Thin Air related to the theme of Commercialization.
Chapter 3 Quotes

By this time Hall was a full-time professional climber. Like most of his peers, he sought funding from corporate sponsors to pay for his expensive Himalayan expeditions. And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Rob Hall
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

I wasn't sure what to make of my fellow clients. In outlook and experience they were nothing like the hard-core climbers with whom I usually went into the mountains. But they seemed like nice, decent folks, and there wasn't a certifiable asshole in the entire group—at least not one who was showing his true colors at this early stage of the proceedings. Nevertheless, I didn't have much in common with any of my teammates except Doug.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

The transformation of the Khumbu culture is certainly not all for the best, but I didn't hear many Sherpas bemoaning the changes. Hard currency from trekkers and climbers, as well as grants from international relief organizations supported by trekkers and climbers, have funded schools and medical clinics, reduced infant mortality, built footbridges, and brought hydroelectric power to Namche and other villages. It seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

This was Doug's second shot at Everest with Hall. The year before, Rob had forced him and three other clients to turn back just 330 feet below the top because the hour was late and the summit ridge was buried beneath a mound of deep, unstable snow. "The summit looked sooooo close," Doug recalled with a painful laugh. "Believe me, there hasn't been a day since that I haven't thought about it." He'd been talked into returning this year by Hall, who felt sorry that Hansen had been denied the summit and had significantly discounted Hansen's fee to entice him to give it another try.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen (speaker), Rob Hall
Related Symbols: Mount Everest
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

“Woodall had no interest in the birth of a new South Africa. He took the dreams of the entire nation and utilized them for his own selfish purposes. Deciding to leave the expedition was the hardest decision of my life.”

Related Characters: Edmund February (speaker), Ian Woodall
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

They should have flown him out yesterday morning when they had a chance. If it had been one of Scott's clients who was this sick, instead of a Sherpa, I don't think he would have been treated so haphazardly.

Related Characters: Rob Hall (speaker), Scott Fischer, Ngawang Topchke
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Ian Woodall, however, declared that the South Africans would go to the top whenever they damn well pleased, probably on May 10, and anyone who didn't like it could bugger off.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Ian Woodall
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

"If client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide," Boukreev told me, "this client should not be on Everest. Otherwise there can be big problems up high."

Related Characters: Anatoli Boukreev (speaker), Jon Krakauer
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different: I sincerely hoped Doug got to the top, for instance, yet I would do everything in my power to keep pushing on if he turned around.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Doug Hansen
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

Fischer hid the fact from everyone, as well, that he may have been clinically ill during the summit attempt. In 1984, during an expedition to Nepal's Annapuma massif, he'd picked up a gastrointestinal parasite, Entamoeba histolytica, which he was unable to entirely purge from his body over the years that followed. The bug emerged from dormancy on an irregular basis, producing bouts of acute physical distress and leaving a cyst on his liver. Insisting it was nothing to worry about, Fischer mentioned the ailment to few people at Base Camp.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Scott Fischer
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Boukreev's susceptibility to the cold was doubtless greatly exacerbated by the fact that he wasn't using supplemental oxygen; in the absence of gas he simply couldn't stop to wait for slow clients on the summit ridge without courting frostbite and hypothermia.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Anatoli Boukreev
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis: