A simple question hangs over Into Thin Air: why would people travel to the other side of the world and pay lavish sums of money to risk their own lives on the slopes of Mount Everest? In general, why would anyone climb mountains for fun, when the mortality rate for mountaineers is alarmingly high? As Jon Krakauer shows, mountaineers enjoy climbing Everest not in spite of the danger, but because of it. The challenge of surviving a two-month climb to one of the deadliest points on the Earth provides a “thrill” that, for some daredevils, is well worth the time and money. However, Krakauer—who was involved in the 1996 Everest disaster, one of the most lethal mountaineering accidents in recent history—also shows that many mountaineers underestimate the danger and trauma of mountain climbing. For all the lip-service Krakauer’s teammates—and, perhaps, most mountaineers— pay to thrills and danger, they’re poorly equipped to deal with actual death and actual danger.
For the first two-thirds of his book, Krakauer studies how the culture of mountain climbing, both then and now, has glamorized danger and death. Historically, Mount Everest attracted mountain climbers to the exact extent that it was a difficult, deadly mountain. For more than a hundred years, climbers tried and failed to reach the top of Everest, sometimes dying in the attempt. But instead of discouraging future climbers, the Everest mortality rate encouraged more climbing: the danger of falling or freezing to death gave serious mountaineers an opportunity to prove their talents. In the 1970s and 80s, when climbers succeeded in mapping out a reliable, relatively safe route to the peak of Everest, some mountaineers began to say that Everest wasn’t worth the trouble—the thrill of danger had gone down. Some more recent climbers have tried to reintroduce danger to Everest by making the ascent without supplemental, compressed oxygen.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that most mountaineers are very careful in their climbing. They ascend slowly to ensure that their bodies adjust to the higher altitude, and they take good care of their gear to avoid accidents in the middle of a climb. Nevertheless, the fact remains that mountaineering is an inherently risky sport, no matter how much care the mountaineer takes. In an average year, Krakauer writes, it’s not uncommon to see ten or more fatalities on Everest. Even the amateur mountaineers on Jon Krakauer’s team (some of whom have little to no experience with mountain climbing) claim to be interested in the thrills and dangers of Mount Everest. They’re confident that they’ll survive their trip, but they’re eager to flirt with danger during their time in the Himalayas.
On Krakauer’s expedition, a sudden snowstorm separates the team, forcing some climbers to spend the entire night out in the storm. Over the course of the next few days, the team tries to stay together and rescue the separated climbers. In the end, six people die on Krakauer’s Everest climb. In the aftermath of the accident, Krakauer, as well as many of the other climbers, goes through depression, survivor’s guilt, and trauma. The aftermath of the 1996 Everest disaster suggests that despite the thrill of risk-taking that most mountaineers enjoy, the experience of actual danger, and death, is almost unbearable. In general, Krakauer suggests that many mountain climbers want to experience a “taste” of danger, but not too much.
Danger and Mortality ThemeTracker
Danger and Mortality Quotes in Into Thin Air
Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was still washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres dallied to memorialize their arrival at the apex of the planet, unfurling flags and snapping photos, using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter.
Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.
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.
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.
"If you get killed," she argued with a mix of despair and anger, "it's not just you who'll pay the price. I'll have to pay, too, you know, for the rest of my life. Doesn't that matter to you?"
"I'm not going to get killed," I answered. "Don't be melodramatic."
When Fischer questioned Ngawang, he admitted that he'd been feeling weak, groggy, and short of breath for more than two days, so Fischer directed him to descend to Base Camp immediately. But there is an element of machismo in the Sherpa culture that makes many men extremely reluctant to acknowledge physical infirmities. Sherpas aren't supposed to get altitude illness, especially those from Rolwaling, a region famous for its powerful climbers. Those who do become sick and openly acknowledge it, moreover, will often be blacklisted from future employment on expeditions.
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.
"To turn around that close to the summit," Hall mused with a shake of his head on May 6 as Kropp plodded past Camp Two on his way down the mountain. "That showed incredibly good judgment on young Göran's part. I'm impressed—considerably more impressed, actually, than if he'd continued climbing and made the top."
"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."
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.
Now, as Beidleman clung precariously to the rock 100 feet above the clients, the overly eager Yasuko clamped her jumar to the dangling rope before the guide had anchored his end of it. As she was about to put her full body weight on the rope—which would have pulled Beidleman off—Mike Groom intervened in the nick of time and gently scolded her for being so impatient.
Beck was nearly persuaded to descend with me when I made the mistake of mentioning that Mike Groom was on his way down with Yasuko, a few minutes behind me. In a day of many mistakes, this would turn out to be one of the larger ones.
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.
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.
Was I really so debilitated that I had stared into the face of a near stranger and mistaken him for a friend with whom I'd spent the previous six weeks? And if Andy had never arrived at Camp Four after reaching the summit, what in the name of God had happened to him?
Two full bottles were waiting for them at the South Summit; if Hall had known this he could have retrieved the gas fairly quickly and then climbed back up to give Hansen a fresh tank, But Andy Harris, still at the oxygen cache, in the throes of his hypoxic dementia, overheard these radio calls and broke in to tell Hall—incorrectly, just as he'd told Mike Groom and me—that all the bottles at the South Summit were empty,
"I'm looking forward to making you completely better when you come home," said Arnold. "I just know you're going to be rescued. Don't feel that you're alone. I'm sending all my positive energy your way!"
Before signing off, Hall told his wife, "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."
There was only one choice, however difficult: let nature take its inevitable course with Beck and Yasuko, and save the group's resources for those who could actually be helped. It was a classic act of triage. When Hutchinson returned to camp he was on the verge of tears and looked like a ghost.
Upon first finding Beck in the tent, I was so shocked by his hideous condition—and by the unforgivable way that we'd let him down yet again—I nearly broke into tears. "Everything's going to be O.K.," I lied, choking back my sobs as I pulled the sleeping bags over him, zipped the tent doors shut, and tried to re-erect the damaged shelter. "Don't worry, pal. Everything's under control now."
Before this year, however, Hall had had uncommonly good luck with the weather, and it might have skewed his judgment. "Season after season," confirmed David Breashears, who has been on more than a dozen Himalayan expeditions and has himself climbed Everest three times, "Rob had brilliant weather on summit day. He'd never been caught by a storm high on the mountain." In fact, the gale of May 10, though violent, was nothing extraordinary; it was a fairly typical Everest squall. If it had hit two hours later, it's likely that nobody would have died. Conversely, if it had arrived even one hour earlier, the storm could easily have killed eighteen or twenty climbers—me among them.
For Neal Beidleman's part, he helped save the lives of five clients by guiding them down the mountain, yet he remains haunted by a death he was unable to prevent, of a client who wasn't on his team and thus wasn't even officially his responsibility.