In the final chapters of Into Thin Air, it becomes clear that guilt is one of the key themes of the book. On the afternoon of May 10, 1996, Jon Krakauer makes it back to his tent, having climbed to the summit of Mount Everest; exhausted, he falls into a deep sleep. Unbeknownst to Krakauer at the time, however, many of his teammates get caught in the middle of a deadly snowstorm. One of these teammates, a Japanese woman named Yasuko Namba, stumbles within 500 feet of Krakauer’s tent, but later freezes to death. The idea that he could have emerged from his tent and saved some of his peers’ lives proves almost unbearable for Krakauer. In many ways, Into Thin Air represents Krakauer’s attempt to come to terms with his own grief and guilt concerning the May 10 disaster.
After the events of May 10, 1996, Krakauer seems to suffer from a psychological affliction known as survivor’s guilt. Sometimes, when people survive a massive tragedy, they feel an irrational sense of shame and responsibility to the deceased. In his book, Krakauer admits that he partly blames himself for the deaths of Yasuko Namba and other teammates. Sometimes, he hates himself for returning to his tent and falling asleep, rather than waiting for other people to arrive. As Krakauer himself acknowledges, this sense of guilt is largely irrational: there is no particular reason why Krakauer should have searched for Namba—he had no idea that she was missing or that there was a dangerous storm. Neal Beidleman, a mountain guide who saved five lives on Krakauer’s expedition, feels a similar sense of survivor’s guilt—he also blames himself for not saving the life of Yasuko Namba. Beidleman’s guilt demonstrates the basic irrationality of survivor’s guilt: by any sane measure, Beidleman should be proud of saving five lives, not guilty for failing to save a sixth. Yet Beidleman, as well as Krakauer, continues to suffer from survivor’s guilt—the mind’s irrational but uncontrollable response to trauma.
It’s been suggested that Into Thin Air—the book itself—represents Krakauer’s attempt to cope with survivor’s guilt. While Krakauer mostly refrains from blaming anyone for the May 10 disaster, he criticizes a guide named Anatoli Boukreev on more than one occasion. Boukreev was a highly experienced mountaineer, but instead of climbing slowly and helping his clients, he climbed ahead of everyone else. As a result, Boukreev was asleep in his tent on the evening of May 10, when he arguably should have been helping his clients find their way back. Krakauer implies that Boukreev’s behavior may have partly caused the deaths of several clients. Krakauer’s accusations have been hotly disputed, in and out of the world of professional mountaineering. Some experts have argued that Krakauer is right to criticize Boukreev, while others insist that Boukreev’s decision to climb back to his tent gave him the energy to go back into the snow later that night and save the lives of several other clients. (Since writing Into Thin Air, Krakauer has praised Boukreev for his heroism on the night of May 10.) Some have suggested that Krakauer irrationally blames Boukreev in order to mitigate his own sense of guilt. In a lot of ways, Boukreev is the character who most resembles Krakauer: quiet, talented, and individualistic, he climbs back to the tents early on May 10, rather than staying behind. Thus, Krakauer’s criticism could be a psychological defense mechanism, transferring his guilt and self-hatred to another person. However, since the events of 1996, Krakauer has tried to “work through” his guilt by talking to therapists, communicating with other climbers, and generally learning from his and Boukreev’s mistakes.
Guilt Quotes in Into Thin Air
"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."
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.
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,
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.