In the forty-odd years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the sport of mountaineering has experienced some major changes. Climbing Mount Everest has largely become a group activity, where before it was usually a challenge for a single, determined climber, or, at most, two climbers with a close bond of friendship and talent. While Krakauer spends many pages dissecting why this change occurred (see Commercialization theme), he also writes about the effects of the change. In Into Thin Air, he shows why large mountaineering groups are, perhaps surprisingly, often more dangerous and accident-prone than the solo expeditions of fifty years ago.
In 1996, Krakauer joins a large group of clients on an Everest summit climb. In Into Thin Air, this group of clients serves as a kind of case study for the problems with group climbs in general. Right away, Krakauer makes it clear that he feels no particular connection with the other people in his group. Most of the clients are wealthy doctors and businessmen (i.e., the kinds of people who can afford to take a two-month, 65,000-dollar vacation to the Himalayas), while Krakauer is a middle-class journalist who can only afford to climb Everest because Outside magazine is sending him there. Krakauer makes a few friends, but the majority of the group remains alien to him—he has no idea what to talk about with a millionaire doctor. The lack of a close connection between climbers is an inevitable problem with large climbing groups. A solo expedition to the summit of Everest, or even a two-person expedition, doesn’t have this problem. The lack of unity and psychological connection between the members of a large climbing team creates many problems. First, on a practical level, it’s potentially problematic for different clients to go at different paces. Some climbers (such as Krakauer) hurry ahead, while others climb Everest more slowly. This can be dangerous because the faster climbers waste a lot of energy waiting in the snow for the slower climbers to join them. Another major problem with large groups is that, in a moment of crisis, the team doesn’t work well together. Some clients run off on their own rather than help their peers, and some clients mistake each other for different people. In general, the 1996 Everest disaster proves how weak and fragmented large climbing groups can be. When a sudden snowstorm separated some members of the group from others, the clients didn’t work well together. Some climbed back to their tents, while others waited around for others to show up. Krakauer himself mistook a climber for a different person—something that would never have happened if he’d been climbing with only one partner. Finally, the climbers were exhausted, and didn’t have the energy to help each other, partly because they’d expended extra energy waiting for their peers.
In part, Krakauer enjoys climbing mountains solo because of the machismo and “rugged individualism” associated with doing so. Nevertheless, as he shows in Into Thin Air, there are some real, concrete benefits to climbing alone, and some major problems with climbing in a large group. Krakauer’s criticism of group climbing proved so influential that mountain guides after 1996 began taking additional precautions to ensure that the climbers knew each other well and worked well as a team, mitigating some of the dangers of group climbing. Nevertheless, large groups continue to pose a serious threat to climbers’ lives, for the same reasons Krakauer explored in Into Thin Air.
Individualism and the Group ThemeTracker
Individualism and the Group Quotes in Into Thin Air
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.