Another important theme of Into Thin Air is the natural world. Climbers choose to ascend mountains, not just because of the inherent danger of doing so (see above), but also because of the mountains’ sublime beauty and majesty—qualities that civilization cannot rival. The characters in the book believe that they can use their training, technology, and intelligence to “conquer” Everest. However, the 1996 Everest disaster provides them an unforgettable reminder of nature’s awesome power—power that human beings can never entirely understand or control.
As strange as it may sound, the natural world (and Mount Everest in particular) is a character in the book, with recognizable personality traits, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies. From the beginning, Krakauer stresses the beauty of the natural world: he offers long, vivid descriptions of Mount Everest’s vistas, and the sobering feeling of staring up at Everest’s awesome height. Mount Everest represents a unique kind of beauty: still, calm, and more than a little intimidating. But there’s a lot more to the natural world, and to Everest, than beauty. Everest is a volatile, unpredictable character, capable of moving from calm to stormy in just a few hours. Furthermore, Mount Everest is a fundamentally dangerous character, and has killed hundreds of human beings over the years. In a more academic sense, Mount Everest is a “static” character, meaning that it doesn’t change over time (or the course of the book). Although human beings have become more adept at mountain climbing in the last 150 years, Everest itself is no less dangerous, beautiful, or volatile now than it ever was.
For the most part, the human characters in the book respond to Everest, and the natural world in general, by focusing too exclusively on its beauty, while ignoring its unpredictability and fetishizing its danger. In a sense, Krakauer and the other members of his expedition are “punished” for treating the natural world as a mere thing of beauty, rather than an intimidating, lethal force that’s worthy of their respect. Rob Hall, the leader of the expedition, accidentally leads his clients into danger because he underestimates the threat of an impending storm. Because he’s been lucky with the weather for most of his years as a climber, he seriously doubts that he’ll have any trouble climbing back to camp. In the end, however, the storm on Everest claims the lives of many of Hall’s clients. At one point, Krakauer writes about the Sherpas (an ethnic group whose members live mostly in the Himalayas, and who often assist with Everest climbs) who believe that tourist climbers have “angered” the goddess of Mount Everest. While Krakauer doesn’t subscribe to this idea in any literal sense, he seems to agree with the core concept: human beings disrespect the natural world by treating it as a mere tourist destination, or an opportunity for some easy thrills. In the end, then, Into Thin Air reminds us that the natural world is too big and complex to be treated flippantly.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World 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.
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.
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.
"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.
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,
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.