Morality is woven into the story in multiple ways. One angle focuses on Krakauer himself and his role as a writer and reporter. His presence on the expedition may have added pressure on his teammates to test their limits and appear impressive, knowing that their actions would be made available for public consumption. And as the survivor with the greatest platform to tell the story of the tragedy, he also must comment on the judgement of those who are no longer there to defend themselves, angering family members and amplifying their grief. This internal moral struggle pits Krakauer's responsibility as a reporter to tell stories against the potential role he played in pushing his teammates towards unwise decisions and later damaging their dignity and reputation.
Morality also becomes an important theme on the summit. On one hand, you have a character like Harris who sacrifices himself in a futile attempt to bring oxygen to Hall and Hansen stranded high on the mountain. On the other hand, you have the story of the team of Japanese climbers who refuse to help the dying climbers from Ladakh and continue to the summit. Morality, in these examples, is posed as a question of life and death where there is no easy answer. Harris and the Japanese climbers show two opposite interpretations of morality, one heroic and the other selfish, yet both are understandable responses to such extreme circumstances.
Teamwork is described in multiple instances as the key to survival in mountaineering, a sport where everyone must depend on one another both to avoid accidents and know what to do when accidents occur. From the moment Krakauer meets the other clients, however, he fears that this critical element is missing. Each climber on the Adventure Consultants team comes from different backgrounds, with different levels of experience and different motivations for climbing Everest. With such a diverse group of strangers, the trust and loyalty that characterizes a team is difficult to foster. On the day they ascend to the summit, Krakauer confesses that they are only superficially a team, thereby foreshadowing the danger that they face ahead. There are brief moments of cohesive teamwork in the story, such as when multiple expeditions coordinate to help a seriously ill Weathers down the mountain, but there are many more moments where each climber cares primarily for him or herself. This highlights one of the main problems with commercial mountaineering: ultimately, it encourages groups of individuals to undertake a challenge that can only be safely met by a team.
Leadership is a parallel theme to teamwork, and is exemplified by Rob Hall. Hall is presented as the ideal leader: experienced, caring, organized, inspirational, and commanding respect from all. The absence of true teamwork places even greater emphasis on Hall's leadership as the element that will ensure clients' safety and survival. Krakauer is fully confident in him throughout the story, and mentions that no one ever would have predicted that such a tragedy could happen under Hall's leadership. The fact that tragedy did occur despite having Hall at the helm suggests that even ideal leadership cannot fully compensate for teamwork. On both Hall and Fischer's expeditions, leadership is essentially concentrated in one man, and his inevitable mistakes lead to fatal consequences.
The theme of ambition is cast in both a positive and a negative light. The entire sport of mountaineering is based on ambition, which drives climbers to ever higher and more difficult peaks. The summit of Mt. Everest, where there is literally nowhere higher to go, therefore becomes the ultimate test of ambition. Krakauer recalls how he dreamed of climbing Everest since childhood, and hundreds before him felt the same irresistible pull. Ambition in this story notably transcends reason and logic, pushing very under-qualified climbers like Pittman to put their lives at great risk in pursuit of the summit. It is the one trait that all characters in the story possess, despite their myriad differences and backgrounds.
While ambition fuels an admirable sense of adventure and determination, it also causes characters to overestimate their strength, leading to their judgement becoming clouded. Many bad decisions, such as Fischer pushing through his debilitating illness and Hall ignoring his turnaround time to see Hansen reach the top, reflect an inability to control that ambition. The dream of achieving that ultimate goal blinds both clients and guides to the costs of their actions.
Man vs. Nature
Into Thin Air is in many ways a classic tale of man's attempt to tame and conquer the powerful forces of nature. A figurative battle between the strength and will of each climber and the inhospitable environment of Mt. Everest plays out over the course of the entire narrative, and indeed in the history of human exploration of the mountain as well. The low levels of oxygen above 25,000 feet, sub-zero temperatures, harsh solar radiation, and powerful storms are all examples of natural obstacles that the team has to overcome to complete the expedition. In addition to this individual challenge, there is a sense of competition among the climbers over who can "win" most convincingly, partly leading to Boukreev's decision to ascend without oxygen, and to the unspoken race between Hall and Fischer to see who can successfully guide the most clients to the summit. Defeat in this battle against nature takes both voluntary and involuntary forms, and emphasizes the importance of good judgement. Characters like Kasischke and Taske gave up ahead of the summit, recognizing their likely loss; 12 other climbers continued to fight until their literal last breath.
The theme of belonging underpins broader questions about the value of commercial mountaineering and who should have the right to even attempt an ascent of Mt. Everest. Hall and Fischer's teams are representative of how commercial mountaineering has allowed amateurs to summit Mt. Everest without the proper skills, training, and experience to do so. Characters like Namba, Weathers, and even Krakauer himself rely on their guides to survive the expedition, and Krakauer admits that they wouldn't stand a chance of reaching the summit otherwise. An argument exists that everyone should have the right to follow their dreams and ambitions, but for mountaineering purists, these relative amateurs are seen as taking the easy road to the summit, and one that needlessly increases risk for everyone on the mountain.
The theme of death is present throughout the story, but evolves from an abstract concept into a concrete one from beginning to end. Krakauer makes the strong link between death and mountaineering explicit through the stories he tells of numerous climbers, both skilled and amateur, who perished on the slopes of Mt. Everest. However, as he admits near the end of the book, he himself had never come face-to-face with death, and the thrill of tempting fate served as a kind of motivation to climb rather than a deterrent. It's not until he is on the mountain that death starts feeling uncomfortably close--symbolized by frozen corpses on the side of the trail and accidents that take the lives of minor characters on the expedition. Ultimately, death becomes an overpowering reality, filling him with grief, guilt, and a newfound recognition of his own mortality.
Into Thin Air Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Into Thin Air is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.