Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In a brief side story late in the book, a team of Japanese climbers refuses to help some stranded Ladahki climbers near the summit, saying that they can't "afford morality" in such dangerous conditions. Why do you think Krakauer includes this side story in Into Thin Air? Do you agree or disagree with the Japanese climbers?

    The side story of the Japanese climbers, although not directly related to any of the main characters in Into Thin Air, serves as a powerful contrast to the story of Krakauer's team. Many of the climbers in Krakauer's account display acts of courage, compassion, and heroism in the face of increasingly desperate conditions. For climbers such as Harris and Hall, these acts are partially responsible for their deaths; even survivors such as Beidleman and the IMAX team put their lives and missions at significant risk in order to help other climbers. The Japanese climbers, faced with the same moral decision, choose to ignore the stranded Ladahkis and continue to the summit, unwilling to put their own lives in danger. While most would consider this a selfish decision, Krakauer uses it to show that on Mt. Everest, normal calculations of what is right and what is wrong don't necessarily apply. The Japanese climbers ultimately reached the summit and--most importantly--survived, while some of the heroes from Krakauer's team lost their own lives in often failed attempts to rescue others. By comparing these two stories, we see how the moral choice can lead to even more death than the selfish choice. Knowing that, the story invites the question: which is really the "right" choice?

  2. 2

    Krakauer's relationship with death changes significantly from the beginning to the end of Into Thin Air. Trace this evolution, according to your own interpretation, and use specific examples that illustrate how this relationship is transformed.

    Death is never absent from the narrative of Into Thin Air, but it goes from being a distant concept to being an increasingly real and personal presence for Krakauer. We see death start out as primarily a historical detail of mountaineering, as he discusses the many experienced and amateur mountaineers before him who perished on the slopes of Mt. Everest. On a personal level, he describes death as merely one of the motivating factors of his passion for climbing, saying it's "titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier" (pg. 270). Although he is aware of the risk of death, this excites him rather than scaring him. This begins to change on the ascent when minor characters' accidents bring death much closer to him. The most powerful symbol of this shift is when he comes across two frozen bodies on the side of the trail and is shaken by the sight. By the end of the book, the deaths of his fellow climbers--along with his own near-death experience--have completely changed his perspective. He is terrified by death, unable to move on from the tragedy, and disturbed by idea that Hansen, Hall, Harris, and others for whom he cared died while he survived. Death has gone from being a mountaineering trivia fact and source of adrenaline into an intimate, emotional horror that disrupts his everyday life and distorts his love for climbing.

  3. 3

    Throughout Into Thin Air there is a constant tension between forces of reason and human ambition. How does Krakauer show this tension through the actions and decisions of the climbers?

    Despite the different backgrounds and abilities of all of the climbers in Into Thin Air, they all share the common trait of ambition. While this leads to admirable feats of courage and determination, it also contributes to questionable decision-making and a dangerous overestimation of personal strength. The Adventure Consultants clients, including Krakauer himself, exemplify this tension between reason and ambition. None of the clients is particularly well prepared, physically or mentally, to climb Mt. Everest. Krakauer's emotions are dominated by a sense of anxiety and self-doubt, Pittman can't let go of her creature comforts, and several others haven't even broken in their climbing equipment prior to the ascent. Despite all of these clear signs of unpreparedness, they all paid extraordinary amounts of money for the chance to chase the dream of reaching the world's highest point. The professional guides make similar mistakes. Hall ignores his 2:00pm turnaround time on summit day in order to make sure Hansen reaches the summit; Bourkeev climbs without oxygen despite the added stress and responsibilities of being a guide; and Fischer hides his illness in an unspoken competition with Hall to successfully guide the most clients to the summit. In each case, logic and reason would suggest a different course of action, but ambition drives characters towards dangerous or fatal choices.

  4. 4

    Into Thin Air can be read as being highly critical of guided commercial mountaineering. Using evidence from the story, describe three ways that you would change the commercial mountaineering business to prevent future tragedies from occurring.

    The tragedy of Into Thin Air, on top of the general danger of climbing Mt. Everest, brings into question the wisdom of allowing wealthy amateurs to join commercial expeditions. Without completely eliminating the industry, there are some lessons from the story that may be able to help improve safety. Physical strength and fitness is critical for undertaking such as strenuous task, yet Weathers' eye condition left him stranded near the summit and Namba was repeatedly described as too weak to continue. Stricter physical fitness requirements and a thorough medical examination could help avoid these situations. Krakauer often details the extreme impact of climbing above 20,000 feet on the human body, particularly above the "death zone" at 26,000 feet. Making prior experience at these altitudes a prerequisite for climbing Mt. Everest would ensure that climbers know exactly how their bodies will react to very low-oxygen conditions. Finally, overcrowding led to major delays during Krakauer's summit attempt and forced some of the guides and Sherpas to work extra hard to accommodate climbers from various teams. An easy way to lessen these risks would be to limit the number of climbers that can be above Camp 4, where conditions are riskiest, on any given day.

  5. 5

    There are many factors that contributed to the tragedy of Into Thin Air, including but not limited to lapses in leadership, poor judgment, unpredictable nature, inexperience, and bad luck. Which do you think was the most important factor and why?

    Although many factors contributed to the tragedy of Krakauer's expedition, none is more important than lapses in leadership. Luck, nature, inexperience, and questionable judgement are arguably present in any attempt to climb Mt. Everest, especially with a commercial expedition. There is only a certain extent to which these factors can be controlled. Leadership, however, can directly mediate these negative factors if wielded effectively. There are many instances in Into Thin Air where this, unfortunately, was not the case. Hall's failure to honor his own 2:00pm turnaround time is directly linked to the deaths of Harris, Hansen, and Hall himself--if he had stuck to his carefully conceived plan, lives would have been saved. Boukreev's disdain for the more mundane aspects of guiding also contributed to tragedy, leaving him far from his clients when they most needed his help. Bickering between Hall and Fischer's Sherpas over who was doing their fair share of work led to dangerous delays on summit day and forced climbers such as Krakauer to take over tiring rope-setting responsibilities. The leaders of other teams deserve blame as well, particularly Makalu Gau for ignoring his promise to not summit on May 10 and Ian Woodall for refusing to provide any form of assistance. In each case, failures of leadership made already risky situations significantly and unnecessarily worse.

  6. 6

    Rob Hall is introduced as a great leader in the beginning of Into Thin Air. Do the events of the story reinforce that description or undermine it? Use specific examples to support your claim.

    Rob Hall is a complicated figure in the story, who often demonstrates admirable leadership skills but also fails as a leader at critical moments. On one hand, he is highly experienced, universally liked and respected, a detailed planner, and extremely loyal to his clients. This is seen through his de facto role as Base Camp leader, meticulously planned acclimatization routine, and unwillingness to abandon Hansen at the summit when his own life was also on the line. However, on the other hand, these qualities do not always translate into action or good decision-making. He is unable to enforce order among his Sherpas on summit day or prevent Makalu Gau from going back on the agreed-upon plan to stagger summit attempts between the various teams. Most importantly, his loyalty to Hansen and other clients prevents him from taking decisive action when it becomes clear that they won't reach the summit at a reasonable time. Hall deserves high praise for being a loyal, caring, and well-liked leader, but these qualities ultimately undermine his ability to impose his will and disappoint his clients when the moment calls for it.