The book opens with the narrator and author, Jon Krakauer, on the 29,028-foot summit of Mt. Everest on May 10, 1996. Krakauer looks down on the spectacular view of Tibet below him, but he lacks the energy to truly appreciate the moment. His body is cold, weak, and battered after being unable to eat much over the previous days and enduring painful fits of coughing that left him with separated ribs. Additionally, the low levels of oxygen at that altitude have caused his mental capacity to drop dangerously low. At 1:17pm, Krakauer turns and begins descending after less than five minutes on the summit, pausing only to take quick pictures of fellow hikers Andy Harris, a guide on his team, and Anatoli Bourkeev, a guide on a different expedition. On the way down, he notices clouds over nearby peaks that had been clear just one hour earlier. This is the first sign of the storm that would eventually take eight lives and leave teammate Beck Weathers maimed by severe frostbite. Krakauer rhetorically asks how multiple teams helmed by highly experienced guides could have somehow missed the warning signs, leading amateur climbers, who paid up to $65,000 for the expedition, to their deaths. In reality, there was little to suggest that a powerful storm was forming, and Krakauer remembers dismissing the wispy clouds from earlier that day as harmless and routine.
Krakauer notices that the oxygen level in his supplemental tank is alarmingly low, creating a more pressing problem. Fifteen minutes into his descent, he reaches the Hillary Step, a notch in the ridge that requires rappelling. However, he sees more than a dozen climbers lined up at the bottom waiting to make their way up, and climbing-custom grants them the right of way. As he waits, he asks Andy Harris to turn off the valve on his tank in order to conserve oxygen, but Harris accidentally opens it to full flow. After a brief period of relief due to increased oxygen, Krakauer begins suffocating and realizes the mistake that Harris made. He would now have to descend 250 feet without supplemental oxygen to the South Summit, where another tank was waiting for him. He removes his now useless mask and exchanges pained congratulations with other climbers as they reach the top of Hillary Step, silently pleading for them to hurry up. By the time he reaches South Summit, it’s past 3:00pm and the weather begins to look menacing. Krakauer quickly continues his descent, now in conditions of light snow and low visibility. But 400 feet above at the summit, climbers continue celebrating their achievement under cloudless skies, oblivious to the mounting threat and letting precious minutes slip by.
Chapter 2 recounts the history of human exploration of Mt. Everest, eventually leading to Krakauer’s own decision to embark on his expedition. In 1852, staff of the Great Trigonometrical Society of India used geometric tools to first confirm Mt. Everest’s status as the world’s highest peak. Known as Peak XV by British surveyors, Jomolungma by Tibetans, and Sagarmatha by Nepalis, the mountain was renamed Mt. Everest in 1865 in honor of an earlier Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest. Soon Everest became a coveted goal, referred to as the “Third Pole” after explorers first reached the North Pole in 1909 and the South Pole in 1911. It would take 15 expeditions, 24 lives, and 101 years before the summit was finally reached in 1953.
The first 8 expeditions to Everest were British and all were forced to climb from the northern, Tibetan side on account of Nepal’s closed borders. In 1924, one team came close to reaching the summit. Edward Felix Norton reached 28,126 feet before turning back due to exhaustion, while Andrew Irvine and George Leigh Mallory both disappeared very close to the summit, with no evidence that they ever reached it. Nepal opened its borders in 1949, while China closed Tibet to foreigners in 1950, leading expeditions to shift to the southern side of the mountain. On May 29, 1953, two members of a large British expedition—New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay—became the first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. News of the ascent spread around the world and was enthusiastically celebrated in the United Kingdom, where the story broke on the same day that Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Both events were seen as points of immense patriotic pride for a declining world power. Edmund Hillary was subsequently knighted, while Tenzing Norgay is still considered a national hero in India, Nepal, and Tibet.
Krakauer then jumps to 1963, when he was 9 years old and Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld reached the summit via the extremely difficult and previously unclimbed West Ridge. Unsoeld was a close friend of Krakauer’s father, and tales of this expedition inspired him to become a mountaineer, dreaming of one day ascending Everest himself. By his early 20s, Krakauer was an avid climber and lived on $5,000-6,0000 dollars a year, working odd jobs to finance his mountaineering adventures. His dream of climbing Everest, however, faded as the mountain’s reputation in the climbing community suffered due to its relative lack of technical difficulty and over-commercialization. By the 1980s, Everest had been climbed over 100 times. In 1985, Dick Bass—a wealthy 55-year old Texan with little climbing experience—reached the summit and became the first person to climb the Seven Summits. This accomplishment was celebrated around the world and encouraged many more wealthy amateur climbers to attempt a feat that had once seemed impossible for all but the most seasoned mountaineers. Traffic on all Seven Summits increased dramatically and the number of commercial expeditions multiplied, particularly on Everest. In spring of 1996, the same climbing season as Krakauer’s expedition, 30 different teams attempted Everest, at least 10 of which were profit-driven ventures.
The government of Nepal recognized both the environmental threat posed by increased traffic on Everest and the opportunity to develop a significant source of revenue. In response, the cost of Nepali climbing permits rose from $2,300 for a team of any size to $70,000 for a team of up to 7 climbers between 1991 and 1996. However, this did not prove to be a significant deterrent. Critics decried that Everest was being increasingly “sold” to rich adventure-seekers, while the potential profits spawned a growing number of expedition companies that were unqualified to safely lead ascents. In March 1995, Krakauer received a call from Mark Bryant, the editor of Outside magazine, proposing that he travel to Everest Base Camp and write an article on the commercialization of the mountain—without climbing it. This call reawakened his childhood dreams of Everest, and Krakauer pushed back: he proposed that the magazine postpone the assignment 12 months to give him time to train and then cover his expenses to join a full expedition to the summit. To his surprise, Bryant agreed. Despite having significant climbing experience, including on peaks more technically challenging than Everest, Krakauer remained apprehensive. He was 41, well beyond his climbing prime, and happily married with a stable job for the first time in his life. Additionally, none of his previous climbs had taken him above 17,200 feet in altitude, lower than even Everest Base Camp. He knew that Everest had claimed the lives of more than 130 people since the first British expedition in 1921—approximately one out of every four climbers. Yet when Bryant called again in February 1996 offering him a spot on Rob Hall’s upcoming expedition, he accepted without hesitation.
Krakauer’s decision to open the narrative at the summit of Mt. Everest dispels any instinct to romanticize the idea of climbing the world’s tallest mountain. Instead of awe and conquest, Krakauer plunges straight into the extreme pain, dread, and danger that characterized his experience on the summit. This deliberate effort to frame the story as a struggle rather than a triumph sets the tone for the entire book and raises questions about the purpose and value of undertaking such an ambitious, or foolish, expedition. Although the narrative proceeds roughly linearly through time, the “flash-forward” opening chapter immediately focuses attention on the harsh reality of high altitude climbing and its fatal consequences.
Chapter 2 lies in direct contrast to Chapter 1, both chronologically and thematically. Beyond providing important context, recounting the long history of human exploration of Mt. Everest—both its successes and failures—positions Krakauer’s own expedition as another step in a multi-generational narrative. Through this narrative, Krakauer shows that the extreme risk of summiting Mt. Everest is a well-documented fact and that, contrary to expectations, this risk has done nothing to dissuade hundreds of climbers from attempting it. The story of Mt. Everest is presented as one that defies logic and reasoning, both in the motivations of individual climbers and in the unpredictable nature of who succeeds and who fails. Krakauer’s discussion of the mountain’s recent commercialization illustrates this point well, highlighting the absurdity of a death-defying feat becoming a bucket list item for wealthy amateur adventurers. This also introduces a key point of tension regarding who, if anyone, belongs on Mt. Everest’s slopes.
Despite being critical of the mountain’s popularity and fully aware of the folly of climbing it, Krakauer is still unable to resist its lure when the opportunity to join an expedition arises. This shift from a broad historical overview to the intimate details of Krakauer’s own ambitions casts his personal story as the ultimate Mt. Everest case study. His struggle to understand how a childhood dream managed to win against the overwhelming irrationality of summiting Mt. Everest mirrors the flawed but irresistible reasoning of countless climbers who came before him.