Krakauer describes how climbing above the South Col is a race against the clock for survival, even under normal circumstances. Risks of HACE, HAPE, frostbite, and hypothermia increase dramatically, and with each climber on the team allotted just three oxygen bottles—roughly 15-18 hours of air—getting up and down quickly is of utmost importance. Since no one had successfully reached the summit yet that season, Hall and Fischer’s teams assume responsibility for installing ropes along the upper route, further slowing their ascent and creating costly traffic jams as climbers wait to continue. Stuck at the back of the line, Hutchinson, Taske, and Kasischke determine that they won’t be able to reach the summit by the designated 1:00pm turnaround time. Reluctantly, they abandon their bid. Another bottleneck occurs at the South Summit. As Krakauer waits, he notices that Boukreev is climbing without oxygen or an emergency pack, a very irresponsible decision for a guide. Hall’s Sherpas refuse to install rope on the remainder of the route, annoyed that Fischer’s Sherpas have fallen behind and aren’t there to help. So Harris, Biedleman, Boukreev, and Krakauer eventually decide to fix the ropes themselves, but not before wasting precious time. Upon arriving at the Hillary Step, a steep rock face just below the summit, the thin air leaves Krakauer feeling drugged and strangely calm. He has to constantly remind himself to watch his footing, and he nervously monitors his rapidly dwindling oxygen supply. Anxious for time, Biedleman gives him permission to go ahead; he slowly climbs until he is finally standing on the summit, a wedge of ice at 29,028 feet marked by an aluminum pole and Buddhist prayer flags. It is already after 1:00pm, and despite attaining a goal he had coveted since childhood, Krakauer is overwhelmed by dread at the thought of the dangerous descent still to come.
Krakauer abandons his plan to take triumphant photos on the summit and turns around as soon as possible, stopping only to pick up a few stones as souvenirs. He notices that wispy clouds have moved in and completely covered the valley below, but he is more concerned about his oxygen supply than anything else. At the top of the Hillary Step, he is forced to wait for the climbers still ascending to the summit. Harris catches up with Krakauer, who asks him to turn down his oxygen regulator to conserve what’s left, but Harris mistakenly turns it to maximum and quickly drains the supply. Krakauer continues to wait, now panicked and seriously impaired without supplemental oxygen, until the Step finally clears over an hour later. He cautiously descends towards the South Summit, where an extra bottle is cached for him, but he feels increasingly dizzy and on the verge of passing out. Luckily, Groom catches up to him and offers his bottle. At the South Summit, Harris insists that all the cached oxygen bottles are empty, even though Groom and Krakauer can easily see they’re full. Krakauer would later realize that there was likely something wrong with Harris’s oxygen regulator that prevented it from accurately reading oxygen levels and, more importantly, delivering oxygen to his mask. But in their impaired state, Groom and Krakauer fail to see that Harris is in serious trouble; they continue their descent.
As Krakauer descends into the clouds below the South Summit, it begins to snow and visibility quickly worsens. With Groom looking after Namba, and Hall and Harris somewhere above them with Hansen, Krakauer assumes everything is under control and continues alone. He is surprised to run into Weathers standing alone, shivering, still well above Camp Four. Weathers had abandoned his bid earlier that day on account of a serious side effect of a recent eye surgery: as the air pressure decreased with altitude, his vision worsened to the point of near blindness. When he admitted to Hall just how severe his problem had become, Hall instructed him to stay put and wait until he came back from the summit and could guide him back down to Camp Four. Krakauer offers to guide Weathers down himself, but Weathers chooses to wait for Groom, supposedly only a few minutes behind. Still oblivious to the severity of their situation, Krakauer accepts this and moves on without Weathers, a decision that he would come to consider one of the biggest mistakes of the day.
Krakauer continues descending with great difficulty. Fresh snow has made the slopes extra slippery and erased any tracks indicating the correct route. Amid thunder and lightning, he relies on mental landmarks to help him retrace his steps, getting through the trickiest section of the route just as the storm grows into a full-scale blizzard around 6:00pm. But the unexpectedly slow pace causes him to drain his final oxygen bottle while still hundreds of feet above Camp Four. Without oxygen he moves even slower, resting often, and begins hallucinating. Facing a long, icy slope—the final obstacle before reaching Camp Four—he stops to gather himself and remains sitting for 45 minutes in the roaring storm, unable to summon the energy or will to keep moving. Harris appears out of nowhere, in horrible physical and mental shape, and asks Krakauer the way to the camp. Krakauer points to the slope and Harris recklessly slides over the edge, plummeting 200 feet headfirst to the bottom. Krakauer squints through the snow and sees the fuzzy outline of Harris’s body miraculously get up and move towards Camp Four, which at the moment is plainly in sight. However, clouds move in before he can see Harris safely reach the camp. Krakauer finally gets up and begin moving slowly down the slope. He reaches the camp and sprawls across the floor of his tent, exhausted but relieved that he made it and that, to the best of his knowledge, so did his teammates. In reality, 19 people are still stranded on the mountain, fighting for their lives.
Krakauer’s discussion of the litany of risks of climbing above 25,000 feet underlines the fact that even under ideal circumstances, chances of death or serious injury on Mt. Everest are very high. This point serves as a reminder of one of the central questions that Krakauer poses throughout the narrative: what drives someone to, at great physical and financial cost, willingly risk their own lives? Krakauer struggles with this question internally, historically, and through the eyes of his teammates, but it is ultimately left as an open-ended puzzle of human nature.
On summit day, seemingly inconsequential decisions become matters of life and death, with each action having some impact on the team’s chances of survival. Lopsang’s decision to short-rope Sandy Pittman, Makalu Gau’s decision to summit on the same day as Hall, Boukreev’s decision to climb without supplemental oxygen, or Taske, Kasischke, and Fishbeck’s decisions to turn around shortly beyond Camp Four don’t individually determine the outcome of the day; taken together, however, they have devastating—or life-saving—consequences. Throughout his account, Krakauer is unable to point to a single mistake that dooms the expedition, a reflection of both the most dangerous and exciting element of climbing: unpredictability. The reasoning behind Hall’s obsessive planning and attention to details becomes painfully clear as little mistakes and deviations begin cascading into a struggle for survival.
In an echo of the book’s opening chapter, Krakauer’s arrival at the summit is characterized by dread and anxiety as he thinks of the long descent ahead. As soon as he turns around, time is introduced as a main character, adopting the role of a figurative antagonist. Repeated references to the specific hour and minute create the impression of a ticking clock as frustrating traffic jams turn from annoyances into potential death sentences. Krakauer’s earlier discussions of the effects of thin air on the human body imbue an otherwise slow and detailed account of the descent with suspenseful pressure: the reader is by now well aware that one second on Mt. Everest holds much greater value than one second at sea level.
The depletion of time, oxygen, and visibility occurs alongside the devastating loss of the most critical resource of all: mental capacity. As conditions worsen, the climbers are depicted as losing control over their own fates to the mountain, the fury of nature, and the chilling seduction of death. Ambition and the will to succeed—those strongest and most peculiar of human traits that drove the entire expedition to this point—are quickly overcome as the storm and lack of oxygen robs the climbers of the ability to make sound choices and push themselves forward. Beck Weathers stands still along the trail, alone, afraid, entirely debilitated, and clinging to nothing but the faint hope that Hall will appear to save him. Krakauer, within sight of Camp Four, sits down at the height the blizzard in a terrifying moment that shows a preference for death briefly take control in the face of the extreme struggle of descending further. Teamwork, a key element of success, dissolves as exhaustion and confusion bring the descent to a point where it’s every man for himself.