Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-20


Hall feels stunned and detached as the full weight of the tragedy finally begins to sink in, making him fear that he is slowly going insane. Although everyone at Camp Four is alive, their health is deteriorating rapidly as the rescue occupations have forced them to remain above 25,000 feet without bottled oxygen for much longer than anticipated. Hutchinson, the strongest of the group, organizes a search party to locate the bodies of Namba and Weathers. They find them partially buried in snow and are shocked to discover that they are both still alive, albeit barely. A veteran Sherpa in the search party advises Hutchinson to leave Namba and Weathers where they lie since the chances of them surviving long enough to be carried back to Base Camp are extremely slim, and attempting to do so would jeopardize the lives of the rest of the group. In the meantime, Beidleman rouses the remaining Mountain Madness clients and begins descending, fearful that staying at Camp Four could lead to more casualties.

Three other groups on the mountain—Todd Burleson’s Alpine Ascents International, David Breashears’ IMAX, and Mall Duff’s commercial expedition—all postpone their plans to assist Hall and Fischer’s teams. The IMAX team arrives at Camp Four and distributes their emergency cache of oxygen to Krakauer and the others, even though it threatens to put their own ascent in jeopardy. Weathers miraculously stumbles into camp after having been left for dead in the snow. He had somehow drifted back to consciousness long enough to pick himself up and find the camp, half-blind and severely frostbitten. They place him in an unoccupied tent and try to warm him up, but still they believe his chances of survival are slim-to-none. That night, a violent windstorm threatens to tear the tents apart before the remaining members of Hall’s and Fischer’s teams finally decide to pack up and descend in the morning. Krakauer volunteers to bring up the rear and makes one last visit to Weathers’ tent, torn open and flattened by the wind, expecting to find him dead. Somehow, however, Weathers survived the night, futilely screaming for help as the tent collapsed around him. Krakauer rouses the IMAX team to look after Weathers, who by now is in hideous condition, and begins his descent, convinced he will never see Weathers alive again.

The team’s descent from Camp Four on May 12 is a slow and dangerous process, with multiple mental lapses and near fatal mistakes caused by their weak and mentally impaired state. Ang Dorje and Lopsang Jangbu—the climbing sirdars for Hall and Fischer, respectively—blame themselves for the deaths, and need constant encouragement as they struggle to cope with their grief. By early afternoon, the group reaches Camp Two, where members of Duff’s and Burleson’s expeditions had set up a makeshift field hospital awaiting their arrival. There, they receive word via radio that Weathers is alive and strong enough to move, and the various expeditions coordinate to assist him down to the Camp Two field hospital. The next morning, Cotter persuades the Nepalese army to arrange a helicopter rescue for Gau and Weathers at Camp Two. This is an extremely dangerous operation since the air at Camp Two, at 19,860 feet, is almost too thin for a helicopter to fly. Nevertheless, the pilot manages to make two heroic landings to pick up Gau and Weathers, one at a time, and quickly whisks them back to Kathmandu for treatment.


Whereas previous chapters focused on the deadly strength of nature, these chapters feature the enduring strength of the human body and spirit. Namba and Weathers are miraculously found alive, and while Namba soon passes away, Weathers is repeatedly left for dead only to somehow come back from the edge. The team’s refusal to believe Weathers can survive—and in fact putting his life further at risk because of it—highlights how little faith they have in each other’s chances. They have given up, succumbing to the tragedy, but Weathers is a reminder of the power of human persistence. With characters such as Hall, Fischer, Namba, and even Krakauer, we saw the will to survive slowly drain away, conceding victory to the mountain. Weathers represents the opposite: a will to live that endures beyond what anyone expects.

Although the group is still in desperate shape, hope and success slowly resurface, paralleling the descent to Base Camp. The selfless acts of the other expeditions are a marked contrast from the every-man-to-himself mentality that characterized the summit attempt and led in no small part to the tragedy. For the first time, it’s finally accepted that Weathers might live, and his dramatic helicopter evacuation from Camp Two closes the improbable loop from certain death to certain safety. Throughout these chapters we see assumptions formed on the summit—e.g., human ambition is no match against the forces of nature, teamwork dissolves in moments of crisis—challenged and overturned.