Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-Epilogue


Krakauer arrives in Base Camp on the morning of May 13 and immediately breaks down in tears. The group holds a memorial service for their team members at Base Camp before at last leaving the slopes of Mt. Everest behind. While waiting for a helicopter to Kathmandu, Krakauer and others are met by Namba’s husband and brother, desperate for information that they are largely unable to provide. News of the tragedy had by now spread across the world, and they are warned that reporters are gathered at Kathmandu airport awaiting their arrival. Sure enough, they land and are swarmed by cameras, only escaping after 20 minutes of questions demanding a neatly scripted narrative of the tragedy.

Krakauer flies back to Seattle on May 19, meeting Hansen’s family at the airport and struggling to console them. He revels in the simple luxuries of life at home, finding great joy in baths or meals with his wife. Yet he is constantly weighed down by grief and guilt over his role in what became the deadliest climbing season on Everest since people first set foot on its summit in 1953. Multiple calls with other survivors and the loved ones of those who died only seem to make it harder for Krakauer to find peace with his memories of the tragedy.

Krakauer closes the chapter discussing how such a tragedy could have happened. Many people predicted that Mt. Everest’s popularity with relatively inexperienced climbers would one day result in tragedy, but few thought a guide as accomplished as Hall would be the victim. Krakauer considers several factors of luck and judgment that contributed to the outcome: the exact timing of what was a fairly typical storm, the competition between Hall and Fischer to best one another, delays in fixing ropes and turning around at the summit, and the effects of hypoxia on individual decision-making. He suggests banning bottled oxygen could counterintuitively save lives by forcing those too weak to reach the summit to face their true physical limitations and turn around. However, Mt. Everest has taken the lives of many highly experienced climbers as well, and the 12 fatalities of the 1996 season represented only 3% of the total climbers that ventured above Base Camp—a ratio in line with historical averages. Krakauer concludes that climbing will simply never be safe, no matter the circumstances or level of preparation.

In the days following the tragedy, the IMAX team successfully reaches the summit despite having expended so many resources to help Krakauer’s group. They pass Fischer and Hall’s frozen bodies on the way up. An Austrian climber and a member of Ian Woodall’s South African team, however, also die that season, bringing the total casualties to 12.

Krakauer receives a letter from Kasischke, who has used the tragedy to focus on the positives in his life, and learns about Weathers, who is determined to look ahead despite losing his right arm and left hand to amputation. He also receives letters from readers of his Outside piece, both those offering sympathy and support and those criticizing him for failing to do more and speculating on other’s failures. To make matters worse, he learns that Lopsang Jangbu died guiding another Everest expedition, and Anatoli Boukreev was seriously injured in a bus accident. Krakauer recounts how an unnamed teammate is dealing with depression and a failing marriage, while Sandy Pittman is reeling from harsh criticism of both her and her family. Beidleman, who was partly responsible for saving at least five lives on the mountain, is still haunted by the memory of Namba, the one he left to die.


The story’s conclusion focuses on the difficulty of reentry into the real world. The intense guilt that both Krakauer and Beidleman experience is evidence that the toll of the expedition extends beyond the slopes of Mt. Everest. Although they are surrounded by the comforts and safety of home and physically removed from the mountain, emotionally they are still far from completing the expedition. Krakauer’s arrival in Kathmandu and then Seattle, both potentially cathartic moments, are instead stressful reminders of his ordeal as he faces overeager reporters and Hansen's grieving family. Each letter and phone call causes him to question his actions and revisit the events of May 10-13, 1996 all over again. Ultimately, the core theme of unpredictability is the only thing to give him some solace: through all the what-ifs and second guessing, he reasons that death is an inherent risk of climbing a mountain like Everest that can never be fully accounted for or planned against.

The epilogue concludes on a somber note, with the final lines describing how Beidleman turned his back on a dying Namba. This is a significant narrative choice. The book could have ended with the stories of Kasischke and Weathers finding positive inspiration from their ordeal, or even of Krakauer and Beidleman beginning a slow but gradual journey towards inner reconciliation. Instead it ends by revisiting death, abandonment, and the guilt of not even looking back. The conclusion delivers a message that reflects Krakauer’s ongoing emotional pain and serves as a warning to future mountaineers: the appeal of Everest is strong, but only attempt it if you are willing to accept death as the price of adventure.