Onboard a flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu to begin the expedition, Krakauer looks out the window hoping for a glimpse of the Himalayas. He sees Mt. Everest’s unmistakable summit pyramid and gets nervous, realizing that the plane is cruising at the same altitude that he had signed up to climb. Upon landing, he meets Andy Harris, one of the expedition’s guides, and Lou Kasischke, a fellow teammate, before heading to the Garuda Hotel in central Kathmandu. As they share climbing stories, Harris cheerfully confesses that this expedition will also be his first Everest ascent. The Garuda Hotel is a popular base for Himalayan expeditions and has hosted many famous mountaineers. Krakauer spots a poster of Rob Hall, his expedition leader and the owner of Adventure Consultants guiding company, on the wall shortly before meeting him. Hall—a tall, witty, slightly unkempt man—immediately makes a positive impression on Krakauer, recounting a funny story and laughing loudly at his own punchline.
Krakauer gives some background on Hall’s career in the next section, starting with his working-class upbringing in Christchurch, New Zealand. He dropped out of high school at age 15 and started working at Alp Sports, a manufacturer of climbing equipment, in 1976. He soon rose to run the entire production operation at Alp Sports and developed a passion for climbing in the process. In 1980, he made his first expedition to the Himalayas; by the late 80s, he had become a professional climber, adept at getting corporate sponsors to finance his audacious climbs. In 1988, he met Gary Ball, a fellow New Zealand guide who became his climbing partner and best friend. The two of them climbed Everest for the first time in May 1990 after 3 failed attempts, reaching the summit alongside Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary. Upon completing their ascent, Hall and Ball got a big utility company to sponsor a new quest: climb the rest of the Seven Summits, all within 7 months. They reached this goal hours before their deadline, increasing their celebrity back home in New Zealand. Despite their success, Hall and Ball realized the natural limits of a sponsorship-backed climbing career and decided to launch Adventure Consultants together to guide clients up the Seven Summits. This venture also found success and quickly became a leader in Everest expeditions, even in the face of criticism from New Zealand national hero Sir Edmund Hillary for disrespecting the mountain by commercializing it. Tragedy struck in 1993 when Ball died of cerebral edema during an attempted climb of Dhaulagiri, a 26,795-foot Himalayan peak. Although devastated, Hall continued running Adventure Consultants himself and by 1996 was charging $65,000 a head to guide clients to the summit of Everest. Krakauer’s expedition was the eighth Everest ascent led by Hall, and although no company charged as much as Adventure Consultants, he never had trouble finding clients due to his unmatched success rate.
Back in Kathmandu on March 31, 1996, Krakauer, Hall, and the rest of the team board an old Soviet helicopter that would bring them to the village of Lukla, the starting point for the expedition. Unable to engage in conversation due to the helicopter noise, Krakauer looks around the cabin attempting to memorize the names of his teammates: Rob Hall, Andy Harris, Helen Wilton, Caroline Mackenzie, Lou Kasischke, Yasuko Namba, Beck Weathers, Stuart Hutchinson, John Taske, Frank Fishbeck, and Doug Hansen. Krakauer notes that his fellow clients all seem like nice, decent people, although none resembles a typical, hardcore climber. He would become closest with Hansen, a longtime postal worker from Seattle who paid for the expedition by working night shifts and odd construction jobs. The similarities between Hansen’s modest background and Krakauer’s own career as a carpenter and writer would quickly create a natural affinity between them. Still, Krakauer feels uneasy about climbing with such a large group of strangers. Most of his previous climbs had been with one or two friends whom he could trust through the many perils of mountaineering. Guided ascents lack that initial element of trust among teammates, and faith must be placed in the guide instead. Krakauer silently hopes that Hall was careful in selecting only clients who have the skills and ability to tackle Everest.
On the trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, the team often deals with temperatures fluctuating between freezing and tropical warmth over the course of one day. The spectacular scenery appears wild at first glance but is dotted with temples, crops, and other signs of the local Sherpa population. Krakauer reaches the town of Namche Bazaar, a commercial hub for the area, and finds his teammates drinking tea at a local lodge. There, he is introduced to the expedition’s third guide, Mike Groom, and joins a dinner during which Hutchison, Taske, and Weathers dominate the conversation. Weathers, a conservative Texan, gets into a brief political debate with Krakauer, which Weathers wins easily.
Krakauer uses the next section to provide background on the Sherpa people, which he notes are often confused with ethnic Nepalese. Sherpas, scattered throughout Himalayan Nepal and far northern India, are a distinct ethnic group, well-adapted to life in high altitudes. Khumbu, the group of valleys south of Mt. Everest, forms the heart of Sherpa country and culture. The growth of Everest expeditions throughout the 20th century transformed Sherpa society to cater to the needs of climbers. Almost all expeditions now hire Sherpas as porters, helpers, and guides, creating a seasonal economy closely linked to the 15,000 climbers who visit the region every year. Sherpas who are technically skilled enough to work high on the peaks earn great respect within their communities, and while low by Western standards, their salaries are well above average for Nepal. Unfortunately, Sherpas also perform some of the most hazardous tasks required by expeditions and therefore account for more than a third of all deaths on Everest. Some veteran climbers lament the tourism boom in Khumbu that has seen a proliferation of lodges and Western dress and culture, but Krakauer finds this sentiment patronizing: the money and international aid now flowing to the region has improved the lives of many through new opportunities, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.
On the trail to Everest Base Camp, Hall is careful to take a slow pace and give the team enough time to acclimatize—most days include no more than 3 or 4 hours of walking. As Krakauer glimpses a distant Everest for the first time on the trail, he is filled with both nervous anticipation and dread at the nearly unimaginable thought of ascending such a cold, far, and high peak. At Tengboche, the largest Buddhist monastery in Khumbu, a Sherpa cook on the expedition arranges for Krakauer, Kasischke, and Hansen to be blessed by the head lama—a Buddhist spiritual leader—of all of Nepal. Overly self-conscious of his behavior in front of such a holy figure, Krakauer is surprised when the lama takes out a photo album of his recent trip to America. The first six days of the trek are an unhurried, unburdened, and near euphoric walk among beautiful scenery, with Krakauer often in the company of Hansen and Harris. Harris speaks longingly of his girlfriend back in New Zealand, saying he hesitated to leave her but couldn’t turn down a chance to climb Everest with Hall. At a clinic in the village of Pheriche, the team meets the American physicians running it and learns how it has drastically reduced the mortality rate from acute altitude sickness in the area. The same clinic was once run by Jan Arnold, a woman who became Hall’s wife after he met her there in 1990. Normally working as the expedition doctor, Arnold couldn’t join Hall this time since she was 7 months pregnant with their first child. The conversation at the clinic shifts to the inevitably of a major disaster one day occurring to a guided Everest expedition—Hall agrees, but is confident it would never happen to him.
The team moves above the tree line on April 6 at 16,000 feet, where they encounter an unusually deep late-season snowpack on the trail to Lobuje village. There, crowds of hikers and Sherpas are backed up due to the difficult condition of the trail, making the village filthy and overcrowded. That night in the local lodge, thick smoke from a dung-burning stove in Krakauer’s room leaves him with a dry cough that would persist through the rest of the expedition. The team is unexpectedly forced to stay in Lobuje for a few extra days after news reaches Hall that one of his Sherpa staff fell into a crevasse while scouting the climbing route on Everest and was seriously injured. Hall, feeling indebted to his Sherpa staff, leaves to coordinate the complicated rescue operation. Krakauer recounts the traumatic story of Kami Rita, a young and ambitious Sherpa who fell to his death after being sent by an expedition leader to perform a technical task for which he was unprepared. Krakauer speculates that Hall’s knowledge of this incident and his constant concern for the welfare of his helpers motivated him to drop everything to attend to the injured Sherpa.
Krakauer’s emotional first glimpse of Mt. Everest echoes the opening pages of Chapter 1 in its negative tone. Seeing the mountain evokes feelings of dread and anxiety rather than excitement and destiny. Krakauer’s own apprehension is set against the cheerful and affable personalities of Andy Harris and Rob Hall. Hall, in particular, is portrayed as an eternal optimist. His backstory of reaching the height of his profession through unpretentious beginnings, authentic passion, and constant determination is structured like a summit ascent—Hall is presented as the ideal mountaineer. The rest of the team, on the other hand, is far from ideal, a fact that makes Krakauer uneasy. The lack of an immediate sense of camaraderie between him and his fellow clients, save Doug Hansen, foreshadows the largely individualistic experience of the coming ascent and the danger that poses. They are a team in name only, climbing a mountain that demands near-perfect teamwork for survival.
The section on Sherpa culture and community discusses Mt. Everest from a non-Western context for the first time in the book. It is important to note that, despite the common perception of the Himalayas as a wild, untamable landscape, civilization has thrived among its peaks for centuries. Going one step further, the civilization that does exist is not the “Shangri-la” of popular imagination. Krakauer highlights this by juxtaposing scenes of serene wilderness with the bustle of Naamche Bazaar and grime of Lobuje. Even the traditional blessing ceremony in Tengboche is symbolically touched by this advance of modern society when the Buddhist lama shares a photo album of his touristic trip to America. These moments serve to add another dimension to the running tension between the Everest of the imagination and the Everest of reality. Hall’s act of compassion in dropping everything to attend to his injured Sherpa staff completes his characterization as a man of principle and selflessness—a natural leader.