Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6


On April 8, word reaches Lobuje that the rescue operation was a success and the expedition could proceed to Everest Base Camp. They are relieved to move on. Krakauer’s cough is significantly worse and many team members developed intestinal issues from the filthy surroundings. Harris is left particularly weak from severe vomiting and diarrhea but insists on continuing to Base Camp despite his condition. They reach Base Camp, a large collection of tents and makeshift structures at 17,600 feet, later that day, with plans to remain for six weeks to acclimatize. The Adventure Consultants compound, home to 14 Westerners and 14 Sherpas, is relatively well-appointed with lights, a library, and communications equipment, and serves as an informal headquarters for Base Camp business due to Hall’s stature among Everest guides and his experience dealing with myriad issues on the mountain. Krakauer discusses how great efforts had been made since the 80s to remove the trash that had begun to overwhelm the camp, and by 1996 it was a surprisingly tidy place, largely because commercial expedition companies now had a stake in keeping it clean. One of those companies, Mountain Madness, is run by Scott Fischer, an accomplished climber who is Hall’s friend and chief rival.

Fischer became hooked on climbing as a teenager and built a reputation for a loose and fearless approach to the craft, having attempted several dangerous climbs (and endured several harrowing falls) as a young man. His affable personality earned him many friends, but above all he desired respect and recognition as a serious climber on the same level as Hall, a goal that always eluded him. Krakauer recounts how Hall and Fischer competed to have Outside assign him to their concurrent expeditions, primarily because of the valuable advertising space that the magazine offered as part of the compensation package. While Fischer was the frontrunner, Hall stole Krakauer away at the last minute with an offer Fischer couldn’t match, reducing Krakauer’s climbing fee to just $10,000—and leaving Fischer infuriated. Despite their rivalry and polar opposite climbing styles, Hall and Fischer grew close over many years of working on the same mountains. When their expeditions meet at Base Camp, Fischer holds no grudges against Hall or Krakauer.

The entire team begins feeling the effects of altitude while at Base Camp. Krakauer finds that he is unable to sleep well, he has lost his appetite, and short walks leave him winded. Even Hansen, who spent significant time at altitude during a failed Everest attempt last year, struggles with severe headaches. Coaxed by Hall into giving the summit another shot, Hansen spends much of his time at Base Camp communicating with loved ones back home. He is overjoyed at receiving a fax from a woman with whom he recently fell in love; he takes time to write postcards to kids at a Seattle elementary school who helped him fundraise for his expedition; and he reads faxes from his two grown children to Krakauer with evident pride. But Krakauer is unable to distract himself from the challenge ahead and grows increasingly worried about his fitness to climb above 25,000 feet, the so-called “Death Zone” where oxygen levels are dangerously low. Hall reassures Krakauer that his careful acclimatization plan has been proven to work, joking that even pathetic clients like Krakauer have reached the summit with him before.

The isolation of Base Camp, more than 100 miles from the nearest road, makes it difficult to keep all 26 people on the expedition team fed, sheltered, and healthy. Hall, however, relishes the challenge, creating detailed inventories and plans to ensure the operation runs smoothly. A key part of logistics is organizing the route up the mountain. In Hall’s plan, Sherpas establish 4 camps, each 2,000 feet above the last, and stock them with food, fuel, and oxygen ahead of time. The summit ascent would be launched from Camp Four at 26,000 feet after a month of acclimatization runs to progressively higher altitudes. The first run—a one-day round trip to Camp One—occurs on April 13. Krakauer is surprised as some of his teammates begin unpacking brand-new equipment in preparation for the run, and discovers that they haven’t had the chance to train on actual peaks due to busy work schedules and family life back home.

Despite his concern about his teammates’ readiness, Krakauer is excited to climb, describing a route to the summit that mostly follows the Khumbu Glacier up a relatively gentle valley. Between Base Camp and Camp One, however, the glacier tips over a ledge, forming a technically demanding and hazardous path known as the Khumbu Icefall. Each season, one climbing team constructs a route through the maze of massive, unstable blocks of ice that form the icefall, and other teams agree to pay a toll to follow their path. Because of this system, Krakauer’s expedition is able to follow a series of ropes and ladders that had been laid out long before their arrival. They set out for Camp One at 4:45am, and Krakauer soon finds that Everest is a completely different experience from his previous climbs. The pre-constructed path eliminates the need for ice picks and other traditional tools, and rather than being tied to each other for safety, each climber clips onto a safety line that runs the entire route. These comforts are negated, however, by the need to repeatedly cross deep crevasses on wobbly ladders and climb around and over large seracs that are in constant danger of collapsing under their own weight. Around 8:30am, Krakauer arrives at Camp One at the top of the icefall, exhausted and humbled by the route below. Hall insists on turning back towards Base Camp at 10:00am sharp in order to avoid the melting effects of the midday sun, even though 6 team members have still not reached Camp One. With this first test behind them, Krakauer determines that Hansen and Fishbeck are the most impressive climbers on the team, while Hutchinson, Kasischke, Weathers, and especially Namba appear worryingly unprepared. Hall is nevertheless optimistic, proclaiming that he is proud of how everyone performed on their first real day of climbing.

The descent back to Base Camp is much quicker, but soon after he arrives Krakauer is struck by a severe headache and nausea that debilitates him for the rest of the day. Thinking that it is likely due to the intense radiation of the late morning sun as he was descending from Camp One, he finally goes to see Mackenzie at the medical tent when he can’t bear the pain any longer. After vomiting out the first dose of medicine, his body accepts the second and he gratefully drifts into sleep. He awakes the next morning to an unexpected call from his wife back in Seattle, a comforting moment even though he can sense the sadness in her voice. He recalls how she broke down in tears while driving him to his flight to Nepal, convinced that joining the expedition was a stupid decision that could cost him his life. She was also a climber when they first met, but had since given it up due to the inherent risks of the sport. This was something Krakauer was never able to do despite his promises to her, an issue that seriously threatened their nearly 16-year marriage.


Base Camp is the closest thing to home that the team experiences during the expedition. In such a hostile environment, even the relatively simple amenities of the Adventure Consultants compound seem close to luxurious. However, the various teams housed at Base Camp form a fractured and sometimes tense community. For instance, the introduction of Scott Fischer challenges Hall’s leadership role for the first time. Fischer is energetic, spontaneous, and fearless; Hall is calm, meticulous, and cautious. Although they never come into direct conflict, the depth of their rivalry is expressed through these polar opposite approaches to their careers. The contrast is so stark that, by virtue of their both being expedition guides facing the same conditions on the same mountain, if one succeeds then the other almost certainly must fail. The ascent is thus set up as a simmering competition—one that began with Hall’s victory in winning Krakauer’s Outside magazine assignment—adding yet another layer of complex motivations that will influence actions taken on the mountain.

Hall’s incredibly detailed ascent and acclimatization plan exemplifies the sophisticated system necessary for an Everest expedition to succeed. On one hand, this diminishes the mountain’s mystique of wild, unpredictable adventure as well as the feat of summiting itself: food, supplies, and ropes are already in place for the team at regular intervals. On the other hand, even perfectly executed logistics aren’t enough to tame the mountain. The world’s most celebrated climbers working together with teams of skilled doctors and Sherpas can only improve a client’s chance of survival, not guarantee it. Hall and most of the team appear to fully trust the system, but Krakauer remains unconvinced that the system can make up for their individual deficiencies. Krakauer’s emotional phone call with his wife exposes the roots of this apprehension. Up until this point, climbing has been described as a risky but ultimately positive and invigorating passion. Through the phone call, however, we see the emotional strain climbing has placed on Krakauer’s marriage. Climbing is recast as an addictive, destructive habit, almost like a drug that he simply can’t quit. The internal battle between the positive and negative influences of climbing in Krakauer’s life is expressed in his constant shifts between excitement, fear, confidence, and regret.