As the expedition proceeds, Krakauer concludes that many of those on Everest that season are marginally qualified at best, including himself. This continues a long tradition in the history of Everest of dreamers going against reason by attempting to summit the mountain. In 1934, an Englishman named Maurice Wilson died after a summit bid motivated by faith and spirituality, while in 1947 Canadian Earl Denman hired Tenzing Norgay (the Sherpa who would go on to summit with Sir Edmund Hillary) for a determined but ultimately unsuccessful attempt, despite lacking even the permits to climb. While some members of Scott Fischer’s team boast impressive resumes with multiple 8,000-meter peaks, no one on Krakauer’s team has ever reached that important milestone. However, they are not the least competent team on the mountain. A non-commercial Taiwanese team led by Makalu Gau—infamous for being involved in a fatal disaster on Mt. McKinley the previous year—and a dysfunctional South African team led by Ian Woodall are cause for even greater concern among the climbers that season.
Woodall organized a biracial team meant to symbolize the rebirth of post-apartheid South Africa, rallying the whole nation behind their attempt to become the first South Africans to summit Everest. But he was soon exposed as a fraud and control freak who fabricated his credentials and cared little about South Africa beyond its convenient role in getting him to the top of Everest. As a result, several of the more decorated climbers on his team abandoned the expedition, and the Sunday Times newspaper pulled its sponsorship after its reporters were denied promised access. The team’s story became an international scandal and turned Woodall into a pariah at Base Camp, making him increasingly uncooperative and depriving his remaining team of its original noble mission.
As the team begins its second acclimatization run, Krakauer notices that he doesn’t have to exert quite as much effort as before, although crossing the icefall is still terrifying. He tries to assist Ang Dorje, the expedition’s sirdar (lead climbing Sherpa), in setting up Camp One, but he is quickly exhausted. Ang Dorje grew up in a very poor family, but was supported by a Canadian couple who took an interest in his growth and education. He earned a reputation for his resourcefulness and was promoted to sirdar for Hall in 1992. Having summited Everest 3 times since then, Hall relied on Ang Dorje extensively and had grown very close to him. The second run continues up the Western Cwn to Camp Two at 21,300 feet, a route that fluctuates between brutal cold and searing heat, depending on the sun’s position. Along the way, Krakauer is shaken by the sight of two corpses on the side of the trail.
Back at base camp, Krakauer and Harris make small talk with the South Africans before hearing news of a medical emergency on the mountain: Ngawang Topche, a veteran Sherpa on Fischer’s team, was exhibiting symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), but stubbornly refused to acknowledge it out of fear that he would be deemed unfit to work again. As his condition worsens at Camp Two, a group of Fischer’s clients are left with the responsibility to drag him back to Base Camp, where HAPE symptoms often clear due to the lower altitude. But despite the combined efforts of Base Camp doctors, Ngawang doesn’t improve and is carried to the clinic in Pheriche when bad weather makes a helicopter evacuation to Kathmandu impossible. He would eventually die in June after lying in a vegetative state due to severe oxygen deprivation in his brain.
Krakauer discusses how correspondents tied to the various expeditions are responsible for writing dispatches of events on Everest for news media around the world. One of the best-known correspondents that season is Sandy Pittman, a millionaire New York socialite on a high-profile quest to climb the Seven Summits with Fischer’s team. Pittman is notorious for hiring a large staff of Sherpas to deliver magazines, carry heavy electronic equipment, and otherwise maintain as many trappings of high society as possible on the slopes of Everest. Many resent her for representing the worst of the new generation of wealthy, entitled amateur climbers, but her teammates tolerate her antics and praise her positive attitude and energy.
Krakauer’s worries about the climb start being confirmed in these chapters as multiple problems arise. The threat of nature derailing the expedition is superseded by the threat of Krakauer’s fellow climbers. The inexperience and dysfunction of the Taiwanese and South African expeditions pose a danger to everyone on the mountain, as their fates are involuntarily intertwined. Whatever sense of control and planning existed previously is shattered by the unpredictable presence of teams operating outside of Hall’s system. As the threats multiply, incidents on the trail move from hypothetical to actual. Ngawang Topche’s serious case of edema and Krakauer’s encounter with two bodies along the trail suddenly make death a tangible, inescapable reality. Still, Krakauer reacts to these omens with greater concern than the other climbers. Sandy Pittman, seemingly more worried about comfort than death, is the opposite of Krakauer in attitude and background. However, it’s noteworthy that this wide spectrum of experience and seriousness, running from Pittman on one end to Hall on the other, is oddly consistent with the mountain’s history of celebrated climbers and unqualified dreamers chasing the same goal.