Th summit of Everest is a symbol representing completion for many of the climbers, and representing money for the guides. From a client's point of view, if they reach the top then they have climbed the world's tallest mountain. Many climbers focus too much on the summit and forget about everything else, leading to poor judgment. From the perspective of the guides, getting more clients to the summit leads to more clients hiring them in the future.
Oxygen, an essential element of life that everyone takes for granted, becomes a symbol of survival in the book. At extremely high altitudes, one cannot live long without supplemental oxygen because the air is so thin. During his descent, Krakauer notes his body's urgent need for oxygen after he runs out of it. He had been without supplemental oxygen for only an hour, yet his body was already powering down. This illustrates the reliance that climbers have on oxygen tanks, and symbolizes survival in precarious circumstances.
The radio is much more than a communication tool in the story, and comes to symbolize hope. The day after the storm, when Hall is stranded near the top of the mountain, his radio connection maintains hope that he might still make it down alive. The various teams spread along the mountainside, along with Guy Cotter on a nearby peak, are all connected and remain hopeful as long as Hall's radio stays on. Their messages all try to convey a sense of hope to Hall as well, who struggles to find the strength and will to continue. As slim as Hall's chances were, his hope remained alive until the final, emotional transmission between him and his wife.
Rope is a symbol of teamwork—or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Krakauer's discussion of how guides from various expeditions work together to plan new paths up the mountain each season highlights the high level of cooperation and trust needed for successful ascents. The ropes and ladders already in place as Krakauer safely moves up the Khumbu Icefall, for example, are symbolic of successful teamwork. Close to the summit, however, poor coordination and petty feuds between Hall and Fischer's staff leave the critical task of laying ropes unfinished, symbolizing the breakdown of teamwork.
Base Camp (Symbol)
Base Camp serves as a symbol of safety. It becomes the team's de facto home over six weeks, and contains comforts such as a mess hall, library, and equipment to communicate with loved ones. Each progressively higher climb that takes the team further from Base Camp in turn exposes them to greater dangers. The safety of Base Camp is cast in stark contrast to the "Death Zone" above 25,000 feet, where the human body slowly begins shutting down for lack of oxygen. On the descent, the team's ordeal is not over until the survivors reach Base Camp, the symbolic return to safety. Only here is Krakauer able to pause and look back on the full scope of the tragedy that occurred.
Into Thin Air Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Into Thin Air is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think knowing when not to risk your life is the main one. Not letting one's obsession cloud rational judgment is a theme in any high-risk endeavour. All of these climbers knew the risks of a late descent yet did it anyway.