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Into Thin Air

Jon Krakauer

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Character Analysis

Chapter 1

Themes

Commercialism on Everest

Krakauer is hired to report on the commercialism on Everest, but the business he encounters there is beyond what he imagined. The commercialism manifests itself in a number of ways: the tourist revenue collected by Nepal and Tibet, the ungodly amounts of money the guiding services charge each of the clients, the competition among Sherpas to get hired by the guiding services, the competition between guide services for media attention and the broadcast of information and images throughout climbing expeditions. Even Krakauer's position underscores just how commercial the business has become—he is folded into the process, paid for reporting on commercialism. Hall and Fischer's guide services compete to have Krakauer in their group because of the media attention and endorsements they could receive after Krakauer's article is published. The commercialism on the mountain also distorts the requirements for climbers. Many of them are inexperienced and would undoubtedly never make it to the top without a guide. The one unifying characteristic shared by all of the climbers is that they have money—enough to shell out $65,000 a piece for their shot at the top.

Trust Among Teammates

Krakauer specifies early on how important it is to be able to trust one's teammates: "In climbing, having confidence in your partners is no small concern. One climber's actions can affect the welfare of the entire team" (47). On this expedition, Krakauer climbs primarily with strangers and he is uncomfortable putting his life in the hands of people whose presence on the mountain is not necessarily a tribute to their climbing skills. Throughout the book, when one client gets in trouble, another must help immediately. When they suffer the effects of hypoxia and mind-altering high altitudes, they have to check each other and watch each other's backs. Krakauer is afraid that because many of the climbers are inexperienced, that he will have to watch out for them while they are of little help to him. Krakauer recognizes that the most important element of all trust in one's guide, who is responsible for keeping all of the team members together, functioning as a group. During the climb, particularly the dissent, trust between teammates results in the survival of some of the clients and the breakdown of that trust results in the death of others.

Loyalty Among Teammates

While related to trust, loyalty is so important that it must be stressed separately. On Everest, loyalty basically means that a climber will risk his or her own life to help another. Guides by definition are loyal to their groups. Countless times during the climb, clients get into trouble and their guides rush to their assistance, at times climbing for hours and for thousands of extra feet to perform rescues, bring oxygen, or assist in climbing. During those times, loyalty means not hesitating to help someone else for fear of one's own safety, and the guides and clients that are most trusted among the group are the ones who display loyalty. Lopsang Sherpa is fiercely loyal to Fischer, almost to the exclusion of other climbers. When Fischer is lost on the summit, Lopsang's search for him is not deterred, even by the deadly weather. Hall is similarly loyal to Hansen, refusing to leave Hansen at the summit. Hall's loyalty to Hansen eventually results in his death—he could have left Hansen at the top and climbed down, but he does not even consider it. Andy Harris's loyalty to Hall and Hansen causes his death too, as he becomes stranded trying to bring oxygen to the two men. Nearly all of the rescue attempts on Everest require an enormous amount of loyalty, because every rescue is potentially deadly for all who become involved.

Questions that Cannot be Answered

Krakauer spends long chapters giving his best, most educated guesses about why climbers made certain decisions, and what happened to the people who disappeared. This is an exercise that must result in significant frustration, as no one can be entirely sure what took place. After many mistakes, Krakauer manages to piece together a framework of what happened to whom and when during the climb, but the questions he struggles with in almost every situation are "why" and "how". Why does Anatoli Boukreev descend so far ahead of his clients? How does Krakauer mistake Martin Adams for Andy Harris? Why doesn't Rob Hall enforce the two o'clock turn around time? How does Beck Weathers summon the strength to literally raise himself from the dead not once, but twice? Why did no one notice the storm that hit during the afternoon of the summit? Why do the South Africans refuse to help? Why does Lopsang Sherpa exhaust himself by hauling heavy equipment, and then Sandy Pittman herself, up the mountain? Krakauer grapples with these questions, attempting to answer them in a number of ways, all of which being speculative. Hypoxia, or the influence of high altitude on decision-making, perception and memory further distorts everyone's accounts of what happened there, and makes it even more difficult to figure out how and why.

Motifs

Solitude and Self-Reliance

Despite the importance of trusting one's teammates, Krakauer comes to the realization that in fact, each climber is there for him or herself, and that it is possible for one climber to trust another too much. At the end of the day, Krakauer knows that it is unlikely that the other clients would be capable of helping him were he to get stranded, and he knows that in order to be as safe as possible, self-reliance is essential. Thus, Krakauer often breaks away from the group, climbing ahead of his teammates. He avoids packs and traffic jams and relies on his own mountain climbing experience throughout the expedition. Almost without exception, the people who died on Everest during the expedition died deaths of solitude. Fischer is stranded, alone. Hall and Hansen are stuck at the summit, but Hansen dies early on, leaving Hall by himself, radioing helplessly down to Base Camp for help. Weathers is left for dead twice, with no one looking after him. In fact, even on the brink of death Weathers is cognizant of the fact that: "I was in deep shit and the cavalry wasn't coming so I better do something about it myself'" (329).

Arrogance: believing that nature can be tamed

Ultimately, Krakauer concludes that sheer arrogance is in part to blame for the tragedy that takes place on Everest. Fischer even claimed to have "built a yellow brick road to the summit" (86). The entire guiding business is built on the concept that the acclimatization process can be sped up into a compact amount of time, making it possible for almost anyone to reach the top. Hall "bragged on more than one occasion that he could get almost any reasonably fit person to the summit" (354). Confidence is essential in running a guide service and attracting clients, but Hall and Fischer's apparent belief that they had reduced conquering Everest to a science is foolhardy. Their arrogance also caused their clients to lower their guards and not fully appreciate the risks of the expedition. For all of the ways that the guide service made climbing easier—speeding up acclimatization, installing ropes along hard passes and setting up camps, a number of variables remain completely out of their control. A falling boulder kills a Sherpa on this expedition. Avalanches and storms strike without warning, and no matter how competent a guide is, he or she cannot avoid these pitfalls. Believing that one has all aspects of summating Everest under control is detrimental to any climb; one cannot afford to lose any acuity or sense of the enormity of the risk.

Drive and Overdrive

Krakauer notes the struggle to reconcile the necessity and the deadliness of a mountain climber's drive. Drive and dedication are essential to prevail over the conditions, difficulty of the climb and the misery that one must undergo when climbing Everest. The physical demands are so great that if not accompanied with a fierce drive, most climbers would turn back long before the summit. However, that same drive can cause climbers to subject themselves to unnecessary risk and make dangerous decisions. A number of climbers are forced to turn around just before reaching the summit—a defeating and heart wrenching decision when one has withstood the mountain and its hardships for a matter of weeks. However, in order to stay safe a climber must exercise willpower to tame his or her drive. During the expedition, a group of climbers turn back just hundreds of feet from the summit and Rob Hall remarks that the decision was more impressive than reaching the summit would have been. So many climbers, including Hall himself at the end, are so consumed by "summit fever" that despite the risks, turning back is simply not an option. Drive is a necessary characteristic, but if left unchecked often results in poor decision-making and even death during expeditions.

Symbols

Camp

Base Camp, Camp One, Camp Two, Camp Three and Camp Four divide the Everest climb into sections. It is much easier for the climbers to set their sights on reaching the next camp rather than reaching the summit. The camps represent goals within the larger goal of summating the mountain. The camps are also seen as safe havens. During a storm or when encountering difficulty or danger, the climbers all think about making it back to camp. Even Camp Four, a fairly bedraggled shelter without any of the conveniences of Base Camp, represents safety during the summit descent. The vision of the tents is similar to seeing a house on the horizon, and knowing that to some extent, one is coming home. Without the refuge of the camps, no climber no matter how tough or experienced could survive the rigors of weeks on Everest.

Oxygen Canisters

While a literal fixture during the climb, the canisters of oxygen represent support and assistance. One of the scariest aspects of climbing Everest is being unable to breathe in the high altitudes and feeling suffocated. As with scuba diving, using supplemental oxygen is not natural, but it creates a feeling of comfort and normalcy that otherwise would not exist in high altitudes. The mere sight of a full oxygen canister is enough to cause joy, particularly when a climber fears he or she is running out. On the other hand, however, oxygen represents the fact that for the most part, people are not meant to exist in high altitudes. Some mountain climbing purists ascend without supplemental oxygen, but the vast majority of climbers and all of the clients on the 1996 expedition need the oxygen. In a situation where there are many elements against them, having a canister of air provides security and puts a climber on a more level playing field. The oxygen also gives the climbers an additional sense of confidence—as long as they can breathe, they are still alive.

Ropes and Knots

The climbers ascend the more difficult faces of the mountain by following fixed ropes installed ahead of time by guides. The ropes exist for practicality, to help the climbers ascend the mountain. The ropes also ensure that the group stays together and follows the exact same path up the mountain. In addition, a client gains some peace of mind knowing that someone has climbed the path ahead of them and installed a hands-on map. Krakauer notes with relief that on this climb, the clients are not all attached to the same rope. Typically they are, meaning that if one client slips, either they all slip or one of the clients prevents a disaster by summoning the strength to hold up the rope. The rope symbolizes unity and loyalty, exemplifying the idea that one's life is bound to another. Depending on who one is tied to, that concept could either be frightening or reassuring. Many of Krakauer's discussions of teamwork and trust emerge when the clients must all ascend a single line, or when they are able to unhook from one another.

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"Into thin Air"

by Grizzthekid2014, August 07, 2012

When the clients would have sexual relations the book specifically stated that it what called " Sause making" I think you guys should add that in their because its important fact and could be on high school test knowing how specific teachers are these days. Thanks!

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