Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

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.