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At 4:30 am on May 6, the group leaves Base Camp for the last time, in their attempt to reach the summit. The climb up the Icefall to Camp Two is more difficult due to the deteriorating physical conditions of the climbers.
They see the Swedish climber, Goran Kropp, as he is coming back down. He climbed all the way to the South Summit, a mere couple of hundred feet from the top, before deciding he was so exhausted that it would be unsafe for him to press on and that he would be in no condition to descend if he kept going. Hall remarks on what great judgment Kropp displayed in doing that which is so unspeakably hard—turning around when the top is in sight.
The next day the group rests, anxiously awaiting their impending climb. Krakauer and Doug Hansen talk about what the mountain is like at the top, and even though Hansen's throat is still bothering him he is determined to summit. Later that afternoon, Scott Fischer enters their camp, exhausted. Because he allows his clients to go up and down during the acclimization period, he has to make some unplanned climbs and descents to help various members of his team. Fischer had had no rest days. Fischer and one of his assistants, Boukreev, had gotten into a fight because Boukreev had climbed so far ahead of the other clients that again, Fischer had to make a trip to help a struggling climber. Tensions between Fischer and Boukreev spike, largely because Boukreev feels that "'if client cannot climb Everest without big help from guide
this client should not be on Everest'" (194). By this time, Fischer's health has begun to reflect the fact that his guide hasn't been as helpful as he expected.
On May 8, Hall and Fischer's team both leave Camp Two and begin to climb up the Lhotse Face. Just beneath Camp Three, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and slams into Andy Harris's chest. He falls, dangling from his rope. They eventually reach the Camp and Harris claims to be okay, acknowledging that had the rock hit him on the head he wouldn't be.
A few of the members have trouble reaching Camp Three, and need assistance. Two team members, Lou and Frank, struggle into camp hours later. Krakauer is stunned—Frank is one of the climbers he expected to make it to the summit.
That night they begin using supplemental oxygen. Krakauer explains that some climbers feel that using canned oxygen is tantamount to cheating. The most legendary climber of all, Reinhold Messner, was the first to summit the mountain without oxygen. Many people, especially Sherpas, were skeptical that these men—Westerners—had actually achieved the feat without supplemental oxygen, but investigation yielded support for the claim. Two years later, Reinhold made a solo ascent up the Tibetan side of the mountain, again without oxygen. Climbing without oxygen is a distinction, but most guides feel that climbing without gas is irresponsible and renders them almost useless as a guide.
Krakauer finds it difficult to sleep with the oxygen, because wearing the mask makes him feel claustrophobic. He has the sensation that he really cannot breathe despite the extra oxygen. The next morning, after a sleepless night, a member of the Taiwanese team, Chen Nu-Yan, goes outside to go to the bathroom wearing only the liners of his boots. He slips on the ice and falls down the Lhotse Face. He falls into a crevasse after only seventy feet, and survives. The Taiwanese leader leaves Chen in the tent to recover, and then tells Hall of his intention to summit on May 10, despite his promise to avoid the peak on that day.
A few hours later, Chen suddenly takes a turn for the worse. He is in pain and disoriented, and as he is descending the mountain he suddenly loses consciousness. A few minutes later he stops breathing. The IMAX team hurries to help, but when they arrive, Chen is dead. Gau, the Taiwanese leader, upon hearing of Chen's death, says: "O.K." and announces that no plans for his team have changed.
Chapter by chapter, more and more dangerous events unfold. In this chapter, Andy Harris is hit by a boulder and Chen Nu-Yan dies. Tragic and deadly events are occurring more frequently now and everyone is aware of the even more heightened sense of danger. Harris's brush with death is especially heart- stopping. Because he is one of Hall's guides and a likable and morale-boosting figure, losing Harris would be devastating. His accident was freakish, and unavoidable, and it reinforces the idea that no one is immune to accidents, human or natural, on the mountain.
Initially, Chen seems lucky to be walking away from his accident as well. Even more frightening than the accident itself is the sudden, unseen internal reaction. After Chen fell, he seemed fine—he and everyone else thought that he had survived. Chen's unexpected, rapid deterioration and death makes people like Harris even more at risk. What happened to Chen could easily happen to Harris later that night or even the next day. Chen's death does much to eliminate that feeling of relief when an accident seems to avoid disaster.
In the face of these mishaps, Krakauer's discussion of climbing the mountain with supplemental oxygen is particularly startling. The idea that, in addition to the myriad dangers on the mountain, one would eschew supplemental oxygen is mind-blowing. The "purist" climbers' belief that using oxygen is cheating is understandable in the context of sheer achievement, but in the context of safety, responsibility and self-preservation deciding not to use oxygen seems somewhat foolhardy. Krakauer describes Messner with the utmost respect for climbing Everest solo and without oxygen. When on the mountain, struggling even with the additional gas, Messner's feat seems superhuman.
The Taiwanese announcement that they will attempt to reach the summit on May 10, despite their previous promise, is just one more complicating factor. With the death of Chen, the Taiwanese leader's response is callous. He expresses no remorse, guilt or sadness and announces simply that Chen's death does not change anything. This lack of regard or respect for Chen only serves to further solidify Hall's fear of being on the summit with the Taiwanese expedition. A worst-case scenario at the top involves having to rely on that team for help, or a rescue attempt. Similar to Krakauer's feeling upon encountering the two dead bodies, he and the rest of the team try not to dwell on Chen's death. At this point, they are so high on the mountain that dwelling on death and danger can only be detrimental.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Into Thin Air!