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After they pass the South Col, they reach an area called the Death Zone. There, one has to proceed quickly in order to summit before his or her oxygen runs out. In Krakauer's group, the climbers all have two canisters of oxygen, each of which is supposed to last for five to six hours. Spending long amounts of time, particularly without oxygen, above the South Col is deadly.
As a way to minimize danger, Hall typically relies on fixed rope lines through the Death Zone. But this time there are no ropes are in place. Hall and Fischer decide to send two Sherpas each ahead of the rest of the climbers to take care of the ropes. However, the night before the summit attempt, no Sherpas left to fasten the ropes. No one is precisely sure why these plans fell through—perhaps high winds were a factor.
Ang Dorje, Hall's Sherpa, reveals that during a vision he had at Base Camp, he saw ghosts. Dorje plans on fixing the ropes, but because Lopsang is late, they don't finish in time. The lack of ropes slows the climbers and causes a traffic jam at around 28,000 feet. The slow pace worries Hall, who is not sure they will be able to reach the summit by the turn around time.
There is some dispute about the turn around time—Hall says he is trying to decide between 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm, but never announces his decision. Knowing that there is no way they would reach the summit by either of those times, climbers Taske and Hutchinson turn back.
Krakauer reflects on how difficult it would be to turn around that close to the top, after having endured all the "misery" to get that far and after paying sums of around $70,000. He also thinks about the fact that the climbers who continue climbing despite safety, logic and ill health are dangerous, which poses a huge dilemma for Everest climbers.
As they approach the Hillary Step, the infamous vertical ridge, Krakauer notices that Boukreev is not carrying any additional oxygen or a backpack. It is the first time he has seen a guide elect not to carry gas or any other equipment. Boukreev says that he began that morning with oxygen and his backpack, but tossed them so as not to take up too much energy. Krakauer and two of Hall's Sherpas wait just below the Hillary Step, and when asked if they are going to fasten the ropes, Hall's Sherpas say no, presumably because no other Sherpas are there to help. Beidleman, Andy Harris and Boukreev finally decide to install the ropes themselves, but by then there is a line of people waiting.
They begin ascending the Step, with Boukreev in front. Krakauer worries that his oxygen will run out—he had ditched his second canister thinking he'd have enough time to retrieve another one on the descent, but now was only about an hour away from running out. Krakauer pushes ahead to the summit and makes it. By the time he is there, though, feels not elation but fear at the thought of the descent that lay ahead.
The consistent problem of the ropes not being fixed ahead of time is one of the only factors that the guides and Sherpas actually have control over, and instead of choosing to secure the ropes and use that control to their benefit, they fail to carry out their plans. It is unclear what actually causes the breakdowns in the chapter that result in traffic jams and the ropes having to be hastily fastened. It might be that Ang Dorje, Hall's Sherpa, is resentful for having carried much more than his load, and is not willing to take on securing the ropes by himself. Perhaps it is simply fatigue, or high altitude mind wandering. Whatever the reason, waiting for the ropes to be in place costs all of the teams valuable time, and jeopardizes everyone's chance at the summit. Fortunately for Krakauer, he is at the head of the group for almost the entire climb, and manages to squeeze into the short window of opportunity afforded when the guides actually finish stringing up the ropes. Three of Hall's clients turn around before they reach the Hillary Step, and knowing that the number in their group is dwindling, Krakauer hurries for the top.
Krakauer reflects on the dilemma that arises when climbers are that high on Everest—sometimes the intelligent thing to do is turn around, but given the exertion and time spent in getting that far, it takes tremendous willpower. However, when clients are stubborn about wanting to reach the top, when the sign up and pay their money expecting to then stand at the top of the world, they are sometimes unwilling to turn back no matter what. "[I]n order to success you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses."
Fischer's guide, Boukreev, makes some questionable decisions in this chapter. He climbs without oxygen, which is acceptable for a climber of his skill, but perhaps not as a guide employed to function so well that he has the energy and wherewithal to help others. He also discards his backpack full of supplies to rid himself of the extra weight (which perhaps might not have been a factor had he had extra gas).
Krakauer must take three or four breaths with every step as he nears the summit. His description of toiling on toward the top is eerily like dying—little movement renders him utterly exhausted, struggling to breathe. It is ironic that climbing Everest, a feat that celebrates life and the potential of human beings leaves a climber feeling almost dead, devoid of energy and emotion.
Not only does Krakauer have the actual summit and his own exhaustion to contend with—he constantly worries that he will run out of oxygen. Thus he hurries to the top, and barely pauses on the summit to celebrate his triumph. By the time Krakauer reaches the peak of Everest, he is too scared about his dwindling oxygen supply and the daunting task of descent to rejoice.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Into Thin Air!