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.