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On May 13, Krakauer descends into Base Camp. Finally safe, he begins weeping "like I hadn't wept since I was a small boy." They hold a memorial service on the mountain, giving eulogies, reading Buddhist scriptures, burning incense and praying.
The next morning, a helicopter arrives to take doctor Fox and Mike Groom, who both have badly frostbitten feet. A few hours later, the rest of the group leaves Base Camp. They return to Namche Bazaar where they wait for their flight into Kathmandu. While there, three Japanese men—Yasuko Namba's husband, his brother, and an accomplished Himalayan climber acting as a guide and interpreter, approach them. The men ask many questions about what happened on the mountain; Krakauer cannot answer them all. Japanese reporters were littering the area, as Namba's climb had been big news in Japan. Krakauer finds it nearly impossible to deal with the questions—the experience could not be "reduced to sound bites."
Krakauer has a very difficult and emotional time trying to deal with the questions—both his own and the reporters. Back in the U.S., Doug Hansen's family meets Krakauer at the airport. Krakauer gives them Hansen's belongings, not knowing what to say to them. Krakauer describes becoming "reacquainted" with his wife, and experiencing the ordinary pleasures of life in Seattle (351). He is never quite able to get out from under the umbrella of what happened, and when he finally speaks to Jan, Rob Hall's wife, "she spent more time comforting me than vice versa." Krakauer addresses his changed perspective on mortality, and how his own guilt in the disaster will forever affect him.
Krakauer theorizes about what happened and why. He attributes some of the disaster to sheer arrogance, especially in the thought that guides could get anyone up the mountain. He attributes some of the blame to timing and to ignoring the turn-around time. The weather was another contributing factor. Krakauer also speculates that Hall and Fischer, though friends, were also competing for the same business. For one to get fewer clients to the top than the other would be bad for business, so both pressed themselves and their clients. Krakauer attributes the disaster also to hypoxia, and to the impaired judgment that is inevitable at high altitudes. The fact that many of the climbers do not fully realize the risk of what they are doing also contributed to the disaster.
Krakauer mentions that the climbing of Everest is not a highly regulated business, primarily because the countries are so poor and welcome the business so much they want as many people to climb as possible. Ironically, 1996 was a statically safe year on Everest. "Between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times—a ratio of one in four" (357).
Krakauer ends the chapter by relaying information about other expeditions. On May 17 on the Tibetan side, an Austrian and a Hungarian climber had reached 27,230 feet without supplemental oxygen. The Austrian fell ill, having contracted both pulmonary and cerebral edema, and even with oxygen and medication, died. The IMAX team regroups and makes another attempt at the summit. They ascend with some other climbers on May 22; sixteen climbers in all. One of the IMAX climbers, a friend of Fischer and Hall's, sees both of their bodies on the way up.
The IMAX team sees the remaining South African team, who are in rough shape. Some of them make it to the summit and descend, but one of them, Bruce Herrod, is lagging behind and is at the summit at 5:15 pm. His radio call to Base Camp at that time is the last anyone heard from him.
This chapter demonstrates how Krakauer may never leave the experience of climbing everest behind. Many of the questions and much of the horror regarding the disaster surface after he is home and has ample time to reflect. Krakauer tries to analyze the events and come up with reasons they happened. He discusses many hypotheses in this chapter, but the frustrating part is that he can never know which actually happened, or how much each factor ultimately contributed to what happened. Most of his theories involve the basic sport and the basic idea of trying to climb Everest—arrogance, lack of regulation, climbers' lack of experience, and failure to adhere to rules. These are human errors, inherent in the business of climbing Everest. Krakauer has previously mentioned concerns that dealt with inexperience and not adhering to the turn-around time, but even when expressing concern, no one realized just how deadly those mistakes could be: "[O]n Everest it is the nature of systems to break down with a vengeance."
Krakauer's entire view on life and death is forever changed: "Mortality had remained a conveniently hypothetical concept, an idea to ponder in the abstract. Sooner or later the divestiture of such a privileged innocence was inevitable
." All of the climbers age during their expedition on Everest, bearing witness to so many aspects of the uglier and more horrifying aspects of life and death.
It is questionable whether the glory of reaching the summit survived what happened. That glory is a product of the danger. Krakauer always knew that climbing mountains was dangerous, but his experience on Everest was beyond dangerous. "Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them (352). Crossing the line between dangerous and deadly is a grotesque transgression, and one Krakauer and the surviving climbers were forced to make.
Krakauer also suffers from survivor's guilt. It is unclear whether or not this is guilty at simply living while others died, or whether this is guilt borne of feeling responsible for another's death. Krakauer describes it as not knowing if he could have done something to help any of the people who died, and thus being unable to make peace with what happened.
Having a unique role on the expedition must also affect the way Krakauer processes the experience. As a journalist, he was sent to the scene of an accident before the accident had happened. What he was actually supposed to be writing about is utterly inconsequential in the face of what happened, although ironically, consumerism on Everest is one of the factors he attributes to the disaster. His questions and possible answers, intense guilt and his ruminations on life and death demonstrate how indelible this experience is. The fact that we have this book shows that Krakauer is unwilling to forget.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Into Thin Air!