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Into Thin Air

Chapters 21

Summary Chapters 21

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.