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Krakauer's group remains at Base Camp, acclimatizing during this chapter. Keeping everyone (twenty-six team members in all) healthy proves to be a difficult feat, but Hall is a readily impressive guide. He constantly studies figures, data, information and schedules to be sure they do not encounter anything unexpected.
The overview of their climbing strategy is revealed in this chapter: after spending a few weeks at Base Camp, the group will set up four different camps on the way to the top. Each camp will be about 2,000 feet higher than the last, and they will bring food, water and oxygen to each one, even though climbing with that gear—primarily the Sherpas' duty—becomes progressively more difficult. In order to acclimatize, the group must make several excursions from Base Camp before the actual summit climb. The first acclimatization ascent is on April 13. As they assemble all their gear, Krakauer notices that some of his teammates are wearing new mountaineering boots. He worries about those climbers, because one of the elementary rules of climbing is not to wear boots that aren't broken in. He also worries about the fact that most of his teammates hadn't climbed in the last year or two. Krakauer points out the differences between training in a gym, and training by climbing an actual mountain.
Krakauer gives an overview of the route up the lower half of the mountain. The group plans to climb a valley, relatively manageable and safe despite a few crevasses, then up a part of the mountain called the Icefall. The Icefall is a glacier that comes to rest over a drop-off. The glacier on the Icefall moves a few feet a day, causing nails of ice to form. Eighteen climbers had died in the Icefall.
Hall's now almost universally accepted approach to the Icefall is to appoint a team to go ahead and carve out the path that the rest of the climbers would use during their ascents. In 1988, the group that carved out the route demanded money from each climber to pass through, like a toll road. Initially bothered by the practice, Hall accepted it and in 1993, 1994 and 1995 determined the route and collected the toll himself.
Ladders and ropes, put there before the expedition by the Sherpas, cover the glacier itself. Climbing the Icefall is frightening, and requires the employment of an unusual roping technique that prevents any climber from being roped to another. Instead, the climbers ascend independently. Krakauer is relieved to learn that this is the method used on Everest, because it means that his trust in his teammates doesn't have to be as great or as tested as it otherwise would be. Krakauer witnesses an avalanche on his way up, and acknowledges the many dangers in scaling the Icefall. Describing the Icefall as "a three-dimensional landscape of phantasmal beauty," Krakauer's fear is tempered by his enthrallment with the Icefall.
About seventy-five percent of the way to base camp, the group encounters a serac formed by the moving glacier that stands about twelve stories tall. They have to climb as quickly as possible, to avoid being underneath the serac when it crumbles or slides. Krakauer describes trying to climb quickly while not yet being suitably acclimatized. He can only move five or six steps before needing to rest, but makes it up the Icefall.
Hall gives them a 10:00 am turn-around time, meaning that if they are not all at Camp One by then, they all must turn around. By 10:00 am only half of the group is at the Camp, so they all go back. For the first time, Krakauer has an opportunity to observe the climbing abilities of his teammates, and is impressed with some while increasingly worried about others.
Ten minutes after reaching Base Camp, Krakauer is struck by an ultraviolet radiation headache that leaves him virtually incapacitated. Hours later and after finally successfully ingesting medication, the headache abates.
Krakauer's wife, Linda, calls. He ends the chapter describing their relationship. Linda had been happy when, years earlier, Krakauer decided to quit climbing. When he first received the assignment from Outside Magazine, he told Linda he would stay at Base Camp, but she knew better and was distraught when bringing him to the airport to leave for the expedition.
This chapter puts the process of acclimatization into perspective. The group must ascend and descend seven times before actually climbing to reach the summit. The process sounds exhausting, especially after considering Krakauer's description of the Icefall. The group must climb that deadly terrain a number of times, and it seems as if the odds of encountering peril would increase each time. The climb itself is arduous, and Krakauer describes having trouble breathing and moving quickly. It is nearly impossible to imagine making that trek, much less having to do it again and again as required by the acclimatization process.
Consistent with the other chapters, Krakauer again recognizes the place of money on the mountain, this time as a "toll road" up a treacherous slope. The idea of sending people ahead to carve out a safe path usable by every climber is a good one, but like almost all of the good, safe ideas associated with climbing the mountain, it costs money. When a climber is on the mountain, especially at a dangerous area like the Icefall, safety is worth almost any price, and the guides have learned to capitalize on that.
Krakauer's relief in not having to be roped to his fellow climbers is almost palpable. In previous chapters he mentions that trusting one's teammates is essential, but he also expresses doubts in some of the clients' experience and climbing abilities. As much as teamwork is important, there is more of a sense of autonomy in this chapter, at least in terms of the physical climbing. Krakauer seems more than happy to accept that. The concept of teamwork is stressed in conjunction with the turn-around time. Half of the group, including Krakauer, arrives at Camp One before 10:00 am, but some climbers have not. There is no equivocation here, as everyone turns around and descends back to Base Camp at the appointed time.
Krakauer's description of his marriage is similar to that of Scott Fischer and some of the other guides. The subject of climbing evolves into a problem in the relationship, either because of all the time spent away from home, the sheer danger of the sport or jealousy that a sport can arouse more passion than a lover can. Krakauer's wife was happy when he decided he was finished climbing, and she was beside herself when she had to bring him to the airport for his climb up Everest. Being on the sidelines would perhaps be the most difficult position of all. Weeks of not knowing, imagining where the expedition was and how everyone was doing, weeks of praying for good weather and good judgment. There is decidedly little comfort until one has actually reached the ground again. Krakauer knows this, and can think of little else to tell Linda other than: "'I'm not going to get killed
Don't be melodramatic'" (110).
Ace your assignments with our guide to Into Thin Air!