Jon Krakauer, author and mountain climber, is hired by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism on Mount Everest. Krakauer decides he wants to climb the mountain, and joins the most disastrous Everest expedition in history.

Krakauer joins the climbing service called Adventure Consultants, guided by Rob Hall. The guide service is intended to speed up the acclimatization process and guide the climbers successfully to the summit of Mount Everest.

The climb is structure into camps: Base Camp, Camp One, Camp Two, Camp Three and Camp Four. After spending weeks at Base Camp, the group makes a number of trips up to the other camps to speed up the acclimatization process. In the beginning of May, the gr oup makes a summit push.

Throughout the climb, Krakauer details his teammates, his guides and other expeditions on the mountain. He tries to piece together a continuous timeline of the events that take place in the weeks they are on the mountain.

All of the clients have difficulty adjusting to the altitude, tiring easily, losing weight and moving slowly. The climbers' experience in mountain climbing and at high altitudes varies—some of them are quite qualified, others very inexperienced and highly reliant on the guides.

Despite a number of mishaps, the first death does not actually occur until Chapter 11. From that point on, though, death is something all the climbers become familiar with.

The actual summit push is when everything begins to fall apart. Rob Hall appoints a 2:00 pm turn-around time, meaning that everyone who has not actually reached the summit by then must turn around, no matter how close he or she is. That day, only Krakauer and a few other climbers make it to the top before 2:00 pm. Members of his group reach the top as late as 4:00 pm—the turn around time is not enforced. Among the later arrivals to the top is Rob Hall and another member, Doug Hansen. They arrive jus t behind another climbing group guided by Scott Fischer.

A storm hits the summit that afternoon, and Krakauer catches only the tail end of it before he successfully reaches the refuse of Camp Four. Krakauer is well ahead of most of his teammates and has no idea what lies in store for them.

Hall and Hansen get stranded. Hansen runs out of supplemental oxygen and cannot continue. Another group gets lost in the blizzard and later, an assistant guide rescues all but two of them. The remaining two are left, presumably dead.

Fischer also gets stranded, and when he is finally found, he is dead. Hansen dies and one of Hall's Sherpas tries to rescue Hall, but cannot climb high enough. A guide assistant dies trying to rescue Hall and Hansen.

One of the two clients left for dead, Beck Weathers, actually makes it back to camp and miraculously survives the ordeal. He eventually undergoes a number of amputation and surgeries for his injuries. All told, a dozen people die on Everest that season, a nd Krakauer, originally there to report on the business of taking people up the mountain, cannot forget what he sees there.

After Krakauer publishes his article, he writes this book because he feels he has more to say. He has done extensive research and conducted interviews with all of the survivors, and has information that he didn't have at the time he wrote the article. His opinion is that the events that happened on the mountain deserve to be told in a thorough and accurate a manner and possible. He spends a considerable amount of time reflecting on what happened and how it has changed his life forever. Krakauer struggles with survivor's guilt and a redefined view on mortality and addresses questions about events on the mountain that perhaps don't have answers. Krakauer acknowledges and apologizes for any pain or anger his book might arose in the friends and families of vi ctims, but is undeterred from detailing the events, be they heroic, selfish or tragic.