Into Thin Air

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Main Ideas


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Base Camp, Camp One, Camp Two, Camp Three and Camp Four divide the Everest climb into sections. It is much easier for the climbers to set their sights on reaching the next camp rather than reaching the summit. The camps represent goals within the larger goal of summating the mountain. The camps are also seen as safe havens. During a storm or when encountering difficulty or danger, the climbers all think about making it back to camp. Even Camp Four, a fairly bedraggled shelter without any of the conveniences of Base Camp, represents safety during the summit descent. The vision of the tents is similar to seeing a house on the horizon, and knowing that to some extent, one is coming home. Without the refuge of the camps, no climber no matter how tough or experienced could survive the rigors of weeks on Everest.

Oxygen Canisters

While a literal fixture during the climb, the canisters of oxygen represent support and assistance. One of the scariest aspects of climbing Everest is being unable to breathe in the high altitudes and feeling suffocated. As with scuba diving, using supplemental oxygen is not natural, but it creates a feeling of comfort and normalcy that otherwise would not exist in high altitudes. The mere sight of a full oxygen canister is enough to cause joy, particularly when a climber fears he or she is running out. On the other hand, however, oxygen represents the fact that for the most part, people are not meant to exist in high altitudes. Some mountain climbing purists ascend without supplemental oxygen, but the vast majority of climbers and all of the clients on the 1996 expedition need the oxygen. In a situation where there are many elements against them, having a canister of air provides security and puts a climber on a more level playing field. The oxygen also gives the climbers an additional sense of confidence—as long as they can breathe, they are still alive.

Ropes and Knots

The climbers ascend the more difficult faces of the mountain by following fixed ropes installed ahead of time by guides. The ropes exist for practicality, to help the climbers ascend the mountain. The ropes also ensure that the group stays together and follows the exact same path up the mountain. In addition, a client gains some peace of mind knowing that someone has climbed the path ahead of them and installed a hands-on map. Krakauer notes with relief that on this climb, the clients are not all attached to the same rope. Typically they are, meaning that if one client slips, either they all slip or one of the clients prevents a disaster by summoning the strength to hold up the rope. The rope symbolizes unity and loyalty, exemplifying the idea that one's life is bound to another. Depending on who one is tied to, that concept could either be frightening or reassuring. Many of Krakauer's discussions of teamwork and trust emerge when the clients must all ascend a single line, or when they are able to unhook from one another.