Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Commercialism on Everest

Krakauer is hired to report on the commercialism on Everest, but the business he encounters there is beyond what he imagined. The commercialism manifests itself in a number of ways: the tourist revenue collected by Nepal and Tibet, the ungodly amounts of money the guiding services charge each of the clients, the competition among Sherpas to get hired by the guiding services, the competition between guide services for media attention and the broadcast of information and images throughout climbing expeditions. Even Krakauer's position underscores just how commercial the business has become—he is folded into the process, paid for reporting on commercialism. Hall and Fischer's guide services compete to have Krakauer in their group because of the media attention and endorsements they could receive after Krakauer's article is published. The commercialism on the mountain also distorts the requirements for climbers. Many of them are inexperienced and would undoubtedly never make it to the top without a guide. The one unifying characteristic shared by all of the climbers is that they have money—enough to shell out $65,000 a piece for their shot at the top.

Trust Among Teammates

Krakauer specifies early on how important it is to be able to trust one's teammates: "In climbing, having confidence in your partners is no small concern. One climber's actions can affect the welfare of the entire team" (47). On this expedition, Krakauer climbs primarily with strangers and he is uncomfortable putting his life in the hands of people whose presence on the mountain is not necessarily a tribute to their climbing skills. Throughout the book, when one client gets in trouble, another must help immediately. When they suffer the effects of hypoxia and mind-altering high altitudes, they have to check each other and watch each other's backs. Krakauer is afraid that because many of the climbers are inexperienced, that he will have to watch out for them while they are of little help to him. Krakauer recognizes that the most important element of all trust in one's guide, who is responsible for keeping all of the team members together, functioning as a group. During the climb, particularly the dissent, trust between teammates results in the survival of some of the clients and the breakdown of that trust results in the death of others.

Loyalty Among Teammates

While related to trust, loyalty is so important that it must be stressed separately. On Everest, loyalty basically means that a climber will risk his or her own life to help another. Guides by definition are loyal to their groups. Countless times during the climb, clients get into trouble and their guides rush to their assistance, at times climbing for hours and for thousands of extra feet to perform rescues, bring oxygen, or assist in climbing. During those times, loyalty means not hesitating to help someone else for fear of one's own safety, and the guides and clients that are most trusted among the group are the ones who display loyalty. Lopsang Sherpa is fiercely loyal to Fischer, almost to the exclusion of other climbers. When Fischer is lost on the summit, Lopsang's search for him is not deterred, even by the deadly weather. Hall is similarly loyal to Hansen, refusing to leave Hansen at the summit. Hall's loyalty to Hansen eventually results in his death—he could have left Hansen at the top and climbed down, but he does not even consider it. Andy Harris's loyalty to Hall and Hansen causes his death too, as he becomes stranded trying to bring oxygen to the two men. Nearly all of the rescue attempts on Everest require an enormous amount of loyalty, because every rescue is potentially deadly for all who become involved.

Questions that Cannot be Answered

Krakauer spends long chapters giving his best, most educated guesses about why climbers made certain decisions, and what happened to the people who disappeared. This is an exercise that must result in significant frustration, as no one can be entirely sure what took place. After many mistakes, Krakauer manages to piece together a framework of what happened to whom and when during the climb, but the questions he struggles with in almost every situation are "why" and "how". Why does Anatoli Boukreev descend so far ahead of his clients? How does Krakauer mistake Martin Adams for Andy Harris? Why doesn't Rob Hall enforce the two o'clock turn around time? How does Beck Weathers summon the strength to literally raise himself from the dead not once, but twice? Why did no one notice the storm that hit during the afternoon of the summit? Why do the South Africans refuse to help? Why does Lopsang Sherpa exhaust himself by hauling heavy equipment, and then Sandy Pittman herself, up the mountain? Krakauer grapples with these questions, attempting to answer them in a number of ways, all of which being speculative. Hypoxia, or the influence of high altitude on decision-making, perception and memory further distorts everyone's accounts of what happened there, and makes it even more difficult to figure out how and why.