Into Thin Air is a play on words that illustrates a few key facts about the 1996 Everest disaster.
Most obviously, it's a play off the phrase "disappear into thin air." That's pretty much what happened up on Everest that fateful day: Over a dozen climbers abruptly went missing in the blink of an eye.
But it's also a reference to the fact that the book takes place at high altitudes, where the air is—quite literally—thin. As it happens, the oxygen deprivation caused by this "thin air" is hugely important to the events of Into Thin Air, though you'll have to read the book yourself to find out why.
So that's… a little dark.
To be honest, Krakauer seems a little bummed that he survived. Mostly he feels a sense of guilt, both for not being able to do more to help his friends (Andy Harris, especially) and for making some serious mistakes in his initial journalistic reporting on the incident. That leaves him in a pretty serious funk—a funk that presumably remains until he finally achieves catharsis by writing Into Thin Air, which happens about a year after the disaster.
There is one ray of sunshine, however, and his name is Beck Weathers. In all honestly, Weathers is Into Thin Air's unlikely hero: a man who perhaps suffers more than any other individual but only becomes a better person for it. After all, the dude loses a hand and sections of his face to frostbite, yet still keeps his head held higher than our boy Krakauer. If Krakauer ever feels too down about things, he should just visualize Beck Weathers ranting about Hillary Clinton with as much passion as ever and feel thankful for what he has.
Would you believe us if we said that the setting of book about Mount Everest was… wait for it… Mount Everest? Since you're presumably waiting for your brain to reassemble after being so epically blown, we'll put this simply: Mount Everest can be a nasty place.
Base Camp, on the other hand, might as well be the Ritz Carlton. These dudes have the hookup: Hall's tent boasts "a stereo system, a library […], [and] a satellite phone and fax" (5.13). This is evidence of the growing commercialization of Everest, as the vast amount of money being poured into the region inevitably leads to an influx of pricey creature comforts such as these. Still, you'd get a more authentic roughin' it experience by spending a night at your local campgrounds than at Everest Base Camp.
Interestingly, Base Camp is structured like a little city. Each expedition has its own set of tents, but a great deal of the decision-making happens as a group. This year, "Hall's Adventure Consultants compound served as the seat of government for the entire Base Camp" (5.16), as Hall is the most experienced guide on Everest. This is once again evidence of the growing commercialization of Everest, as the increasing number of expeditions on Everest makes cohesion between the groups integral.
Of course, these connections to civilization disappear as you ascend the mountain. Sure, there are a few small campsites along the way, but there's nothing to see for the most part, except for ice and—well—more ice. Then, once you get high enough, you don't even see much of that anymore: At a certain point, "the vista was primarily sky rather than earth" (10.18). Perhaps because of this, Krakauer spends surprisingly little time talking about how the mountain actually looks.
In many ways, Mount Everest is defined by this haziness. Krakauer never really gets the chance to sit around and take in the beautiful natural scenery because he must instead focus all of his energy on successfully ascending the mountain. Plus, once you get to a certain height, you literally can't sit around and enjoy the sights since the air is too thin to support human life for more than a few hours. Though we spend the bulk of the book on Everest, the mountain remains distinctly apart from us—which, to be honest, is just the way we like it.
This is a nonfiction book written by a journalist, so don't expect anything too fancy or confusing—clear storytelling is kind of Krakauer's thing. That said, he gives us a lot of insight into the history of Everest, rather than just the events of the 1996 disaster, so you'd better keep your thinking cap handy.
In Into Thin Air, bottled oxygen represents the way that technology makes climbing Mount Everest a much easier proposition. The only question is whether this is a good thing.
First we have the pro-O2 camp. Although "relying on bottled oxygen […] is a practice that's sparked acrimonious debate ever since […] 1921" (11.28), these folks will tell you (rightfully, we might add) that the first ascent of the mountain in 1953 would have been impossible if not for the help of good old O2. In this perspective, bottled oxygen is just another tool in a climber's repertoire; it's simply a means to an end.
Then we have the die-hard purists. This bunch looks to Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler for inspiration: Messner and Habeler reached the top of Everest without bottled oxygen in 1978, which was "hailed by climbers in some circles as the first true ascent of Everest" (11.30). These purists argue that bottled oxygen only encourages lesser-skilled climbers to take a shot at Everest, which makes things more dangerous for everyone.
It's kind of hard to argue with that perspective given the events of Into Thin Air. Even Krakauer lends credence to the idea, suggesting "the simplest way to reduce future carnage would be to ban bottled oxygen except for emergency medical use" (21.28). On the other hand, there are plenty of climbers in the book (Krakauer included) who climb both responsibly and skillfully, despite using bottled oxygen.
Which leaves us with one question: What do you think?
Mount Everest represents different things to different people. For some, it represents the greatest achievement that one can make. For others, like the Sherpa community who've lived in its shadow for countless generations, it represents something even bigger—a goddess.
In Sherpa culture, Mount Everest is also known as Sagarmāthā, the goddess of the sky. Pretty boss, right? To them, the mountain is sacred ground, and much debate rages over whether it was right to open up this holy land to outsiders in the first place—they even wonder if "the climbers […] had angered Everest" and "the deity had taken her revenge" (9.18) on them. Essentially, the Sherpas see Mount Everest as something to be treasured and protected.
Outsiders, on the other hand, have a different take. Most see Everest as a mission that must be accomplished—these are men like Beck Weathers, who applies the same drive that brought him success in his career as a doctor to mountaineering. While most (like Beck Weathers) certainly approach this task in a serious and sincere way, there are certainly some who merely want to "buy the summit of Everest for [their] trophy case" (10.7). In other words, instead of deference, many outsiders bring a sense of conquest with them.
This idea of claiming the mountain is an unthinkable concept to the Sherpa people. Although they love climbing as much as any American or Australian, they do so with respect and gratitude, rather than arrogance and entitlement. No matter your religious beliefs, that's an attitude every mountain-climber should share. And should you forget who's boss, Everest will be more than happy to remind you.
To put it simply, Everest's summit is the Holy Grail. As we see in Into Thin Air, climbers drop tens of thousands of dollars, undergo months of preparation, and endure Saw-levels of physical suffering just for a shot at reaching this tiny patch of land at the top of the planet.
Unfortunately, this leads many to fall prey to nasty little ailment dubbed "Summit Fever." Summit Fever is an obsession with reaching the top of a mountain at all costs, often at the expense of your own physical wellbeing or that of your comrades.
We see this in effect on the north side of Everest when a group of Japanese climbers passes several dying men on their way to the summit. As the group trudges by, "no words were passed" and "no water, food, or oxygen exchanged hands" (18.10). Although most of the folks depicted in Into Thin Air aren't quite so callous, everyone is irrationally driven to reach the summit to some extent.
Although the summit might seem like the finish line, the truth is that it's only the halfway point—you still have to climb back down. So not only does Summit Fever cause climbers to compromise their morals, but it also leads some to exert all their effort on the way up, only to be left too exhausted to come back down. This is an irony perfectly expressed by Rob Hall himself: "With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill […] The trick is to get back down alive" (11.11). In short, if you see the summit as the prize, then you might lose track of the bigger picture: getting off Everest alive.