Study Guide

Into Thin Air Foreignness and "The Other"

By Jon Krakauer

Foreignness and "The Other"

Unable to comprehend that this brown-skinned woman of the hill was addressing him in perfectly enunciated King's English, [he] continued to employ his comical pidgin argot. (4.13)

Oh man, we're fresh out of cringes after reading this passage. But this is par for the course on Everest: With so many wealthy (and usually white) foreigners flooding the region, boneheaded prejudices like this are as common as the cold. While the influx of cash they bring provides many benefits to the region, that doesn't excuse nonsense like this.

In 1921, the British embarked on their first expedition to Everest, and their decision to engage Sherpas as helpers sparked a transformation of Sherpa culture. (4.15)

It all started in 1921. Before that, Sherpa culture was deeply isolated; in fact, they fled the lowlands in the first place to avoid persecution from nearby communities. Still, they love climbing as much as anyone and won't miss a chance to reach the top of Everest either.

Ever since 1922, when seven Sherpas were killed in an avalanche during the second British expedition, a disproportionate number of Sherpas have died on Everest—fifty-three all told. (4.17)

This is the untold story of Everest. While great focus is placed on the Western explorers who have died in pursuit of the summit, very little attention is given to the low-paid Sherpa climbers who have lost their lives along the way. In 2014, nearly two decades after the 1996 disaster, an avalanche killed sixteen Sherpas, leading many to protest for better conditions and wages for Sherpa workers.

It seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque. (4.21)

While it's perfectly fine to critique the climbing industry's relationship with the Sherpa community, it's difficult to deny that it's brought many benefits to the community—namely, cashola. Money might not be everything, but it gives these hardworking Sherpa climbers a chance to give their children better lives.

"I want you all to remember we would have absolutely no chance of getting to the summit of Everest without their help." (4.43)

Out of all the guides, Hall is the most sympathetic to the Sherpa community. He knows that they provide the backbone for his entire operation, leveraging their skills and experience to grow his business. To Hall, they're simply valued employees.

Sherpas aren't supposed to get altitude illness […]. Those who do become sick […] will often be blacklisted from future employment on expeditions. (8.22)

Because their people have lived at high altitudes for so long, Sherpas typically fare far better in low-oxygen environments than their fellow climbers. That doesn't make them invincible, though. For example, Ngawang Topche puts his life in jeopardy attempting to live up to this lofty standard.

"If it had been one of Scott's clients who was this sick, instead of a Sherpa, I don't think he would have been treated so haphazardly." (8.35)

Once again, Hall proves himself to be deeply sympathetic to the Sherpa community. To him, there's no difference between guides, clients, and Sherpas—all are fellow climbers who deserve the utmost respect and protection. If only everyone else felt the same way.

The Sherpas […] believed that one of the climbers on Fischer's team had angered Everest—Sagarmatha, goddess of the sky—and the deity had taken her revenge of Ngawang. (9.18)

Although you might not believe in the "goddess of the sky" yourself, there's a certain amount of truth to this statement. Sure, there might not actually be any mystical nonsense happening, but it's true that the decision to let outsiders onto Everest radically changed the Sherpas' relationship with the mountain.

Every time one of my teammates yelled, "Hey Jon! […] We could use some more ice over here!" it gave me a fresh perspective on how much the Sherpas ordinarily did for us. (11.24)

All work and no play makes Jon an empathetic boy, huh? It's important to remember that Sherpa guides are paid to lug loads and perform labor throughout the entire climb to the summit. Remember how tired Krakauer is by the time he reaches the top? Just imagine how dead he'd be if he had to carry a giant backpack up those 8,000 meters.

Desperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries have a vested interest in issuing as many expensive climbing permits as the market will support. (21.29)

Unfortunately, there's not much hope that working conditions for Sherpa guides will get much better. After all, the root of the problem is that the clients have a lot more money than their guides (either Sherpa or otherwise), which gives them a lot more power as a result. Money talks, sadly.

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