Study Guide

Into Thin Air Man vs. the Natural World

By Jon Krakauer

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Man vs. the Natural World

Once Everest was determined to be the highest summit on earth, it was only a matter of time before people decided that Everest needed to be climbed. (2.7)

That's the human race for you—tell them that something is impossible, and they're only going to try harder to attain it. Still, this is a battle unlike any ever fought. Thought that David and Goliath was a one-sided fight? Boy, you Shmoopers haven't seen anything yet.

It would require the lives of twenty-four men […] and the passage of 101 years before the summit of Everest would finally be attained. (2.8)

As soon as people begin climbing Everest, the casualties start stacking up. The worst part is that these deaths only increase after the summit is attained. That's a steep price to pay for such a, well, steep mountain. Okay, that one was bad—we'll show ourselves out.

The temperature had been brutally cold when we set out from Camp One […] but as the first of the sun's rays struck the glacier […], the Cwm […] amplified the radiant heat like a huge solar oven. (8.14)

You probably expect it to be freezing cold on Everest, given all that ice and snow, right? Well you're not wrong, but that's only half of the story. While the weather is indeed frigid for most of the climb, there are moments when it gets so hot that Krakauer is forced to strip to his skivvies like a Chippendale's dancer. As it turns out, Everest is a supremely unpredictable place.

The air at Base Camp seemed thick and rich and voluptuously saturated with oxygen compared to the brutally thin atmosphere of the camps above. (10.25)

Although Krakauer has been physically strained since arriving at Everest, he becomes more amenable to the low-oxygen environment as he spends more time on the mountain. Of course, he's still dealing with a nasty chest infection as well, but hey—you win some, you lose some.

"Every minute you remain at the altitude and above," he cautioned, "Your minds and bodies are deteriorating." (11.37)

Above 8000 meters, the human body begins a state of slow decay. It's inevitable, and no matter how much you've prepared your body for it, you'll still walk away battered and bruised. This fight is about to get a lot tougher now that the climbers are on Everest's home turf.

Adams […] told me that he recognized these innocent-looking puffs of water vapor to be the crowns of robust thunderheads. (14.4)

As an airplane pilot, Adams realizes that these "innocent-looking" clouds spell trouble. The other climbers aren't quite so perceptive, though. Caught up in their desire to reach the summit, they forget one of the most important rules of climbing: Mother Nature is one fickle lady.

Beidleman, Groom, the two Sherpas, and the seven clients staggered blindly around in the storm, growing ever more exhausted and hypothermic. (15.37)

Beidleman and Co. get a first-hand lesson in just how brutal the natural world can be. Although they're only a few minutes away from the safety of Camp Four, the storm is so thick that they can't even tell up from down or left from right. It's a terrifying predicament.

"Rob and I had talked about the impossibility of being rescued from the summit ridge. As he himself had put it, 'You might as well be on the moon.'" (17.34)

This really puts things into perspective. Although Everest has indeed been conquered, that doesn't mean it's any easier to reach the summit—it just means that people know how to do it. Not even a helicopter can reach such insane heights, which leaves Hall in one nasty spot.

"I was astounded. They looked like they'd been through a five-month war. Sandy started to break down—she was crying." (19.18)

Breashears is a very experienced climber, but he's never witnessed anything like this before. These novice climbers expected their climb of Everest to be more like a guided tour—they didn't know they would become soldiers, stuck in hostile land and forced to fight for their very lives.

I saw immediately that the buckle was only half-fastened. Had he clipped into the rope […] it would have opened under his body weight and sent him tumbling. (20.5)

Even so close to the finish line, the climbers are still fighting for their lives. Everest is tricky like that: Even when it can't take you down physically, it's sure to take its mental toll just the same. Can you imagine how heartbreaking it would be for Groom to meet his end here? We cringe just thinking about it.

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