Study Guide

Into Thin Air Chapter 2

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Chapter 2

Dehra Dun, India, 1852, 2,234 Feet

  • Let's go back in time to 1852. We're in the offices of "the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India" (2.4), and Sir Andrew Waugh, India's surveyor general, has just received big news.
  • Mathematician Radhanath Sikdar has just calculated the highest peak in the world—it's Peak XV in the Himalayas, which will later be dubbed Mount Everest in honor of Sir George Everest.
  • Everest is located on the border between Nepal and Tibet, which complicates things. Tibet opens their borders in 1921, while Nepal continues to ban foreigners from entry.
  • In 1921, Edward Felix Norton ascends to "just 900 feet below the summit" before turning back around. Four days later, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine go missing after reaching a similar height.
  • In 1949, Nepal finally opens its doors to foreigners—which is convenient because Tibet (now controlled by China) decides to shut theirs one year later.
  • In 1953, a British team becomes "the third expedition to attempt Everest from Nepal" (2.16). Then, on May 28, the scrappy duo of New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay make their way to the top of the mountain.
  • After an exhausting climb—aided by bottled oxygen—the two men become the first humans to ever reach the summit of Everest. This amazing feat shocks the world and becomes a huge news story.
  • In 1963, two Americans—Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld—attempt to reach the top of Everest from its western route, which is considered the most "daunting" (2.27) approach to the mountain.
  • They make it, but are too tired to make the descent. With no other options, the pair huddles up in bivouacs (small shelters) on the top of the mountain. Though Unsoeld loses a few toes, the men somehow manage to survive this insane ordeal.
  • As it happens, young Jon Krakauer actually knew Unsoeld; he was a friend of Jon's dad. And that's pretty much all the kid needed to spark a lifelong obsession with mountain-climbing that reached its peak during Krakauer's twenties.
  • Like many of his diehard peers, Krakauer once scoffed at Everest because the climb requires few technical climbing skills, which means that even amateurs can do it with enough determination.
  • This "snobbery" (2.34) is rooted in the controversial ascent of one Dick Bass. A rich-as-sin (but utterly inexperienced) Texan, Bass reaches the peak of Everest thanks to the help of a guide named David Breashears.
  • After Bass's story goes viral, a host of novices flock to Everest. The Chinese and Nepalese governments jack up prices on climbing permits, but even that doesn't slow the huge influx of tourists
  • So let's fast-forward to 1995. Krakauer is working for Outside magazine, a publication that covers mountain-climbing and other extreme outdoor pursuits.
  • He receives a call from his editor, Mark Bryant, who wants Jonny boy to write a piece on the commercialization of Everest. Krakauer won't need to climb or anything; he can just chill around Base Camp and get the lay of the land.
  • But Krakauer really wants to climb Everest, so he convinces Outside to fork over the money for his permit, and they set him up with veteran guide Rob Hall. The Kraken's dreams are coming true.
  • Though he was once an avid climber, forty-year-old Krakauer isn't in the peak climbing shape he once was. Even worse, he's never been at high altitudes before—he's never even been "as high as Everest Base Camp" (2.50).

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