Study Guide

Into Thin Air Themes

  • Suffering

    Climbing Mount Everest ain't no walk in the park, people. First you have to deal with the consequences of being so high up in the atmosphere—with so little oxygen in the air, each step is an ordeal—and then you have to deal with the mental and emotional toll that such a brutal climb takes. It's a lot easier said than done, and we're not even going to get into how brutal things get in the high-altitude region adorably dubbed "The Death Zone." As we learn over the course of Into Thin Air, this sort of hardcore suffering is just part of the deal when you choose to climb Everest.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What drives the climbers to keep going despite their suffering? What similarities and differences do you notice behind what's driving them?
    2. How is Beck Weathers able to make peace with his experiences on Everest? Why?
    3. Why do so many people flock to Everest knowing how painful it will be? Be specific and dig into the text to respond.
    4. Is Krakauer surprised by how much he suffers while climbing Everest? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Although mountain-climbing is typically depicted as a high-octane pursuit, Into Thin Air proves that it's more about enduring suffering than anything else.

    More than anyone else in the book, Beck Weathers manages to take the suffering that he endures on Everest and turn it into a positive.

  • Perseverance

    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Though there's truth to that statement, we're pretty sure that whoever thought it up never set foot on Mount Everest. See, perseverance is an important part of climbing any mountain (much less the tallest in the world), but it's not going to get you all of the way to the promised land. What happens when your body fails you? What happens when your mind fails you? In Into Thin Air, we see that the same perseverance that drives climbers to achieve amazing feats can lead them to keep plunging forward even when the odds have become insurmountable.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. How does Dick Bass influence future generations of climbers?
    2. Why does Scott Fischer keep climbing despite his exhaustion and poor health?
    3. Are any individuals ultimately hurt by their perseverance?
    4. Is Krakauer correct when he calls the climbers on Everest "mentally imbalanced"? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Although perseverance is a great thing in many instances, it almost invariably proves to be a harmful thing in Into Thin Air.

    Although Scott Fischer is renowned for persevering through injuries, it was inevitable that this tendency would harm him in the end.

  • Awe and Amazement

    These days, it doesn't take much for something to be deemed "awesome." New movie trailer? Awesome. A particularly tasty taco? Double awesome. Still, we'd better keep things straight because nothing on the planet is quite as awesome as Mount Everest. Just to give you an idea of this thing's scale, you could stack the Empire State Building on top of itself twenty-three times and still be a couple thousand feet shorter than this mighty mountain. Though Everest is truly an awe-inspiring place, don't let that trip you up—this majestic beauty is only a mask for something far more menacing. Into Thin Air makes that much crystal clear.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Does Krakauer feel awe while climbing Everest? Explain.
    2. Why does Krakauer feel dissatisfied after reaching the summit?
    3. How does Krakauer's experience on Everest affect his relationship with his home life?
    4. Why are the climbers unable to appreciate the natural beauty of Everest while climbing it?

    Chew on This

    Although Krakauer expected to walk away from Everest with a greater sense of amazement toward nature, it actually makes him feel more amazed by his boring life back home.

    Everest might be a beautiful place, but it's also quite deadly, which is why the climbers have little opportunity to sit back and simply take in the beauty of the mountain.

  • Man vs. the Natural World

    This one isn't even fair. On one side, we have a horde of mountain climbers: ambitious folks who've put their lives on hold in order to conquer Mount Everest. On the other, we have Everest herself: a nasty lass who isn't afraid of showing these young upstarts who's boss. Although the mountain climbers win many of the early battles in Into Thin Air, successfully ascending the mighty mountain, they quickly come to realize that ol' Everest isn't going down without a fight. Finally, when all the dust settles, we gain a better understanding of just how powerful the natural world can be—and how helpless humans are in the face of such power.

    Questions About Man vs. the Natural World

    1. Why are altitudes above 8,000 meters known as the "Death Zone"? Think about it literally and metaphorically.
    2. Is Krakauer fully prepared for the reality of Everest? Explain.
    3. In what ways does Everest subvert the guides' expectations?
    4. Are disasters such as this one inevitable due to the nature of Everest? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Everest is an especially tricky mountain because it affects people in ways that aren't always easily identifiable—especially in terms of the mind.

    Although the vast majority of expeditions on Everest are run professionally, the volatile nature of the mountain makes disasters such as this inevitable.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Climbing Mount Everest is already difficult, but it'd be way harder without the use of modern technology. Bottled oxygen helps climbers reach high altitudes without their brains being fried to a crisp. Satellite phones and Internet technology allow instantaneous communication with the outside world. Plus, commercial expeditions like those run by Rob Hall and Scott Fischer in Into Thin Air would be completely impossible if not for the vast amount of financial and technological resources they leverage in their favor. For better or worse, climbing Mount Everest has changed quite a bit since Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay first reached its summit in 1953.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Is Boukreev's refusal to use bottled oxygen ethical? Why or why not?
    2. Has the rise of the climbing industry devalued the experience of climbing Everest? Explain.
    3. Do you think that future technological breakthroughs will make climbing Everest even easier?
    4. Does the technological advancement of Base Camp help or hinder the climbers?

    Chew on This

    Although we can respect his preference for not using bottled oxygen as a personal choice, we agree with Krakauer that it is unethical for Boukreev to refuse to use it while guiding clients.

    In truth, the only way to prevent future disasters from occurring would be to ban bottled oxygen from Everest, as Krakauer suggests.

  • Mortality

    There're no two ways about it: Setting foot on Everest is like playing a gigantic game of Russian roulette. Ominous stuff, huh? In Into Thin Air, we're given a first-hand account of the 1996 Everest disaster, an awful day that ends with eight climbers being killed during a freak storm. Some meet their ends suddenly; some keep fighting until they simply can't fight anymore; and some willingly sacrifice their lives in order to give others a fighting chance. Although it's a harrowing tale, Into Thin Air teaches us a great deal about how the human spirit reacts to the horrors of mortality.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does Krakauer's relationship with death change over the course of the climb?
    2. Why is Krakauer so shaken by Andy Harris's death?
    3. In your opinion, why does Rob Hall refuse to leave Doug Hansen's side?
    4. It it wrong of the Japanese climbers to refuse to help the dying climbers? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Although Krakauer is deeply disturbed after seeing his first dead body on Everest, the sheer amount of death he sees numbs him quite quickly.

    Although Krakauer is shaken by the deaths of the people he knows, it is Harris's death that hits him the hardest because Krakauer wonders if he couldn't have done more to help his friend.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    For over five hundred years, the proud Sherpa people have called the area around Mount Everest home. The community first entered the Himalayas to flee persecution and quickly fell in love with the beautiful region—a region that remained in blissful isolation for hundreds of years. That all changed in 1921 with the first British expedition to Everest, which employed several Sherpa climbers as part of the team. Over the next century, Sherpa culture became increasingly tied to the booming climbing industry, which, though benefiting them in many ways, also revealed deep-seated prejudices in the hearts of many Western climbers. The climbers in Into Thin Air might technically be the foreigners, but they often treat the Sherpa people as the "Other." Ugh.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. Does the commercialization of Everest help the Sherpa community? Explain.
    2. What are examples of racism/nationalism toward Sherpa climbers?
    3. How does the Sherpa community's view of Everest differ from outsiders' view of the mountain?
    4. Should Fischer have hired a helicopter for Ngawang immediately? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although it certainly comes with its costs, the commercialization of Everest ultimately helps the Sherpa people by giving them a reliable source of income.

    Although it certainly comes with its benefits, the commercialization of Everest ultimately hurts the Sherpa people since they comprise a greater share of the mountain's casualties than any other group.

  • Ambition

    After reading Into Thin Air, we can confidently state that Wale doesn't have anything on Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. These two dudes worked their way up from the bottom of a cutthroat climbing industry, each eventually forming his own mountain guiding company through sheer ambition. Hall's company, Adventure Consultants, has long been the industry standard, leading countless paying clients to the summit of Everest. Fischer, on the other hand, is the young upstart, eager to prove himself and unseat King Hall from his alpine throne. In the end, however, we're left with the lasting impression that the same ambition that leads these men to do great things ultimately hinders them when an unexpected disaster strikes.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Compare and contrast Hall's and Fischer's business ambitions. Do you notice any patterns? What does this reveal about the role of ambition in developing an ongoing relationship with Everest?
    2. Does Krakauer's presence contribute to the Everest disaster? Explain.
    3. Why is Fischer so eager to prove himself as a commercial expedition leader?
    4. Does Hall's ambition influence his desire to push all of his clients to the summit? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Fischer's business ambitions lead him to exert an inordinate amount of effort getting his clients to the summit—a choice that ultimately harms him.

    It seems perfectly conceivable that Krakauer's presence contributes to Hall's actions, leading him to overextend himself in order to present a better face for his business.