Analysis of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Mt. Everest
Mt. Everest
Cover of Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air
Cover of Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air | Source
Jon Krakauer, Rob Hall, Scott Fisher, and Antatoli Boukreev from Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer, Rob Hall, Scott Fisher, and Antatoli Boukreev from Into Thin Air | Source

An Analysis of Responsibility in Into Thin Air

Alexander the Great once said that we must, “Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all,” (James Logan Courier). The same can be said of any physically demanding excursion or contest. Although each person is entitled to help from his teammates when he needs it, he should not depend on his team so much that he begins to endanger the life of others. An Everest hiking guide should only be responsible for his clients up until his own health or life is threatened. Andy Harris's heroic actions as described by Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air question how much a guide is responsible for the physical survival and well-being of his clients as opposed to focusing on the continued survival of his own gene pool.

Andy Harris is a guide on Rob Hall’s hiking team along with Jon Krakauer. He is described by Krakauer as a man whose actions were heroic even if they would end up costing his life (239). Harris often takes matters into his own hands, and when he learns that Rob Hall and Doug Hansen on stranded on the South Summit without oxygen, his worsening state of hypoxia doesn’t stop him from attempting to rescue them. Krakauer writes about Harris’s actions in Into Thin Air :

“At 5:30, as Lopsang left the South Summit to resume his descent, he turned to see Harris—who must have been severely debilitated, if his condition when I’d seen him on the South Summit two hours earlier was any indication—plodding slowly up the summit ridge to assist Hall and Hansen. It was an act of heroism that would cost Harris his life,” (239).

The quotation is a clear indicator that Harris was in no state to be attempting to save anybody without endangering his own life and the lives of the hikers he was trying to rescue. According to the Journal of Physiology hypoxia is a state in which adequate amounts of oxygen do not reach cells and thus the cells that are affected shut down major processes that control the mental ability to think clearly and rationally (Duke 50).

Harris was not obligated to go and deliver oxygen to Hall and Hansen, however in his impaired mental state he might have not realized that getting back up to the South Summit was going to be a very tough challenge to accomplish.1 When brain functions are shut down, as they clearly were in Harris, the body attempts to acclimate and thus it temporarily focuses its energy reserves on adaptation to the environment instead of other vital functions (Duke 50). Harris might not have known this as he was climbing to Hall, however it is clear, for the sake of his own life, that it should not have been his responsibility to hike up there while in his impaired state, especially during a storm. The responsibility should have shifted to a more capable guide, even if it had to be one from a different team. A guide that was not suffering from hypoxia and was acclimated long beforehand with high altitudes would have been able to deliver the oxygen to Hall and his client and perhaps even assist them in climbing back down. Clear thinking on the Everest hike was important in ones chance of survival and a guide who was having no health disabilities would have better guaranteed the safe delivery of oxygen to the stranded Hall and Hansen. This simple action could have saved the lives of three men, yet by sending up an incapable guide, those three lives were lost.

Similarly, another accident had occurred earlier with Andy Harris in Into Thin Air— before Rob Hall’s team had even reached Base Camp to begin their acclimation—which should have alerted Harris that he was in no state to be “guiding” others up Everest when he could barely keep his dinner down.

Map of Mt. Everest

Map of Mt. Everest from Base Camp to the summit. (Click to view full size)
Map of Mt. Everest from Base Camp to the summit. (Click to view full size) | Source
Scaling the side of an ice wall on Mt. Everest
Scaling the side of an ice wall on Mt. Everest | Source

“’Something I ate for dinner doesn’t seem to be sitting to well just now.’ A moment later Andy desperately pawed the zippered door open and barely managed to thrust his head and torso outside before vomiting…Then he sprang to his feet, sprinted a few meters away …and succumbed to a loud attack of diarrhea…In the morning Andy was weak, dehydrated and…had to exert a monumental effort just to put one foot in front of the other,” (62).

The passage shows that Harris should have already been worried about his condition since he was beginning to show symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) (Kenneth, Thompson and Bates). A guide, who is throwing up and can barely walk, is not fit to be leading the other clients. The next morning, not only does Harris feel sick and can hardly walk, but he is also becomes dependent on his fellow hikers Krakauer and Helen, slowing them down with his frequent need to, “…stop, hunch over his ski poles to collect himself for several minutes, then summon the energy to struggle onward,” (62). Harris knows Rob Hall is depending on him to help guide the expedition so when Harris gets sick so early on, he is determined to push on and not make Hall rethink his decision of choosing him as a guide on the team. This becomes apparent when Harris proclaims, “’I’m going on to Base Camp today with the rest of you. Even if I have to bloody crawl,” (62). Evidence of the heroic light in which Krakauer views Harris is seen again as Harris tries to lead the group to Base Camp, however to what extent should Harris be expected to lead the group?

Harris’s frequent need to stop and rest might have been due to the progression of AMS. As AMS develops it presents a chance for peripheral edema—which is a condition in which fluids accumulate in the lower limbs, making it difficult or painful to move—to manifest in the body (Hackett and Drummond). Harris was showing signs of peripheral edema, indicating that AMS was indeed progressing in his body and he was slowly physically deteriorating. The point at which a guide begins to have difficulty walking he should stop and take action. Perhaps appointing a temporary leader until the team reached Base Camp would have been the safest decision that Harris could have made. Thus he would not be endangering himself by risking the progression of AMS as he climbed higher (Everest: Physiological Effects of Altitude). Harris would also put his team at risk of being lost. Since Rob Hall, the main guide was not there to lead the team to Base Camp serious consequences could have occurred if Harris passed out from AMS. A shift in responsibility from Harris to another, more able, team member would have been appropriate.

Andy Harris’s heroic actions ultimately lead to his downfall. His self-sacrifice for other members of the hike in need represents the responsibility the Everest guides had to display toward their clients. However, even though leadership is a universally accepted and encouraged way of moving forward, there are times when it is necessary to work alone or pass on the burden of being a leader. Future guides should note that Andy Harris is a clear example of how physical ailments suffered at high altitude can influence the ability to think clearly and thus physical impairments may control the amount of responsibility that guides are expected to handle when they are incapable of fending even for themselves.

1996 Adventure Consultants Everest expedition
1996 Adventure Consultants Everest expedition | Source


1:When the source of a quote or event that occurred on Everest is not specifically cited, its source is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

Annotated Works Cited

Baillie, Kenneth, A.A Roger Thompson, and Matthew Bates. "Altitude Sickness." Feb. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.

Duke, Helen N. "Observations on the Effects of Hypoxia on the Pulmonary Vascular Bed."Journal of Physiology 145 (1957): 45-51. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. This article describes the effects of hypoxia on the body and uses a study about hypoxia that was done on cats. The cats reacted to hypoxia in a similar way that the human body does. The article cites its own sources and uses plenty of experimental evidence to support its findings. It is relevant to my paper because I will use it to describe why Andy Harris could not think lucidly in situations that required him to have good mental concentration and decision making skills.

"Everest: Physiological Effects of Altitude." TheTech. The Technology Museum of

Innovation, 1998. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.

Hackett, Peter H., and Drummond Rennie. "Rales, Peripheral Edema, Retinal Hemorrhage and Acute Mountain Sickness." The American Journal of Medicine 67.2 (1979): 214-18. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. This journal article describes other possible ailments that occur if one succumbs to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It also describes studies done on various groups to see how their bodies react to AMS. Although this source is short, it explains the experiment well and has plenty of data to back up its conclusions with. It also cites its own sources.

Dr. Kenneth Kambler talks about his experience with the disaster

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Comments 4 comments

Londonlady profile image

Londonlady 4 years ago Author

It's nice to have a viewpoint from somebody on the "inside". I heard Krakauer received a lot of criticism for writing the book so fast after he came back and that his emotional state would naturally affect his viewpoint in the book. However, I wasn't there, so his word will have to do if I am analyzing his book.

Guy Cotter 4 years ago

I'm afraid the conclusions reached here are typical of what happens when the author knows little or nothing of the environment they are pontificang about. As someone who was there, and knew all the players mentioned, I can safely comment with knowledge of the topic. Concluding that Andy harris was putting his group at risk when he was ill on the tek to basecamp is idiotic and is in no way related to what happened (much) later on when he was up on the mountain. The inferance that he was hypoxic (more than anyone else) when he went up to assist Rob Hall is merely conjecture. John Krakaur had to fill a lot of gaps in his knowledge of the events as they unfolded and made many serious mistakes at the time, especially in respect to the whereabouts of Andy Harris.

Londonlady profile image

Londonlady 4 years ago Author

Thanks TahoeDoc, comments like yours are always appreciated. You have a very interesting hub on the matter too, which is why I decided to link it. Thanks again :)

TahoeDoc profile image

TahoeDoc 4 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

Great job! Well-researched and an interesting read. I read it because it's a subject that interests me greatly as a former mountaineer (not nearly of this caliber) and doctor who occasionally deals with altitude sickness (in patients, not myself, usually :) ) living at 6500 feet elevation. I had no idea that I'd find a link to my article at the end when I was thinking I should link mine to this-- so thank you for that unexpected pleasantry.

Anyway, very nice hub, voted up and interesting.

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