Into Thin Air
An In Depth Rhetorical Analysis of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In Jon Krakauer’s personal account of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster called “Into Thin Air”, Krakauer expresses his disbelief for the fatal accident through various shifts in tone from somber to solemn, or even a journalistic tone. Krakauer places the blame of the accident on the inexperience and conceit of his fellow climbers and guides. Krakauer also expresses his indignation that the commercialization of mountaineering, especially on Mt. Everest, has led to the deaths of many inexperienced climbers. Throughout his story, Krakauer attempts to convince the reader of these opinions through the use of various rhetorical strategies such as foreshadowing, allusions to personal anecdotes of other individuals who were on the mountain at that time, analogies that work to express the imagery of the scene on Everest, appeals to Krakauer’s ethics, exaggeration of certain elements to express his personal feeling of an occurrence, and simile and metaphors of actions and scenery in order to express an image to the reader or to get a feeling across to the reader. Such elements are only some of the various types of strategies Krakauer employs to show his true feeling of the occurrences in 1996 on Mt. Everest.
Within the first page of the book, Krakauer uses a flashback to give context to the reader. Krakauer does so without revealing any personal emotions or feelings in this account in order to set the reader up for his personal opinion on the tragedy later. In the first chapter, Krakauer uses this context to give a foreshadowing of the tragedy that was to come: “Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter.” This foreshadowing entices the reader to find out what actually happened later in the book. Krakauer reserves the next chapter to tell the reader the history of Mt. Everest itself. He tells the history of Everest up until the moment he decided he wanted to become a mountaineer and climb Everest. After the history, he appeals to his authority by claiming the various mountains he had climbed before Everest. The established authority builds assurance that Krakauer is a reputable source for the occurrences on Everest.In the third chapter, Krakauer begins his account from the beginning of how he got to Everest and his expedition on the mountain. Krakauer sets the scene by revealing some imagery of his first sight of Everest, through the airplane window. Krakauer uses this moment to lightly foreshadow the future tragedy: “That I proposed to climb to the cruising altitude of an Airbus 300 jetliner struck me, at that moment, as preposterous, or worse. My hands felt clammy.” The use of foreshadowing in this chapter is not so much to show the reader what was to come, but rather to express the magnitude of what Krakauer was about to do. Using a comparison between the cruising altitude of a plane and the height of Everest shows how hefty a task it was and engages the reader into continuing their reading to find out what will happen when Krakauer climbs Everest.
Krakauer, in the rest of the chapter, tells the story of meeting his guides and fellow climbers upon his arrival in Kathmandu. He continues this narrative, until the end of the chapter when he, similar to the last chapters ending, gives a light foreshadow of the events that have yet to occur, by claiming that a climber must have trust in the guides when climbing Everest or any large expedition. Krakauer shows his concern over the fact that Rob Hall may not have chosen the best clients for the expedition that they were about to go on. Again, this sets the scene for the tragedy that will happen towards the end of the book. This establishes the doubt in trusting the guides and climbers that the reader will gain throughout Krakauer’s various strategies that he uses to show his indignation of the events at Everest.
Throughout the next couple chapters, Krakauer continues describing the scenery of Everest and its surrounding areas to the readers, using the imagery to help the reader understand the vastness of the Himalayas so the reader can understand what Krakauer and his team went through. Krakauer begins to set the scene for the expedition up Everest itself by using the acclimatization trips as a bridge between the calm and the storm. Throughout such bridge, Krakauer’s tone shifts from ambivalent in that he doesn’t express much emotion in regards to the events that he will have to write about soon, to a caustic, disparaging tone that represents his sorrow from the actions that led to the deaths of 8 individuals on his expedition. This tonal shift works to express the true feeling that Krakauer felt throughout the expedition, realizing that he could have been one of those who died. The reader will see that he is showing regret and gets an appeal of emotion that works to engage the reader into feeling doubt for the deaths that happened there.
In the climax of Krakauer’s story, he is descending the mountain as the massive storm is hitting and fellow climbers are behind him. He was lucky to make it down quick enough that he wasn’t caught in the deep part of the storm. Krakauer symbolizes this event with a strong chapter concluding sentence: “Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.” Krakauer, at this point, has acknowledged the possibility of death, that he might become too exhausted to continue. This narrative that Krakauer is expressing is just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come later in that day. This sentence expresses that by signaling that something terrible may come in the future. The reader, of course, already knows that devastation is going to come and this continues to emphasize the doubt expressed previously for the tragedy that will happen soon.
Krakauer continues by temporarily letting his personal story go and telling the story of the other climbers who were meant to summit with him. He was one of the earliest to the summit, so there were still many after him who should’ve been there around the same time. Krakauer’s fellow climber Neal Beidleman stuck with Krakauer but became worried for the other climbers as they were not going to make it in time for the 2:00 turnaround. This personal anecdote that Krakauer gives works to be the beginning of the end. This is right before the storm pushes in and after that, the only thing that separates them from death is turning around and going quickly. This is the type of narrative Krakauer is pushing by telling the story of his fellow climbers. This creates a moody scene for the reader, as Krakauer will soon have to tell the story of tragedy and fighting to survive rather than that of him just climbing up a mountain.
Krakauer sustains this type of story for the rest of the chapter, telling the anecdote of Beidleman dragging various climbers through the storm, trying to get to safety. But Krakauer, safe in Camp 4, began to get worried about the missing climbers who had yet to come to the Camp. Stuart Hutchison, who was at Camp 4 with Krakauer, went out six times to search for the climbers, to no avail. Krakauer now tells a somber story of how the climbers died or survived. This emotional appeal impacts the reader and further convinces the reader of the doubt Krakauer had with the inexperienced guides and climbers. This dissuades the reader from holding trust in the guides yet engages the reader in further reading the book to find out what could possibly go worse. And as more and more people are lost in the storm, Krakauer begins to change the narrative from storytelling to a lesson of ethics and trust.
Krakauer, in the last chapter, reflects upon the mishaps and mistakes of his guides as well as his partners who were climbing with him. He uses the 8 lives lost to show that regardless of your will to do anything, at Everest, the mountain has the last say as to whether you live or die. “Guy handed me a beer, Caroline gave me a hug, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the ice with my face in my hands and tears streaking my cheeks, weeping like I hadn’t wept since I was a small boy.” Krakauer expresses his devastation with what happened on Everest through making a comparison from his young age to now, in order to show how truly saddened he was. In the midst of this pain though, Krakauer finds a way to express some comic relief, when he arrived at his hotel in Kathmandu, he bought some marijuana and “rolled a joint, smoked it down to nothing, rolled a second fatty”. This humor doesn’t last very long though, as Krakauer moves on to again, crying until he can’t anymore. His method of coping with the stress he got from what he experienced on Everest didn’t seem to be very effective as it just got him to cry again. This shows that sometimes, no matter what you do, you will be stuck with the pain of the past, and you just have to move on past it. This message relays to the reader in an indirect way, the reader will feel Krakauer’s “survivors guilt” and understand the consequences of mistakes and inexperience.
Throughout Krakauer’s book, he tells a personal account of what happened, to his knowledge and to the accounts of various other climbers, on Everest in May 1996. Krakauer’s tone shifts throughout the entire book and the mood of the story is changed from a blank mood to a somber mood that stems from the deaths and the guilt that Krakauer felt from the disaster. Krakauer employs various metaphors and simile in order to show the guilt he held for not helping the others and for “surviving, while so many others died.” The sheer imagery that Krakauer expresses is enough to put the reader into the mind of Krakauer, to understand what he was going through, and what the other, less fortunate climbers had to go through. Through a combination of well-phrased sentences, deep imagery, varied tone and mood, and allusions to other climbers accounts and feelings throughout the expedition, Krakauer is able to convey his feeling of guilt and doubt of the occurrence to the reader, making it as if the reader were truly inside the story. To understand the true depth and feeling Krakauer was experiencing, a reader would have to literally go through what he experienced; however, Krakauer gives a glimmer of what it would feel like, to go through the 1996 Everest Disaster.
Loyalty and Its Consequences in ‘Into Thin Air’
Literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes once said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” In Jon Krakauer’s novel Into Thin Air, the author questions if he is loyal enough to his teammates to take the chance of forfeiting his summit push or even putting his life into their hands. On the South Summit, Krakauer fails to help the guide Andy Harris, an example of how the breakdown of loyalty can lead to disastrous consequences, while Anatoli Boukreev’s heroism on the South Col provides an example of loyalty, selflessness, and good judgment. Rob Hall’s late ill-judged summit push with his client, however, provides an example to the reader where an excessive amount of loyalty can also lead to devastating consequences, or in Hall’s case, death.
When Krakauer abandons responsibility on the South Summit, his breakdown of loyalty leads to a tour guide’s death. On the South Col, instead of helping Andy with his regulator, Krakauer decides not to argue with Andy about whether or not there were full oxygen bottles: “Turning to Andy, I said, ‘No big deal, Harold. Much ado about nothing.’ Then I grabbed a new oxygen canister, screwed it onto my regulator, and headed down the mountain” (188). Desperate to get down the mountain, Krakauer “abdicate[s] [his] responsibility” (188) and continues climbing down the mountain. As he watches the series of events unfold over the next few hours, however, Krakauer feels the full force of his failure to act. He later expresses regret over what happened on the South Summit, saying, “My actions – or failure to act – played a direct role in the death of Andy Harris” (283). His nonchalant act of brushing off Andy’s delirious state and failing to help Andy plagues Krakauer. He mentions that as he was huddling in the safety of his tent, concerned with only his own safety, his co-climbers were dying. The breakdown of loyalty between Krakauer and Harris does not only lead to Harris’ death but also leads to Krakauer’s incessant survivor’s guilt. Krakauer’s failure to help Andy Harris shows the reader that the breakdown of loyalty, especially in such dangerous conditions, can lead to catastrophic consequences and in Harris’ case, death.
Anatoli Boukreev’s actions on the South Col provide an example of loyalty and selflessness, all while keeping good judgment. When he hears of a group of climbers in need of help, Boukreev sets out to search: “The Russian resolved to bring back the group on his own. Bravely plunging into the maw of the hurricane, he searched the Col for nearly an hour but was unable to find anybody” (213). Having just climbed down from the summit a few hours earlier, Boukreev is exhausted. He, however, stays loyal to his climbers and decides to set out on his own. Even more, Anatoli continues to search for his lost climbers: “Boukreev didn’t give up. He returned to camp, obtained a more detailed set of directions from Beidleman and Schoening, then went out into the storm again” (213). Anatoli Boukreev’s heroic actions and persistence are not in vain—he saves three climbers, bringing them back to the safety of the tents. His loyalty and selflessness for his teammates save many lives. He is not able to save the other two, however, for fear that he would not be able to safely carry so many helpless and frostbitten climbers. Boukreev’s heroism is an example of good judgment, selflessness, and loyalty, and proves to the reader that strong loyalty among teammates can lead to better outcomes.
Rob Hall’s lapse of judgment in climbing to the summit with Hansen at well after 4:00 P.M. provides an example to the reader where an excessive amount of loyalty can also lead to devastating consequences, or in Hall’s case, death. “Rob had called him from New Zealand “a dozen times” urging him to give it another shot-and this time Doug was absolutely determined to bag the top” (224). The previous year, Hall had turned Hansen around at 2:10 on the South Summit, just 330 vertical feet below the summit of Everest. Hall had called Hansen from New Zealand dozens of times to persuade him to give Everest another shot, and to raise money, Hansen had worked two full-time jobs, and the students of Sunrise Elementary School had even sold t-shirts to help fund his climb. To not reach the top of Everest the second year after all the fundraising he and the children had done would be extremely disappointing not only to Hansen himself but also to the Sunrise Elementary students. “Hall did not turn Hansen around at 2:00 P.M.–or, for that matter, at 4:00, when he met his client just below the top. Instead, according to Lopsang, Hall placed Hansen’s arm around his neck and assisted the weary client up the final forty feet to the summit” (225). Because he continued to climb even hours after the official turn-around time, Rob Hall had a “serious lapse of judgment” (225) as he did not tell Hansen to turn around, but assisted him in his final climb to the summit. Hall, however, was under immense pressure to succeed in guiding Hansen to the top. Realizing that climbing Everest was Hansen’s dream, Hall was extremely loyal to Hansen’s wish and honored it by allowing Hansen to climb on. Hall’s loyalty to his client helped Hansen reach the top but also resulted in both their deaths. Because Hall had a lapse in judgement in not turning Hansen around on the official turn-around time, this tragic event shows the reader that even an excessive amount of loyalty can also lead to disastrous consequences.
In Jon Krakauer’s novel Into Thin Air, the author addresses the importance of loyalty, saying that loyalty among teammates results in the survival of the team and the breakdown of that loyalty results in the death of others. Krakauer’s inability to help Andy Harris directly results in Harris’ death, while Anatoli Boukreev’s heroic act of saving his team from the blizzard results in the survival of three clients that would have perished without Boukreev’s help. Rob Hall, however, perishes with his client Doug Hansen on the South Col when Hall has a lapse of good judgment and continues to guide his weary client up well past the turn-back-time. Although Krakauer does not forfeit his own summit push, he loses his best friend on the expedition, Hansen, and faces survivor’s guilt that never goes away.