Rob Hall is the most accomplished guide on Everest in 1996 by a long shot. Given this immense experience, it's shocking—and heartbreaking—that he walks headlong into such a devastating disaster.
The worst part is that Hall sees this disaster coming. As the leader of the most prominent commercial guiding firm on the mountain, Hall knows a thing or two about the changing landscape of Everest, with more people than ever flocking to the mountain who have less and less experience. He even directly states this, saying that "with so many incompetent people on the mountain […] it's pretty unlikely that [they'll] get through this season without something bad happening up high" (7.49).
Despite this foresight, Hall makes some serious tactical errors as his team barrels toward the summit. The most perplexing of these is his decision to keep leading Doug Hansen to the summit despite it becoming too late in the day for them to safely descend. Although no one knows for sure why this veteran makes such an amateur mistake, Krakauer suspects that "it would have been especially hard for him to deny Hansen the summit a second time" (17.10) after failing to lead him to the summit several years prior.
But no one knows for sure. So instead of dallying on his mistakes, of which we know little, we'd much rather focus on Hall's good qualities, of which we know a ton. As we encounter Hall in the book, he is dedicated to his clients above all else. He is also dedicated to his family, and he treats everyone with respect, whether they're wealthy Manhattan socialites or low-paid Sherpa cooks. In light of this, we think it's much more valuable to celebrate the way Hall lived, rather than question the way that he died.
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.