The portrayal of leadership in Into Thin Air presents a very different view of it than in the other novels we’ve read. Krakauer detailed it extensively when he described the relationships between climbers and their guides. One of the compelling aspects of this book is navigating the “obligations” throughout it, such as guide-to-client and climber-to-climber obligations, and speculating about what could have happened. Trying to determine who is obligated to do what, and who is supposed to take responsibility in different situations generates the controversy in this book, because it’s impossible to determine who or what was the cause of this disaster.
Comparing Rob Hall and Anatoli Boukreev creates two different representations of obligation and responsibility. I don’t mean to condemn or defend either Hall or Boukreev’s actions, and Krakauer does an excellent job detailing the strengths and weaknesses of both climbers. Both Hall and Boukreev end up in similar situations on the mountain, but made different decisions on how to handle it. They have to make a choice – between obligation to client and obligation to self. Hall decided to stay on the mountain with Doug. While it is apparent to the reader that Doug never would have made it down, Hall decides to stay with his client. He believes it would be irresponsible to go down without him, and thereby condemns himself to death. Boukreev, as Krakauer argues, decides to descend the mountain because he may have not been feeling good. If he had remained on the mountain he could have endangered both his life and his clients, so he chose obligation to self. Ignoring the fact that he chose not to use oxygen and therefore started this problem, he is alive because he chose to save himself instead of helping the people he was hired to protect.
So I ask this, what obligation is the highest when climbing mountains? Krakauer has trouble with this himself. He feels guilty after the climb that he didn’t intervene and try to save the other climbers lives, even though he wasn’t a guide. He chose to save himself instead of saving another person’s life. Is it better to be heroic and risk death, or to maintain self-preservation?