I approached this book as an adventure story, and on that count it certainly delivers. However, I was surprised over and over again to find political and economic lessons demonstrated in this account of a disaster on Mt. Everest.
One example is the politics of getting a permit to climb Everest. The mountain can be approached from either Nepal in the south or Tibet (China) in the north. As these two jurisdictions have changed the number of permits they offer over the years, as well as the cost and requirements, it has affected both the starting point and the routes popular with climbers. At the time of Krakauer’s climb, in 1996, Nepal had recently increased its fees but remained the more established base camp (p. 26-27, 342).
As with many other natural resources, Everest also demonstrates the tragedy of the commons. All manner of refuse litters the mountain, from empty oxygen canisters to frozen humain remains. By 1996 some mechanisms for dealing with these issues had emerged, mainly the removal of trash by commercial guides (who return year after year and thus have a vested interest in keeping the mountain clean as a way to curry favor with both their clients and the local governments). The Nepalese government also set up a program, funded in large part by Nike, in which used oxygen canisters could be redeemed for a deposit. This serves as more of an incentive for Sherpas, who make a few thousand dollars a year (much higher than the typical income for Nepalese), than it is for clients who pay tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain and are thus relatively insensitive to small price incentives.
Base camp itself is governed by a political economy of respect, with more experienced guides enjoyed informal leadership roles (p. 74). When one team provides a public good, such as maintaining aluminum ladders on the route through the Icefall, they are compensated financially by other teams (p. 94).
The guides are also responsible for establishing trust between their clients: because most client groups have never climbed together before Everest, they are relying on the fact that their peers have been assessed by the guide as a sufficient indicator of ability. Unfortunately this is not always accurate, as Krakauer relates. The guide-client dynamic also introduces risks when a guide runs into trouble since clients are reluctant to question their leaders (p. 237).