What do the oxygen canisters symbolize in Into Thin Air?

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The oxygen canisters are symbolic of life. 

Perhaps you have heard somebody use the phrase "breath of life" or "breathe new life."  In Krakauer's book Into Thin Air the oxygen canisters are not a metaphorical breath of life.  Those oxygen canisters are very literally a breath of life for the men and women climbing Mt. Everest.  

High altitudes are dangerous.  Mt. Everest definitely counts as a high altitude mountain.  That is especially true since the last little bit of the climb is through the "Death Zone."  That zone is anything above 8,000 meters.  It's known as the Death Zone because the oxygen amount in the air is so low that a human body is quite literally dying at that altitude from lack of oxygen.  The air at sea level contains roughly 20% oxygen, but at the top of Mt. Everest, the air holds less than 7% oxygen.  

With that little oxygen available, the human body runs all kinds of...

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