Into Thin Air
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I
cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind,
and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some
dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing
about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for
many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of
Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care. It was the
afternoon of May 10. 1 hadn't slept in fifty‑seven hours. The only food I'd
been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen
soup and a handful of peanut M&M's. Weeks of violent coughing had left me
with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe.
Twenty‑nine thousand and twenty‑eight feet up in the troposphere, there was
so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a
slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of
anything except cold and tired.
I'd arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian
guide with an American expedition, and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide
with the New Zealand‑based commercial team that I was a part of and someone
with whom I'd grown to be friends during the past six weeks. I snapped four
quick photos of Harris and Boukreev striking summit poses, and then turned
and started down. My watch read 1: 17 p.m...
All told, I'd spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.
After a few steps, I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the
Southeast Ridge, the route we had ascended. Training my lens on a pair of
climbers approaching the summit, I saw something that until that moment had
escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear
just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and
the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.
Days later‑after six bodies had been found, after a search for two others
had been abandoned, after surgeons had amputated the gangrenous right hand
of my teammate Beck Weathers ‑ people would ask why, if the weather had
begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the
signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, leading a gaggle
of amateurs, each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be ushered safely
up Everest, into an apparent death trap?
Nobody can speak for the leaders of the two guided groups involved, for both
men are now dead. But I can attest that nothing I saw early on the afternoon
of May 10 suggested that a murderous storm was about to bear down on us. To
my oxygen‑depleted mind, the clouds drifting up the grand valley of ice
known as the Western Cwm looked innocuous, wispy, insubstantial. Gleaming in
the brilliant midday sun, they appeared no different than the harmless puffs
of convection condensation that rose from the valley almost daily. As I
began my descent, I was indeed anxious, but my concern had little to do with
the weather. A check of the gauge on my oxygen tank had revealed that it was
almost empty. I needed to get down, fast.
The uppermost shank of the Southeast Ridge is a slender, heavily corniced
fin of rock and wind‑scoured snow that snakes for a quarter‑mile toward a
secondary pinnacle known as the South Summit. Negotiating the serrated ridge
presents few great technical hurdles, but the route is dreadfully exposed.
After fifteen minutes of cautious shuffling over a 7,000‑foot abyss, I
arrived at the notorious Hillary Step, a pronounced notch in the ridge named
after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to climb the mountain, and a
spot that does require a fair amount of technical maneuvering. As I clipped
into a fixed rope and prepared to rappel over the lip, I was greeted by an
Thirty feet below, some twenty people were queued up at the base of the
Step, and three climbers were hauling themselves up the rope that I was
attempting to descend. I had no choice but to unclip from the line and step
The traffic jam
comprised climbers from three separate expeditions: the team I belonged to,
a group of paying clients under the leadership of the celebrated New Zealand
guide Rob Hall; another guided party headed by American, Scott Fischer; and
a non-guided team from Taiwan. Moving at the snail's pace that is the norm
above 8,000 meters, the throng labored up the Hillary Step one by one, while
I nervously bided my time.
Harris, who left the summit shortly after I did, soon pulled up behind me.
Wanting to conserve whatever oxygen remained in my tank, I asked him to
reach inside my backpack and turn off the valve on my regulator, which he
did. For the next ten minutes I felt surprisingly good. My head cleared. I
actually seemed less tired than with the gas turned on. Then, abruptly, I
felt like I was suffocating. My vision dimmed and my head began to spin. I
was on the brink of losing consciousness.
Instead of turning my oxygen off, Harris, in his hypoxically impaired state,
had mistakenly cranked the valve open to full flow, draining the tank. I'd
just squandered the last of my gas going nowhere. There was another tank
waiting for me at the South Summit, 250 feet below, but to get there I would
have to descend the most exposed terrain on the entire route without benefit
of supplemental oxygen.
But first I had to wait for the crowd to thin. I removed my now useless
mask, planted my ice ax into the mountain's frozen hide, and hunkered on the
ridge crest. As I exchanged banal congratulations with the climbers filing
past, inwardly I was frantic: “Hurry it up, hurry it up!’’ I silently
pleaded. "While you guys are screwing around here, I'm losing brain cells by
Most of the passing crowd belonged to Fischer's group, but near the back of
the parade two of my teammates eventually appeared: Hall and Yasuko Namba.
Girlish and reserved, the forty‑seven‑year‑old Namba was forty minutes away
from becoming the oldest woman to climb Everest and the second Japanese
woman to reach the highest point on each continent, the so‑called Seven
still, Doug Hansen ‑ another member of our expedition, a postal worker from
Seattle who had become my closest friend on the mountain ‑ arrived atop the
Step. "It's in the bag!'' I yelled over the wind, trying to sound more
upbeat than I felt. Plainly exhausted, Doug mumbled something from behind
his oxygen mask that I didn't catch, shook my hand weakly, and continued
The last climber up the rope was Fischer, whom I knew casually from Seattle,
where we both lived. His strength and drive were legendary ‑ in 1994 he'd
climbed Everest without using bottled oxygen ‑ so I was surprised at how
slowly he was moving and how hammered he looked when he pulled his mask
aside to say hello. "Bruuuuuucel" he wheezed with forced cheer, employing
his trademark, fratboyish greeting. When I asked how he was doing, Fischer
insisted he was feeling fine: "Just dragging ass a little today for some
reason. No big deal." With the Hillary Step finally clear, I clipped into
the strand of orange rope, swung quickly around Fischer as he slumped over
his ice ax, and rappelled over the edge.
It was after 2:30 when I made it down to the South Summit. By now tendrils
of mist were wrapping across the top of 27,890‑foot Lhotse and lapping at
Everest's summit pyramid. No longer did the weather look so benign. I
grabbed a fresh oxygen cylinder, jammed it onto my regulator, and hurried
down into the gathering cloud. Moments after I dropped below the South
Summit, it began to snow lightly and the visibility went to hell.
Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was still washed in
bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres were dallying,
memorializing their arrival at the apex of the planet with photos and
highfives ‑ and using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined
that horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. None of them suspected that by the
end of that long day, every minute would matter.
In May of 1963, when I was nine years old, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld
made the first ascent of Everest's daunting West Ridge, one of the great
feats in the annals of mountaineering. Late in the day on their summit push,
they climbed a stratum of steep, crumbly limestone ‑ the infamous Yellow
Band that they didn't think they'd be able to descend. Their best shot for
getting off the mountain alive, they reckoned, was to go over the top and
down the Southeast Ridge, an extremely audacious plan, given the late hour
and the unknown terrain. Reaching the summit at sunset, they were forced to
spend the night in the open above 28,000 feet‑at the time, the highest
bivouac in history ‑ and to descend the Southeast Ridge the next morning.
That night cost Unsoeld his toes, but the two survived to tell their tale.
Unsoeld, who hailed from my hometown in Oregon, was a close friend of my
father's. I climbed my first mountain in the company of my dad, Unsoeld, and
his oldest son, Regon, a few months before Unsoeld departed for Nepal. Not
surprisingly, accounts of the 1963 Everest epic resonated loud and long in
my preadolescent imagination. While my friends idolized John Glenn, Sandy
Koufax, and Johnny Unitas, my heroes were Hornbein and Unsoeld.
Secretly, I dreamed of climbing Everest myself one day; for more than a
decade it remained a burning ambition. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that
I abandoned the dream as a preposterous boyhood fantasy. Soon thereafter I
began to look down my nose at the world's tallest mountain. It had become
fashionable among alpine cognoscenti to denigrate Everest as a "slag heap,"
a peak lacking sufficient technical challenge or aesthetic appeal to be a
worthy objective for a "serious" climber, which I desperately aspired to be.
Such snobbery was rooted in the fact that by the early 1980s, Everest's
easiest line ‑ the South Col/Southeast Ridge, or the so‑called Yak Route ‑
had been climbed more than a hundred times. Then, in 1985, the floodgates
were flung wide open when Dick Bass, a wealthy fifty‑five‑year‑old Texan
with limited climbing experience, was ushered to the top of Everest by an
extraordinary young climber named David Breashears. In bagging Everest, Bass
became the first person to ascend all of the so‑called Seven Summits, a feat
that earned him worldwide renown and spurred a swarm of other amateur
climbers to follow in his guided bootprints.
aging Walter Mitty types like myself, Dick Bass was an inspiration," Seaborn
Beck Weathers explained during the trek to Everest Base Camp last April. A
forty‑nine‑year‑old Dallas pathologist, Weathers was one of eight paying
clients on my expedition. "Bass showed that Everest was within the realm of
possibility for regular guys. Assuming you're reasonably fit and have some
disposable income, I think the biggest obstacle is probably taking time off
from your job and leaving your family for two months."
For a great many climbers, the record shows, stealing time away from the
daily grind has not been an insurmountable obstacle, nor has the hefty
outlay of cash. Over the past half‑decade, the traffic on all of the Seven
Summits, and especially Everest, has grown at an astonishing rate. And to
meet demand, the number of commercial enterprises peddling guided ascents of
these mountains has multiplied correspondingly. In the spring of 1996,
thirty separate expeditions were on the flanks of Everest, at least eight of
them ‑ organized as money‑making ventures.
Even before last season's calamitous outcome, the proliferation of
commercial expeditions was a touchy issue. Traditionalists were offended
that the world's highest summit was being sold to rich parvenus who, if
denied the services of guides, would have difficulty making it to the top of
a peak as modest as Mount Rainier. Everest, the purists sniffed, had been
debased and profaned.
Such critics also point out that, thanks to the commercialization of
Everest, the once hallowed peak has now even been dragged into the swamp of
American jurisprudence. Having paid princely sums to be escorted up Everest,
some climbers have then sued their guides after the summit eluded them.
"Occasionally you'll get a client who thinks he's bought a guaranteed ticket
to the summit," laments Peter Athans, a highly respected guide who's made
eleven trips to Everest and reached the top four times. "Some people don't
understand that an Everest expedition can't be run like a Swiss train."
Sadly, not every Everest lawsuit is unwarranted. Inept or disreputable
companies have on more than one occasion failed to deliver crucial
logistical support ‑ oxygen, for instance ‑ as promised. On some expeditions
guides have gone to the summit without any of their clients, prompting the
bitter clients to conclude that they were brought along simply to pick up
the tab. In 1995, the leader of one commercial expedition absconded with
tens of thousands of dollars of his clients' money before the trip even got
off the ground.
To a certain degree, climbers shopping for an Everest expedition get what
they pay for. Expeditions on the northern, Tibetan side of the mountain are
considerably cheaper ‑ the going rate there is $20,000 to $40,000 per person
‑ than those on the south, in part because China charges much less for
climbing permits than does Nepal. But there's a trade‑off: Until 1995, no
guided client had ever reached the summit from Tibet.
This year, Hall charged $65,000 a head, not including airfare or personal
equipment, to take people up the South Col/Southeast Ridge route. Although
no commercial guide service charged more, Hall, a lanky thirty‑five‑year‑old
with a biting Kiwi wit, had no difficulty booking clients, thanks to his
phenomenal success rate: He'd put thirty‑nine climbers on the summit between
1990 and 1995, which meant that he was responsible for three more ascents
than had been made in the first twenty years after Hillary's inaugural
climb. Despite the disdain I'd expressed for Everest over the years, when
the call came to join Hall's expedition, I said yes without even hesitating
to catch my breath. Boyhood dreams die hard, I discovered, and good sense be
On April 10, after ten days of hiking through the steep, walled canyons and
rhododendron forests of northern Nepal, I walked into Everest Base Camp. My
altimeter read 17,600 feet.
Situated at the entrance to a magnificent natural amphitheater formed by
Everest and its two sisters, Lhotse and Nuptse, was a small city of tents
sheltering 240 climbers and Sherpas from fourteen expeditions, all of it
sprawled across a bend in the Khumbu Glacier. The escarpments above camp
were draped with hanging glaciers, from which calved immense serac
avalanches that thundered down at all hours of the day and night. Hard to
the east, pinched between the Nuptse wall and the West Shoulder of Everest,
the Khumbu Icefall spilled to within a quarter‑mile of the tents in a chaos
of pate blue shards.
stark contrast to the harsh qualities of the environment stood our campsite
and all its creature comforts, including a nineteen‑person staff. Our mess
tent, a cavernous canvas structure, was wired with a stereo system and solar
powered electric lights; an adjacent communications tent housed a satellite
phone and fax. There was a hot shower. A cook boy came to each client's tent
in the mornings to serve us steaming mugs of tea in our sleeping bags. Fresh
bread and vegetables arrived every few days on the backs of yaks.
In many ways, Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants site served as a sort of town
hall for Base Camp, largely because nobody on the mountain was more
respected than Hall, who was on Everest for his eighth time. Whenever there
was a problem ‑ a labor dispute with the Sherpas, a medical emergency a
critical decision about climbing strategy ‑ people came to him for advice.
And Hall, always generous, dispensed his accumulated wisdom freely to the
very rivals who were competing with him for clients, most notably Fischer.
Fischer's Mountain Madness camp, distinguished by a huge Starbucks Coffee
banner that hung from a chunk of granite, was a mere five minutes' walk down
the glacier. Fischer and Hall were competitors, but they were also friends,
and there was a good deal of socializing between the two teams. His mess
tent wasn't as well appointed as ours, but Fischer was always quick to offer
a cup of fresh ‑ brewed coffee to any climber or trekker who poked a head
inside the door.
The forty‑year‑old Fischer was a strapping, gregarious man with a blond
ponytail and manic energy. He'd grown up in New Jersey and had fallen in
love with climbing after taking a National Outdoor Leadership School course
as a fourteen‑year‑old. In his formative years, during which he became known
for a damn‑the‑torpedoes style, he'd survived a number of climbing
accidents, including twice cratering into the ground from a height of more
than seventy feet. Fischer's infectious, seat‑of‑the‑pants approach to his
own life was reflected in his improvisational approach to guiding Everest.
In striking contrast to Hall‑who insisted that his clients climb as a group
at all times, under the close watch of his guides ‑ Fischer encouraged his
clients to be independent, to move at their own pace, to go wherever they
wanted, whenever they wanted.
Both men were under considerable pressure this season. The previous year,
Hall had for the first time failed to get anybody to the top. Another dry
spell would be very bad for business. Meanwhile Fischer, who had climbed the
peak without oxygen but had never guided the mountain, was still trying to
get established in the Everest business. He needed to get clients to the
summit, especially a high‑profile one like Sandy Hill Pittman, the Manhattan
boulevardier‑cum‑writer who was filing daily diaries on an NBC World Wide
Despite the many trappings of civilization at Base Camp, there was no
forgetting that we were more than three miles above sea level. Walking to
the mess tent at mealtime left me wheezing to catch my breath. If I sat up
too quickly, my head reeled and vertigo set in. I developed a dry, hacking
cough that would steadily worsen over the next six weeks. Cuts and scrapes
refused to heal. I was rarely hungry, a sign that my oxygen‑deprived stomach
had shut down and my body had begun to consume itself for sustenance. My
arms and legs gradually began to wither to toothpicks, and by expedition's
end I would weigh twenty‑five pounds less than when I left Seattle.
Some of my teammates fared even worse than I in the meager air. At least
half of them suffered from various intestinal ailments that kept them racing
to the latrine. Hansen, forty‑six, who'd paid for the expedition by working
at a Seattle‑area post office by night and on construction jobs by day, was
plagued by an unceasing headache for most of his first week at Base Camp. It
felt, as he put it, "like somebody's driven a nail between my eyes." This
was Hansen's second time on Everest with Hall. The year before, he'd been
forced to turn around 330 vertical feet below the summit because of deep
snow and the late hour. "The summit looked sooooo close," Hansen recalled
with a painful laugh. "Believe me, there hasn't been a day since that I
haven't thought about it." Hansen had been talked into returning this year
by Hall, who felt sorry that Hansen had been denied the summit and who had
significantly discounted Hansen's fee to entice him to give it another try.
A rail‑thin man with a leathery, prematurely furrowed face, Hansen was a
single father who spent a lot of time in Base Camp writing faxes to his two
kids, ages nineteen and twenty‑seven, and to an elementary school in Kent,
Washington, that had sold T‑shirts to help fund his climb. Hansen bunked in
the tent next to mine, and every time a fax would arrive from his daughter,
Angie, he'd read it to me, beaming. "jeez, " he'd announce, "how do you
suppose a screwup like me could have raised such a great kid?"
As a newcomer to altitude ‑ I'd never been above 17,000 feet ‑ I brooded
about how I'd perform higher on the mountain, especially in the so‑called
Death Zone above 25,000 feet. I'd done some fairly extreme climbs over the
years in Alaska, Patagonia, Canada, and the Alps. I'd logged considerably
more time on technical rock and ice than most of the other clients and many
of the guides. But technical expertise counted for very little on Everest,
and I'd spent less time at high elevation ‑ none, to be precise ‑ than
virtually every other climber here. By any rational assessment, I was
singularly unqualified to attempt the highest mountain in the world.
didn't seem to worry Hall. After seven Everest expeditions he'd fine tuned
a remarkably effective method of acclimatization. In the next six weeks, we
would make three trips above Base Camp, climbing about 2,000 feet higher
each time. After that, he insisted, our bodies would be sufficiently adapted
to the altitude to permit safe passage to the 29,028 ‑ foot summit. "It's
worked thirty‑nine times so far, pal," Hall assured me with a wry grin.
Three days after our arrival in Base Camp, we headed out on our first
acclimatization sortie, a one‑day round‑trip to Camp One, perched at the
upper lip of the Icefall, 2,000 vertical feet above. No part of the South
Col route is more feared than the Icefall, a slowly moving jumble of huge,
unstable ice blocks: We were all well aware that it had already killed
nineteen climbers. As I strapped on my crampons in the frigid predawn gloom,
I winced with each creak and rumble from the glacier's shifting depths.
Long before we'd even gotten to Base Camp, our trail had been blazed by
Sherpas, who had fixed more than a mile of rope and installed about sixty
aluminum ladders over the crevasses that crisscross the shattered glacier.
As we shuffled forth, three‑quarters of the way to Camp One, Hall remarked
glibly that the Icefall was in better shape than he'd ever seen it: "The
route's like a bloody freeway this season."
But only slightly higher, at about 19,000 feet, the fixed ropes led us
beneath and then over a twelve‑story chunk of ice that leaned precariously
off kilter. I hurried to get out from beneath its wobbly tonnage and reach
its crest, but my fastest pace was no better than a crawl. Every four or
five steps I'd stop, lean against the rope, and suck desperately at the
thin, bitter air, searing my lungs.
We reached the end of the Icefall about four hours after setting out, but
the relative safety of Camp One didn't supply much peace of mind: I couldn't
stop thinking about the ominously tilted slab and the fact that I would have
to pass beneath its frozen bulk at least seven more times if I was going to
make it to the top of Everest.
Most of the recent debate about Everest has focused on the safety of
commercial expeditions. But the least experienced, least qualified climbers
on the mountain this past season were not guided clients; rather, they were
members of traditionally structured, noncommercial expeditions.
While descending the lower Icefall on April 13, 1 overtook a pair of slower
climbers outfitted with unorthodox clothing and gear. Almost immediately it
became apparent that they weren't very familiar with the standard tools and
techniques of glacier travel. The climber in back repeatedly snagged his
crampons and stumbled. Waiting for them to cross a gaping crevasse bridged
by two rickety ladders lashed end to end, I was shocked to see them go
across together, almost in lockstep, a needlessly dangerous act. An awkward
attempt at conversation revealed that they were members of a Taiwanese
The reputation of the Taiwanese had preceded them to Everest. In the spring
of 1995, the team had traveled to Alaska to climb Mount McKinley as a
shakedown for their attempt on Everest in 1996. Nine climbers reached the
summit of McKinley, but seven of them were caught by a storm on the descent,
became disoriented, and spent a night in the open at 19,400 feet, initiating
a costly, hazardous rescue by the National Park Service.
Five of the climbers ‑ two of them with severe frostbite and one dead ‑ were
plucked from high on the peak by helicopter. "If we hadn't arrived right
when we did, two others would have died, too," says American Conrad Anker,
who with his partner, Alex Lowe, climbed to 19,400 feet to help rescue the
Taiwanese. "Earlier, we'd noticed the Taiwanese group because they looked so
incompetent. It really wasn't any big surprise when they got into trouble."
The leader of the expedition, Ming Ho Gau ‑ a jovial photographer who
answers to "Makalu" ‑ had to be assisted down the upper mountain. “As they
were bringing him down," Anker recalls, "Makalu was yelling, 'Victory!
Victory! We made summit!' to everyone he passed, as if the disaster hadn't
even happened." When the survivors of the McKinley debacle showed up on
Everest In 1996, Makalu Gau was again their leader.
In truth, their presence was a matter of grave concern to just about
everyone on the mountain. The fear was that the Taiwanese would suffer a
calamity that would compel other expeditions to come to their aid, risking
further lives and possibly costing climbers a shot at the summit. Of course,
the Taiwanese were by no means the only group that seemed egregiously
unqualified. Camped beside us at Base Camp was a twenty‑five‑year‑old
Norwegian climber named Petter Neby, who announced his intention to make a
solo ascent of the Southwest Face, an outrageously difficult route, despite
the fact that his Himalayan experience consisted of two easy ascents of
neighboring Island Peak, a 20,270‑foot bump.
And then there were the South Africans. Lavishly funded, sponsored by a
major newspaper, the source of effusive national pride, their team had
received a personal blessing from Nelson Mandela prior to their departure.
The first South African expedition ever to be granted a permit to climb
Everest, they were a mixed‑race group that hoped to put the first black
person on the summit. They were led by a smooth‑talking former military
officer named Ian Woodall. When the team arrived in Nepal it included three
very strong members, most notably a brilliant climber named Andy de Klerk,
who happened to be a good friend of mine.
But almost immediately, four members, including de Klerk, defected.
"Woodall turned out to be a total control freak," said de Klerk. "And you
couldn't trust him. We never knew when he was talking bullshit or telling
the truth. We didn't want to put our lives in the hands of a guy like that.
Later de Klerk would learn that Woodall had lied about his climbing record.
He'd never climbed anywhere near 8,000 meters, as he claimed. In fact, he
hadn't climbed much of anything. Woodall had also allegedly lied about
expedition finances and even lied about who was named on the official
After Woodall's deceit was made public, it became an international scandal,
reported on the front pages of newspapers throughout the commonwealth. When
the editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times, the expedition's primary
sponsor, confronted Woodall in Nepal, Woodall allegedly tried to physically
intimidate him and, according to de Klerk, threatened, "I'm going to rip
your fucking head off!"
In the end, Woodall refused to relinquish leadership and insisted that the
climb would proceed as planned. By this point none of the four climbers left
on the team had more than minimal alpine experience. At least two of them,
says de Klerk, "didn't even know how to put their crampons on."
The solo Norwegian, the Taiwanese, and especially the South Africans were
frequent topics of discussion around the dinner table in our mess tent.
"With so many incompetent people on the mountain," Hall frowned one evening
in late April, "I think it's pretty unlikely that we'll get through this
without something bad happening."
For our third and final acclimatization excursion, we spent four nights at
21,300‑foot Camp Two and a night at 24,000‑foot Camp Three. Then on May 1
our whole team descended to Base Camp to recoup our strength for the summit
push. Much to my surprise, Hall's acclimatization plan seemed to be working:
After three weeks, I felt like I was finally adapting to the altitude. The
air at Base Camp now seemed deliciously thick.
From the beginning, Hall had planned that May 10 would be our summit day.
"Of the four times I've summited," he explained, "twice it was on the tenth
of May. As the Sherpas would put it, the tenth is an 'auspicious' date for
me." But there was also a more down‑to‑earth reason for selecting this date:
The annual ebb and flow of the monsoon made it likely that the most
favorable weather of the year would fall on or near May 10.
For all of April, the jet stream had been trained on Everest like a fire
hose, blasting the summit pyramid with nonstop hurricane‑force winds. Even
on days when Base Camp Was perfectly calm and flooded with sunshine, an
immense plume of wind‑driven snow was visible over the summit. But if all
went well, in early May the monsoon approaching from the Bay of Bengal would
force the jet stream north into Tibet. If this year was like past years,
between the departure of the wind and the arrival of the monsoon storms we
would be presented with a brief window of clear, calm weather during which a
summit assault would be possible.
Unfortunately, the annual weather patterns were no secret, and every
expedition had its sights set on the same window. Hoping to avoid dangerous
gridlock on the summit ridge, Hall held a pow-wow in the mess tent with
leaders of the expeditions in Base Camp. The council, as it were, determined
that Goran Kropp, a young Swede who had ridden a bicycle all the way to
Nepal from Stockholm, would make the first attempt, alone, on May 3. Next
would be a team from Montenegro. Then, on May 8 or 9, it would be the turn
of the IMAX expedition, headed by David Breashears, which hoped to wrap up a
large format film about Everest with footage from the top.
Our team, it was decided, would share a summit date of May 10 with Fischer's
group. An American commercial team and two British‑led commercial groups
promised to steer clear of the top of the mountain on the tenth, as, did the
Taiwanese. Woodall, however, declared that the South Africans would go to
the top whenever they pleased, probably on the tenth, and anyone who didn't
like it could "bugger off."
Hall, ordinarily extremely slow to rile, flew into a rage over Woodall's
refusal to cooperate. "I don't want to be anywhere near the upper mountain
when those punters are up there," he seethed.
"It feels good to be on our way to the summit, yeah?" Harris inquired as we
pulled into Camp Two. The midday sun was reflecting off the walls of Nuptse,
Lhotse, and Everest, and the entire ice‑coated valley seemed to have been
transformed into a huge solar oven. We were finally ascending for real,
headed straight toward the top, Harris and me and everybody else.
Harris ‑ Harold to his friends ‑ was the junior guide on the expedition and
the only one who'd never been to Everest (indeed, he'd never been above
23,000 feet). Built like an NFL quarterback and preternaturally
good‑natured, he was usually assigned to the slower clients at the back of
the pack. For much of the expedition, he had been laid low with intestinal
ailments, but he was finally getting his strength back, and he was eager to
prove himself to his seasoned colleagues. "I think we're actually gonna
knock this big bastard off," he confided to me with a huge smile, staring up
at the summit.
Harris worked as a much‑in‑demand heli‑skiing guide in the antipodal winter.
Summers he guided climbers in New Zealand's Southern Alps and had just
launched a promising heli‑hiking business. Sipping tea in the mess tent back
at Base Camp, he'd shown me a photograph of Fiona McPherson, the pretty,
athletic doctor with whom he lived, and described the house they were
building together in the hills outside Queenstown. "Yeah," he'd marveled,
"It's kind of amazing, really. My life seems to be working out pretty well."
Later that day, Kropp, the Swedish soloist, passed Camp Two on his way down
the mountain, looking utterly worked. Three days earlier, under clear skies,
he'd made it to just below the South Summit and was no more than an hour
from the top when he decided to turn around. He had been climbing without
supplemental oxygen, the hour had been late ‑ 2:00 p.m.
to be exact ‑ and he'd believed that if he'd kept going, he'd have
been too tired to descend safely.
turn around that close to the summit," Hall mused, shaking his head. "That
showed incredibly good judgment on young Goran's part. I'm impressed. "
Sticking to your predetermined turn‑around time ‑ that was the most
important rule on the mountain. Over the previous month, Rob had lectured us
repeatedly on this point. Our turn‑around time, he said, would probably be
1:00 p.m, and no
matter how close we were to the top, we were to abide by it. "With enough
determination, any bloody idiot can get up this
hill," Hall said. "The trick is to
get back down alive."
Cheerful and unflappable, Hall's easygoing facade masked an intense desire
to succeed‑which to him was defined in the fairly simple terms of getting as
many clients as possible to the summit. But he also paid careful attention
to the details: the health of the Sherpas, the efficiency of the
solar‑powered electrical system, the sharpness of his clients' crampons. He
loved being a guide, and it pained him that some celebrated climbers didn't
give his profession the respect he felt it deserved.
On May 8 our team and Fischer's team left Camp Two and started climbing the
Lhotse Face, a vast sweep of steel‑hard ice rising from the head of the
Western Cwm. Hall's Camp Three, two‑thirds of the way up this wall, was set
on a narrow ledge that had been chopped into the face by our Sherpas. It was
a spectacularly perilous perch. A hundred feet below, no less exposed, were
the tents of most of the other teams including Fischer's, the South
Africans, and the Taiwanese.
It was here that we had our first encounter with death on the mountain. At
7:30 A.M. on May 9, as we were pulling
on our boots to ascend to Camp Four, a thirty‑six‑year‑old steelworker from
Taipei named Chen Yu‑Nan crawled out of his tent to relieve himself, with
only the smooth‑soled liners of his mountaineering boots on his feet ‑ a
rather serious lapse of judgment. As he squatted, he lost his footing on the
slick ice and went hurtling down the Lhotse Face, coming to rest,
head‑first, in a crevasse. Sherpas who had seen the incident lowered a rope,
pulled him out of the slot, and carried him back to his tent. He was bruised
and badly rattled, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. Chen's teammates left
him in a tent to recover and departed for Camp Four. That afternoon, as Chen
tried to descend to Camp Two with the help of Sherpas, he keeled over and
Over the preceding six weeks there had been several serious accidents:
Tenzing Sherpa, from our team, fell 150 feet into a crevasse and injured a
leg seriously enough to require helicopter evacuation from Base Camp. One of
Fischer's Sherpas nearly died of a mysterious illness at damp Two. A young,
apparently fit British climber had. a serious heart attack near the top of
the Icefall. A Dane was struck by a, falling serac and broke several ribs.
Until now, however, none of the mishaps had been fatal.
Chen's death cast a momentary pall over the mountain. But thirty‑three
climbers at the South Col would be departing for the summit in a few short
hours, and the gloom was quickly shoved aside by nervous anticipation of the
challenge to come. Most of us were simply wrapped too tightly in the grip of
summit fever to engage in thoughtful reflection about the death of someone
in our midst. There would be plenty of time for reflection later, we
assumed, after we all had summited ‑ and got back down.
Climbing with oxygen for the first time, I had reached the South Col, our
launching pad for the summit assault, at one o'clock that afternoon. A
barren plateau of bulletproof ice and windswept boulders, the Col sits at
26,000 feet above sea level, tucked between the upper ramparts of Lhotse,
the world's fourth‑highest mountain, and Everest. Roughly rectangular, about
four football fields long by two across, the Col is bounded on the east by
the Kangshung Face, a 7,000 ‑ foot drop‑off, and on the west by the 4,000 ‑
foot Lhotse Face. It is one of the coldest, most inhospitable places I have
I was the first Western climber to arrive. When I got there, four Sherpas
were struggling to erect our tents in a 50‑mph wind. I helped them put up my
shelter, anchoring it to some discarded oxygen canisters wedged beneath the
largest rocks I could lift. Then I dove inside to wait for my teammates.
It was nearly 5:00 p.m.
when the last of the group made camp. The final stragglers in
Fischer's group came in even later, which didn't augur well for the summit
bid, scheduled to begin in six hours. Everyone retreated to their nylon
domes the moment they reached the Col and did their best to nap, but the
machine‑gun rattle of the flapping tents and the anxiety over what was to
come made sleep out of the question for most of us.
me on the plateau were some three dozen people, huddled in tents pitched
side by side. Yet an odd sense of isolation hung over the camp. Up here, in
this godforsaken place, I felt distressingly disconnected from everyone
around me ‑‑‑‑ emotionally, spiritually, physically. We were a team in name
only, I'd sadly come to realize. Although we would leave camp in a few hours
as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither
rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or
herself, pretty much. And I was no different: I really hoped Doug Hansen
would get to the top, for instance, yet if he were to turn around, I knew I
would do everything in my power to keep pushing on. In another context this
insight would have been depressing, but I was too preoccupied with the
weather to dwell on it. If the wind didn't abate, the summit would be out of
the question for all of us.
At 7:00 p.m. the
gale abruptly ceased. The temperature was fifteen below zero, but there was
almost no wind. Conditions were excellent; Hall, it appeared, had timed our
summit bid perfectly. The tension was palpable as we sipped tea, delivered
to us in our tents by Sherpas, and readied our gear. Nobody said much. All
of us had suffered greatly to get to this moment. I had eaten little and
slept not at all since leaving Camp Two two days earlier. Damage to my
thoracic cartilage made each cough feel like a stiff kick between the ribs
and brought tears to my eyes. But if I wanted a crack at the summit, I had
no choice but to ignore my infirmities as much as possible and climb.
11:35, we were away from the tents. I strapped on my oxygen mask and
ascended into the darkness. There were fifteen of us in Hall's team: guides
Hall, Harris, and Mike Groom, an Australian with impressive Himalayan
experience; Sherpas Ang Dorje, Lhakpa Chhiri, Nawang Norbu, and Kami: and
clients Hansen, Namba, Weathers, Stuart Hutchison (a Canadian doctor), John
Taske (an Australian doctor), Lou Kasischke (a lawyer from Michigan), Frank
Fischbeck (a publisher from Hong Kong), and me.
Fischer's group‑guides Fischer, Boukreev, and Neal Beidleman; five Sherpas;
and clients Charlotte Fox, Tim Madsen, Klev Schoening, Sandy Pittman, Lene
Gammelgaard, and Martin Adams‑left the South Col at midnight. Shortly after
that, Makalu Gau started up with three Sherpas, ignoring his promise that no
Taiwanese would make a summit attempt on May 10. Thankfully, the South
Africans had failed to make it to Camp Four and were nowhere in sight.
The night had a cold, phantasmal beauty that intensified as we ascended.
More stars than I had ever seen smeared the frozen sky. Far to the
southeast, enormous thunderheads drifted over Nepal, illuminating the
heavens with surreal bursts of orange and blue lightning. A gibbous moon
rose over the shoulder of 27,824‑foot Makalu, washing the slope beneath my
boots in ghostly light, obviating the need for a headlamp. I broke trail
throughout the night with Ang Dorje ‑ our sirdar, or head Sherpa ‑ and at
5:30, just as the sun was edging over the horizon, I reached the crest of
the Southeast Ridge. Three of the world's five highest peaks stood out in
jagged relief against the pastel dawn. My altimeter read 2 7,500 feet.
Hall had instructed us to climb no higher until the whole group gathered at
this level roost known as the Balcony, so I sat down on my pack to wait.
When Hall and Weathers finally arrived at the back of the herd, I'd been
sitting for more than ninety minutes. By now Fischer's group and the
Taiwanese team had caught and passed us. I was peeved over wasting so much
time and at falling behind everybody else. But I understood Hall's
rationale, so I kept quiet and played the part of the obedient client. To my
mind, the rewards of climbing come from its emphasis on self‑reliance, on
making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal
responsibility When you become a client, I discovered, you give up all that.
For safety's sake, the guide always calls the shots.
Passivity on the part of the clients had thus been encouraged throughout our
expedition. Sherpas put in the route, set up the camps, did the cooking,
hauled the loads; we clients seldom carried more than daypacks stuffed with
our personal gear. This system conserved our energy and vastly increased our
chances of getting to the top, but I found it hugely unsatisfying. I felt at
times as if I weren't really climbing the mountain‑that surrogates were
doing it for me. Although I had willingly accepted this role in order to
climb Everest, I never got used to it. And I was happy as hell when, at 7:10
A.M., Hall gave me the OK to continue
One of the
first people I passed when I started moving again was Fischer's sirdar,
Lobsang Jangbu, kneeling in the snow over a pile of vomit. Both Lobsang and
Boukreev had asked and been granted permission by Fischer to climb without
supplemental oxygen, a highly questionable decision that significantly
affected the performance of both men, but especially Lobsang. His feeble
state, moreover, had been compounded by his insistence on "short‑roping"
Pittman on summit day.
Lobsang, twenty‑five, was a gifted high‑altitude climber who'd summited
Everest twice before without oxygen. Sporting a long black ponytail and a
gold tooth, he was flashy, self‑assured, and very appealing to the clients,
not to mention crucial to their summit hopes. As Fischer's head Sherpa, he
was expected to be at the front of the group this morning, putting in the
route. But just before daybreak, I'd looked down to see Lobsang hitched to
Pittman by her three foot safety tether; the Sherpa, huffing and puffing
loudly, was hauling the assertive New Yorker up the steep slope like a horse
pulling a plow. Pittman was on a widely publicized quest to ascend Everest
and thereby complete the Seven Summits. She'd failed to make it to the top
on two previous, expeditions; this time she was determined to succeed.
Fischer knew that Lobsang was short‑roping Pittman, yet did nothing to stop
it; some people have thus concluded that Fischer ordered Lobsang to do it,
because Pittman had been moving slowly when she started out on summit day,
and Fischer worried that if Pittman failed to reach the summit, he would be
denied a marketing bonanza. But two other clients on Fischer's team
speculate that Lobsang was short‑roping her because she'd promised him a
hefty cash bonus if she reached the top. Pittman has denied this and insists
that she was hauled up against her wishes. Which begs a question: Why didn't
she unfasten the tether, which would have required nothing more than
reaching up and unclipping a single carabiner?
"I have no idea why Lobsang was short‑roping Sandy," confesses Beidleman.
"He lost sight of what he was supposed to be doing up there, what the
priorities were." It didn't seem like a particularly serious mistake at the
time. A little thing. But it was one of many little things‑accruing slowly,
compounding imperceptibly, building steadily toward critical mass.
A human plucked from sea level and dropped on the summit of Everest would
lose consciousness within minutes and quickly die. A well‑acclimatised
climber can function at that altitude with supplemental oxygen‑but not well,
and not for long. The body becomes far more vulnerable to pulmonary and
cerebral edema, hypothermia, frostbite. Each member of our team was carrying
two orange, seven‑pound oxygen bottles. A third bottle would be waiting for
each of us at the South Summit on our descent, stashed there by Sherpas. At
a conservative flow rate of two liters per minute, each bottle would last
between five and six hours. By 4:00 or 5:00
p.m, about eighteen hours after starting to climb, everyone's gas
would be gone.
understood this well. The fact that nobody had summited this season prior to
our attempt concerned him, because it meant that no fixed ropes had been
installed on the upper Southeast Ridge, the most exposed part of the climb.
To solve this problem, Hall and Fischer had agreed before leaving Base Camp
that on summit day the two sirdars ‑ Ang Dorje from Hall's team and Lobsang
from Fischer's‑would leave Camp Four ninety minutes ahead of everybody else
and put in the fixed lines before any clients reached the upper mountain.
"Rob made it very clear how important it was to do this," recalls Beidleman.
"He wanted to avoid a bottleneck at all costs."
For some reason, however, the Sherpas hadn't set out ahead of us on the
night of May 9. When Ang Dorje and I reached the Balcony, we were an hour in
front of the rest of the group, and we could have easily moved on and
installed the ropes. But Hall had explicitly forbidden me to go ahead, and
Lobsang was still far below, short‑roping Pittman. There was nobody to
accompany Ang Dorje.
A quiet, moody young man who regarded Lobsang as a showboat and a goldbrick,
Ang Dorje had been working extremely hard, well beyond the call of duty, for
six long weeks. Now he was tired of doing more than his share. If Lobsang
wasn't going to fix ropes, neither was he. Looking sullen, Ang Dorje sat
down with me to wait.
Sure enough, not long after everybody caught up with us and we continued
climbing up, a bottleneck occurred when our group encountered a series of
giant rock steps at 28,000 feet. Clients huddled at the base of this
obstacle for nearly an hour while Beidleman, standing in for the absent
Lobsang, laboriously ran the rope out.
Here, the impatience and technical inexperience of Namba nearly caused a
disaster. A businesswoman who liked to joke that her husband did all the
cooking and cleaning, Namba had become famous back in Japan for her Seven
Summits globetrotting, and her quest for Everest had turned into a minor
cause celebre. She was usually a slow, tentative climber, but today, with
the summit squarely in her sights, she seemed energized as never before.
She'd been pushing hard all morning, jostling her way toward the front of
the line. Now, as Beidleman clung precariously to the rock a hundred feet
above, the overeager Namba clamped her ascender onto the dangling rope
before the guide had anchored his end of it. just as she was about to put
her full body weight on the rope‑which would have pulled Beidleman off‑guide
Mike Groom intervened and gently scolded her.
The line continued to grow longer, and so did the delay. By 11: 30
A.M., three of Hall's clients ‑
Hutchison, Taske, and Kasischke ‑ had become worried about the lagging pace.
Stuck behind the sluggish Taiwanese team, Hutchison now says, "It seemed
increasingly unlikely that we would have any chance of summiting before the
1:00 p.m. turn‑around time dictated by
After a brief discussion, they turned their back on the summit and headed
down with Kami and Lhakpa Chhiri. Earlier, Fischbeck, one of Hall's
strongest clients, had also turned around. The decision must have been
supremely difficult for at least some of these men, especially Fischbeck,
for whom this was a fourth attempt on Everest. They'd each spent as much as
$70,000 to be up here and had endured weeks of misery. All were driven,
unaccustomed to losing and even less to quitting. And yet, faced with a
tough decision, they were among the few who made the right one that day.
There was a second, even worse, bottleneck at the South Summit, which I
reached at about 11:00 a.m. The Hillary Step was just a stone's throw away,
and slightly beyond that was the summit itself. Rendered dumb with awe and
exhaustion, I took some photos and sat down with Harris, Beidleman, and
Boukreev to wait for the Sherpas to fix ropes along the spectacularly
corniced summit ridge.
A stiff breeze raked the ridge crest, blowing a plume of spindrift into
Tibet, but overhead the sky was an achingly brilliant blue. Lounging in the
sun at 28,700 feet inside my thick down suit, gazing across the Himalayas in
a hypoxic stupor, I completely lost track of time. Nobody paid much
attention to the fact that Ang Dorje and Nawang Norbu were sharing a thermos
of tea beside us and seemed to be in no hurry to go higher. Around noon,
Beidleman finally asked, "Hey, Ang Dorje, are you going to fix the ropes, or
Ang Dorje's reply was a quick, unequivocal "No" ‑ perhaps because neither
Lobsang nor any of Fischer's other Sherpas was there to share the work.
Shocked into doing the job ourselves, Beidleman, Boukreev, Harris, and I
collected all the remaining rope, and Beidleman and Boukreev started
stringing it along the most dangerous sections of the summit ridge. But by
then more than an hour had trickled away.
Bottled oxygen does not make the top of Everest feel like sea level.
Ascending above the South Summit with my regulator delivering two liters of
oxygen per minute, I had to stop and draw three or four heaving lungfulls of
air after each ponderous step. The systems we were using delivered a lean
mix of compressed oxygen and ambient air that made 2 9,000 feet feel like 2
6,000 feet. But they did confer other benefits that weren't so easily
quantified, not the least of which was keeping hypothermia and frostbite at
Climbing along the blade of the summit ridge, sucking gas into my ragged
lungs, I enjoyed a strange, unwarranted sense of calm. The world beyond the
rubber mask was stupendously vivid but seemed not quite real, as if a movie
were being projected in slow motion across the front of my goggles. I felt
drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli. I had to
remind myself over and over that there was 7,000 feet of sky on either side,
that everything was at stake here, that I would pay for a single bungled
step with my life.
Plodding slowly up the last few steps to the summit, I had the sensation of
being under water, of moving at quarter‑speed. And then I found myself atop
a slender wedge of ice adorned with a discarded oxygen cylinder and a
battered aluminum survey pole, with nowhere higher to climb. A string of
Buddhist prayer flags snapped furiously in the wind. To the north, down a
side of the mountain I had never seen, the desiccated Tibetan plateau
stretched to the horizon.
Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense
elation; against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I'd
coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point.
Any impulse I might have felt toward self‑congratulation was immediately
extinguished by apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay
ahead. As I turned to go down, I experienced a moment of alarm when a glance
at my regulator showed that my oxygen was almost gone. I started down the
ridge as fast as I could move but soon hit the traffic jam at the Hillary
Step, which was when my gas ran out. When Hall came by, I masked my rising
panic and thanked him for getting me to the top of Everest. "Yeah, it's
turned out to be a pretty good expedition," he replied. "I only wish we
could have gotten more clients to the top." Hall was clearly disappointed
that five of his eight clients had turned back earlier in the day, while all
six of Fischer's clients were still plugging toward the summit.
Soon after Hall passed, the Hillary Step finally cleared. Dizzy, fearing
that I would black out, I made my way tenuously down the fixed lines. Then,
fifty feet above the South Summit, the rope ended, and I balked at going
farther without gas.
Over at the South Summit I could see Harris sorting through a pile of oxygen
bottles. "Yo, Andy!'' I yelled. "Could you bring me a fresh bottle?"
"There's no oxygen here!" the guide shouted back. "These bottles are all
empty!'' I nearly lost it. I had no idea what to do. just then, Groom came
past on his way down from the summit. He had climbed Everest in 1993 without
supplemental oxygen and wasn't overly concerned about going without. He gave
me his bottle, and we quickly scrambled over to the South Summit.
When we got
there, an examination of the oxygen cache revealed right away that there
were six full bottles. Harris, however, refused to believe it. He kept
insisting that they were all empty, and nothing Groom or I said could
convince him otherwise. Right then it should have been obvious that Harris
was acting irrationally and had slipped well beyond routine hypoxia, but I
was so impeded myself that it simply didn't register. Harris was the
invincible guide, there to look after me and the other clients; the thought
never entered my own crippled mind that he might in fact be in dire straits
‑ that a guide might urgently need help from me.
As Harris continued to assert that there were no full bottles, Groom looked
at me quizzically. I looked back and shrugged. Turning to Harris, I said,
"No big deal, Andy. Much ado about nothing." Then I grabbed a new oxygen
canister, screwed it onto my regulator, and headed down the mountain. Given
what unfolded over the next three hours, my failure to see that Harris was
in serious trouble was a lapse that's likely to haunt me for the rest of my
At 3:00 p.m., within minutes of
leaving the South Summit, I descended into clouds ahead of the others. Snow
started to fall. In the flat, diminishing light, it became hard to tell
where the mountain ended and where the sky began. It would have been very
easy to blunder off the edge of the ridge and never be heard from again. The
lower I went, the worse the weather became.
When I reached the Balcony again, about 4:00 p.m, I encountered Beck
Weathers standing alone, shivering violently. Years earlier, Weathers had
undergone radial keratotomy to correct his vision. A side effect, which he
discovered on Everest and consequently hid from Hall, was that in the low
barometric pressure at high altitude, his eyesight failed. Nearly blind when
he'd left Camp Four in the middle of the night but hopeful that his vision
would improve at daybreak, he stuck close to the person in front of him and
Upon reaching the Southeast Ridge shortly after sunrise, Weathers had
confessed to Hall that he was having trouble seeing, at which point Hall
declared, "Sorry, pal, you're going down. I'll send one of the Sherpas with
you." Weathers countered that his vision was likely to improve as soon as
the sun crept higher in the sky; Hall said he'd give Weathers thirty minutes
to find out‑after that, he'd have to wait there at 27,500 feet for Hall and
the rest of the group to come back down. Hall didn't want Weathers
descending alone. "I'm dead serious about this," Hall admonished his client.
"Promise me that you'll sit right here until I return."
"I crossed my heart and hoped to die," Weathers recalls now, "and promised I
wouldn't go anywhere." Shortly after noon, Hutchison, Taske, and Kasischke
passed by with their Sherpa escorts, but Weathers elected not to accompany
them. "The weather was still good," he explains, "and I saw no reason to
break my promise to Rob."
By the time I encountered Weathers, however, conditions were turning ugly.
"Come down with me," I implored. "I'll get you down, no problem." He was
nearly convinced, until I made the mistake of mentioning that Groom was on
his way down, too. In a day of many mistakes, this would turn out to be a
crucial one. "Thanks anyway," Weathers said. "I'll just wait for Mike. He's
got a rope; he'll be able to short‑rope me." Secretly‑ relieved I hurried
toward the South Col, 1, 500 feet below.
These lower slopes, proved to be the most difficult part of the descent. Six
inches of powder snow blanketed outcroppings of loose shale. Climbing down
them demanded unceasing concentration, an all but impossible feat in my
current state. By 5:30, however, I was finally within 200 vertical feet of
Camp Four, and only one obstacle stood between me and safety: a steep bulge
of rock hard ice that I'd have to descend without a rope. But the weather
had deteriorated into a full‑scale blizzard. Snow pellets born on 70‑mph
winds stung my face; any exposed skin was instantly frozen. The tents, no
more than 200 horizontal yards away, were only intermittently visible
through the whiteout. There was zero margin for error. Worried about making
a critical blunder, I sat down to marshal my energy.
Suddenly Harris appeared out of the gloom and sat beside me. At this point
there was no mistaking that he was in appalling shape. His cheeks were
coated with an armor of frost, one eye was frozen shut, and his speech was
slurred. He was frantic to reach the tents. After briefly discussing the
best way to negotiate the ice, Harris started scooting down on his butt,
facing forward. 'Andy," I yelled after him, "it's crazy to try it like
that!'' He yelled something back, but the words were carried off by the
screaming wind. A second later he lost his purchase and was rocketing down
on his back.
Two hundred feet below, I could make out Harris's motionless form. I was
sure he'd broken at least a leg, maybe his neck. But then he stood up, waved
that he was OK, and started stumbling toward camp, which was for the moment
in plain sight, 150 yards beyond.
I could see three or four people shining lights outside the tents. I watched
Harris walk across the flats to the edge of camp, a distance he covered in
less than ten minutes. When the clouds closed in a moment later, cutting off
my view he was within thirty yards of the tents. I didn't see him again
after that, but I was certain that he'd reached the security of camp, where
Sherpas would be waiting with hot tea. Sitting out in the storm, with the
ice bulge still standing between me and the tents, I felt a pang of envy. I
was angry that my guide hadn't waited for me,
Twenty minutes later I was in camp. I fell into my tent with my crampons
still on, zipped the door tight, and sprawled across the frost‑covered
floor. I was drained, more exhausted than I'd ever been in my life. But I
was safe. Andy was safe. The others would be coming into camp soon. We'd
done it. We'd climbed Mount Everest.
It would be many hours before I learned that everyone had in fact not made
it back to camp ‑ that one teammate was already dead and that twenty‑three
other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives.
Neal Beidleman waited on the summit from 1:25 until 3:10 as Fischer's
clients appeared over the last rise, one by one. The lateness of the hour
worried him. After Gammelgaard, the last of them, arrived with Lobsang, "I
decided it was time to get the hell out of there," Beidleman says, "even
though Scott hadn't shown yet." Twenty minutes down the ridge, Beidleman‑with
Gammelgaard, Pittman, Madsen, and Fox in tow‑passed Fischer, still on his
way up. "I didn't really say anything to him," Beidleman recalls. "He just
sort of raised his hand. He looked like he was having a hard time, but he
was Scott, so I wasn't particularly worried. I figured he'd tag the summit
and catch up to us pretty quick to help bring the clients down. But he never
When Beidleman's group got down to the South Summit, Pittman collapsed. Fox,
the most experienced client on the peak, gave her an injection of a powerful
steroid, dexamethasone, which temporarily negates the symptoms of altitude
sickness. Beidleman grabbed Pittman by her harness and started dragging her
down behind him.
"Once I got her sliding," he explains, "I'd let go and glissade down in
front of her. Every fifty meters I'd stop, wrap my hands around the fixed
rope, and brace myself to arrest her slide with a body block. The first time
Sandy came barreling into me, the points of her crampons sliced into my down
suit. Feathers went flying everywhere." Fortunately, after about twenty
minutes the injection revived Pittman, and she was able to resume the
descent under her own power.
As darkness fell and the storm intensified, Beidleman and five of Fischer's
clients overtook Groom, who was bringing down Weathers, on a short rope, and
Namba. "Beck was so hopelessly blind," Groom reports, "that every ten meters
he'd take a step into thin air and I'd have to catch him with the rope. It
was bloody nerve‑racking."
Five hundred feet above the South Col, where the steep shale gave way to a
gentler slope of snow, Namba's oxygen ran out and the diminutive Japanese
woman sat down, refusing to move. "When I tried to take her oxygen mask off
so she could breathe more easily," says Groom, "she'd insist on putting it
right back on. No amount of persuasion could convince her that she was out
of oxygen, that the mask was actually suffocating her."
Beidleman, realizing that Groom had his hands full with Weathers, started
dragging Namba down toward Camp Four. They reached the broad, rolling
expanse of the South Col around 8:00
p.m., but by then
it was pitch black, and the storm had grown into a hurricane. The windchill
was in excess of seventy below. Only three or four headlamps were working,
and everyone's oxygen was long gone. Visibility was down to a few meters. No
one had a clue how to find the tents. Two Sherpas materialized out of the
darkness, but they were lost as well.
For the next
two hours, Beidleman, Groom, the two Sherpas, and seven clients staggered
blindly around in the storm, growing ever more exhausted and hypothermic,
hoping to blunder across the camp. "It was‑ total chaos," says Beidleman.
"People are wandering all over the place; I'm yelling at everyone, trying to
get them to follow a single leader. Finally, probably around ten o'clock, I
walked over this little rise, and it felt like I was standing on the edge of
the earth. I could sense a huge void just beyond."
The group had unwittingly strayed to the easternmost edge of the Col, the
opposite side from Camp Four, right at the lip of the 7,000‑foot Kangshung
Face. "I knew that if we kept wandering in the storm, pretty soon we were
going to lose somebody," says Beidleman. "I was exhausted from dragging
Yasuko. Charlotte and Sandy were barely able to stand. So I screamed at
everyone to huddle up right there and wait for a break in the storm."
The climbers hunkered in a pathetic cluster on a windswept patch of ice. "By
then the cold had about finished me off," says Fox. "My eyes were frozen.
The cold was so painful, I just curled up in a ball and hoped death would
Three hundred and fifty yards to the west, while this was going on, I was
shivering uncontrollably in my tent, even though I was zipped into my
sleeping bag and wearing my down suit and every other stitch of clothing I
had. The gale was threatening to blow the tent apart. Oblivious to the
tragedy unfolding outside and completely out of bottled oxygen, I drifted in
and out of fitful sleep, delirious from exhaustion, dehydration, and the
cumulative effects of oxygen depletion.
At some point, Hutchison shook me and asked if I would go outside with him
to bang on pots and shine lights, in the hope of guiding any lost climbers
in, but I was too weak and incoherent to respond. Hutchison, who had got
back to camp at 2:00 p.m.
and was less debilitated than those of us who'd gone to the summit,
then tried to rouse clients and Sherpas in the other tents. Everybody was
too cold, too exhausted. So Hutchison went out into the storm alone.
He left six times that night to look for the missing climbers, but the
blizzard was so fierce that he never dared to venture more than a few yards
from the tents. "The winds were ballistically strong," says Hutchison. "The
blowing spindrift felt like a sandblaster or something."
Just before midnight, out among the climbers hunkered on the Col, Beidleman
noticed a few stars overhead. The wind was still whipping up a furious
ground blizzard, but far above, the sky began to clear, revealing the
hulking silhouettes of Everest and Lhotse. From these reference points, Klev
Schoening, a client of Fischer's, thought he'd figured out where the group
was in relation to the tents. After a shouting match with Beidleman,
Schoening convinced the guide that he knew the way.
Beidleman tried to coax everyone to their feet and get them moving in the
direction indicated by Schoening, but Fox, Namba, Pittman, and Weathers
were too feeble to walk. So Beidleman assembled those who were ambulatory,
and together with Groom they stumbled off into the storm to get help,
leaving behind the four incapacitated clients and Tim Madsen. Madsen,
unwilling to abandon Fox, his girlfriend, volunteered to look after
everybody until a rescue party arrived.
The tents lay about 3 50 yards to the west. When Beidleman, Groom, and the
client s got there, they were met by Boukreev. Beidleman told the Russian
where to find the five clients who'd been left out in the elements, and then
all four climbers collapsed in their tents.
Boukreev had returned to Camp Four at 4:30
p.m. before the brunt of the storm, having rushed down from the
summit without waiting for clients ‑ extremely questionable behavior for a
guide. A number of Everest veterans have speculated that if Boukreev had
been present to help Beidleman and Groom bring their clients down, the group
might not have gotten lost on the Col in the first place. One of the clients
from that group has nothing but contempt for Boukreev, insisting that when
it mattered most, the guide "cut and ran."
Boukreev argues that he hurried down ahead of everybody else because "it is
much better for me to be at South Col, ready to carry up oxygen if clients
run out." This is a difficult rationale to understand. In fact, Boukreev's
impatience on the descent more plausibly resulted from the fact that he
wasn't using bottled oxygen and was relatively lightly dressed and therefore had to get down quickly: Without gas, he was much more susceptible to
the dreadful cold. If this was indeed the case, Fischer was as much to blame
as Boukreev, because he gave the Russian permission to climb without gas in
the first place.
Whatever Boukreev's culpability, however, he redeemed himself that night
after Beidleman staggered in. Plunging repeatedly into the maw of the
hurricane, he single‑handedly brought back Fox, Pittman, and Madsen. But
Namba and Weathers, he reported, were dead. When Beidleman was informed that
Namba hadn't made it, he broke down in his tent and wept for forty‑five
Stuart Hutchison shook me awake at 6:00 A.M.
on May 11. 'Andy's not in his tent," he told me somberly, "and he
doesn't seem to be in any of the other tents, either. I don't think he ever
made it in."
“Andy's missing?” I asked. "No way. I saw him walk to the edge of camp with
my own eyes." Shocked, horrified, I pulled on my boots and rushed out to
look for Harris. The wind was still fierce, knocking me down several times,
but it was a bright, clear dawn, and visibility was perfect. I searched the
entire western half of the Col for more than an hour, peering behind
boulders and poking under shredded, long‑abandoned tents, but found no trace
of Harris. A surge of adrenaline seared my brain. Tears welled in my eyes,
instantly freezing my eyelids shut. How could Andy be gone? It couldn't be
I went to the place where Harris had slid down the ice bulge and
methodically retraced the route he'd taken toward camp, which followed a
broad, almost flat ice gully. At the point where I last saw him when the
clouds came down, a sharp left turn would have taken Harris forty or fifty
feet up a rocky rise to the tents.
I saw, however, that if he hadn't turned left but instead had continued
straight down the gully ‑ which would have been easy to do in a whiteout,
even if one wasn't exhausted and stupid with altitude sickness‑he would have
quickly come to the westernmost edge of the Col and a 4,000‑foot drop to the
floor of the Western Cwm. Standing there, afraid to move any closer to the
edge, I noticed a single set of faint crampon tracks leading past me toward
the abyss. Those tracks, I feared, were Harris's
After getting into camp the previous evening, I'd told Hutchison that I'd
seen Harris arrive safely in camp. Hutchison had radioed this news to Base
Camp, and from there it was passed along via satellite phone to the woman
with whom Harris shared his life in New Zealand, Fiona McPherson. Now Hall's
wife back in New Zealand, Jan Arnold, had to do the unthinkable: call
McPherson back to inform her that there had been a horrible mistake, that
Andy was in fact missing and presumed dead. Imagining this conversation and
my role in the events leading up to it, I fell to my knees with dry heaves,
retching as the icy wind blasted my back.
I returned to my tent just in time to overhear a radio call between Base
Camp and Hall ‑ who, I learned to my horror, was up on the summit ridge and
calling for help. Beidleman then told me that Weathers and Namba were dead
and that Fischer was missing somewhere on the peak above. An aura of
unreality had descended over the mountain, casting the morning in a
Then our radio batteries died, cutting us off from the rest of the mountain.
Alarmed that they had lost contact with us, climbers at Camp Two called the
South African team, which had arrived on the South Col the previous day.
When Ian Woodall was asked if he would loan his radio to us, he refused.
reaching the summit around 3:30 p.m.
on May 10, Scott Fischer had headed down with Lobsang, who had waited for
Fischer on the summit while Beidleman and their clients descended. They got
no farther than the South Summit before Fischer began to have difficulty
standing and showed symptoms of severe hypothermia and cerebral edema.
According to Lobsang, Fischer began "acting like crazy man. Scott Is saying
to me, 'I want to jump down to Camp Two.' He is saying many times." Pleading
with him not to jump, Lobsang started short‑roping Fischer, who outweighed
him by some seventy pounds, down the Southeast Ridge. A few hours after
dark, they got into some difficult mixed terrain 1,200 feet above the South
Col, and Lobsang was unable to drag Fischer any farther.
Lobsang anchored Fischer to a snow‑covered ledge and was preparing to leave
him there when three tired Sherpas showed up. They were struggling to bring
down Makalu Gau, who was as debilitated as Fischer. The Sherpas sat the
Taiwanese leader beside the American leader, tied the two semiconscious men
together, and around 10:00
into the night to get help.
Meanwhile, Hall and Hansen were still on the frightfully exposed summit
ridge, engaged in a grim struggle of their own. The forty‑six‑year‑old
Hansen, whom Hall had turned back just below this spot exactly a year ago,
had been determined to bag the summit this time around. "I want to get this
thing done and out of my life," he'd told me a couple of days earlier. "I
don't want to have to come back here."
Indeed, Hansen had reached the top this time, though not until after 3:00
P.m., well after
Hall's predetermined turn‑around time. Given Hall's conservative, systematic
nature, many people wonder why he didn't turn Hansen around when it become
obvious that he was running late. It's not farfetched to speculate that
because Hall had talked Hansen into coming back to Everest this year, It
would have been especially hard for him to deny Hansen the summit a second
time specially when all. of Fischer's clients were still marching blithely
toward the top.
"It's very difficult to turn someone around high on the mountain," cautions
Guy Cotter, a New Zealand guide who summited Everest with Hall in 1992 and
was guiding the peak for him in 1995 when Hansen made his first attempt. "If
a client sees that the summit is close and they're dead‑set on getting
there, they're going to laugh in your face and keep going up."
In any case, for whatever reason, Hall did not turn Hansen around. Instead,
after reaching the summit at 2: 10
p.m, Hall waited
for more than an hour for Hansen to arrive and then headed down with him.
Soon after they began their descent, just below the top, Hansen apparently
ran out of oxygen and collapsed, "Pretty much the same thing happened to
Doug in '95, " says Ed Viesturs, an American who guided the peak for Hall
that year. "He was fine during the ascent, but as soon as he started down he
lost it mentally and physically. He turned into a real zombie, like he'd
used everything up."
At 4:31 p.m Hall radioed Base Camp to say that he and Hansen were above the
Hillary Step and urgently needed oxygen. Two full bottles were waiting for
them at the South Summit; if Hall had known this he could have retrieved the
gas fairly quickly and then climbed back up to give Hansen a fresh tank. But
Harris, in the throes of his oxygen‑starved dementia, overheard the 4:3 1
radio call while descending the Southeast Ridge and broke in to tell Hall –
incorrectly. just as he'd told Groom and me‑that all the bottles at the
South Summit were empty. So Hall stayed with Hansen and tried to bring the
helpless client down without oxygen, but could get him no farther than the
top of the Hillary Step.
Cotter, a very close friend of both Hall and Harris, happened to be a few
miles from Everest Base Camp at the time, guiding an expedition on Pumori.
Overhearing the radio conversations between Hall and Base Camp, he called
Hall at 5:36 and again at 5:57, urging his mate to leave Hansen and come
down alone. "I know I sound like the bastard for telling Rob to abandon his
client," confesses Cotter, "but by then it was obvious that leaving Doug was
his only choice." Hall, however, wouldn't consider going down without
There was no further word from Hall until the middle of the night. At 2:46
A.M. on May 11, Cotter woke up to hear
a long, broken transmission, probably unintended: Hall was wearing a remote
microphone clipped to the shoulder strap of his backpack, which was
occasionally keyed on by mistake. In this instance, says Cotter, "I suspect
Rob didn't even know he was transmitting. I could hear someone yelling‑it
might have been Rob, but I couldn't be sure because the wind was so loud in
the background. He was saying something like 'Keep moving! Keep going!'
presumably to Doug, urging him on."
If that was indeed the case, it meant that in the wee hours of the morning
Hall and Hansen were still struggling from the Hillary Step toward the South
Summit, taking more than twelve hours to traverse a stretch of ridge
typically covered by descending climbers in half an hour.
Hall's next call to Base Camp was at 4:43
A.m. He'd finally reached the South Summit but was unable to descend
farther, and in a series of transmissions over the next two hours he sounded
confused and irrational. "Harold was with me last night," Hall insisted,
when in fact Harris had reached the South Col at sunset. "But he doesn't
seem to be with me now. He was very weak."
Mackenzie asked him how Hansen was doing. "Doug," Hall replied, "is gone."
That was all he said, and it was the last mention he ever made of Hansen.
On May 2 3, when Breashears and Viesturs, of the IMAX team, reached the
summit, they found no sign of Hansen's body but they did find an ice ax
planted about fifty feet below the Hillary Step, along a highly exposed
section of ridge where the fixed ropes came to an end. It is quite possible
that Hall managed to get Hansen down the ropes to this point, only to have
him lose his footing and fall 7,000 feet down the sheer Southwest Face,
leaving his ice ax jammed into the ridge crest where he slipped.
radio calls to Base Camp early on May 11, Hall revealed that something was
wrong with his legs, that he was no longer able to walk and was shaking
uncontrollably. This was very disturbing news to the people down below, but
it was amazing that Hall was even alive after spending a night without
shelter or oxygen at 2 8,700 feet in hurricane‑force wind and minus 100
At 5:00 A.M., Base Camp patched
through a call on the satellite telephone to Jan Arnold, Hall's wife, seven
months pregnant with their first child in Christchurch, New Zealand. Arnold,
a respected physician, had summited Everest with Hall in 1993 and
entertained no illusions about the gravity of her husband's predicament. "My
heart really sank when I heard his voice," she recalls. "He was slurring his
words markedly He sounded like Major Tom or something, like he was just
floating away. I'd been up there; I knew what It could be like in bad
weather. Rob and I had talked about the impossibility of being rescued from
the summit ridge. As he himself had put it, 'You might as well be on the
By that time, Hall had located two full oxygen bottles, and after struggling
for four hours trying to de-ice his mask, around 8:30
A.m. he finally started breathing the
life‑sustaining gas. Several times he announced that he was preparing to
descend, only to change his mind and remain at the South Summit. The day had
started out sunny and clear, but the wind remained fierce, and by late
morning the upper mountain was wrapped with thick clouds. Climbers at Camp
Two reported that the wind over the summit sounded like a squadron of 747s,
even from 8,000 feet below.
About 9:30 a.m, Ang Dorje and Lhakpa
Chhiri ascended from Camp Four in a brave attempt to bring Hall down. At the
same time, four other Sherpas went to rescue Fischer and Gau. When they
reached Fischer, the Sherpas tried to give him oxygen and hot tea, but he
was unresponsive. Though he was breathing barely ‑ his eyes were fixed and
his teeth were clenched. Believing he was as good as dead, they left him
tied to the ledge and started descending with Gan, who after receiving tea
and oxygen, and with considerable assistance, was able to move to the South
Higher on the peak, Ang Dorje and Lhakpa Chhiri climbed to 28,000 feet, but
the murderous wind forced them to turn around there, still 700 feet below
Throughout that day, Hall's friends begged him to make an effort to descend
from the South Summit under his own power. At 3:20
p.m, after one such transmission from
Cotter, Hall began to sound annoyed. "Look," he said, "if I thought I could
manage the knots on the fixed ropes with me frostbitten hands, I would have
gone down six hours ago, pal. just send a couple of the boys up with a big
thermos of something hot‑then I'll be fine."
At 6:20 p.m. Hall was patched through a second time to Arnold in
Christchurch. "Hi, my sweetheart," he said in a slow, painfully distorted
voice. "I hope you're tucked up in a nice warm bed. How are you doing?"
"I can't tell you how much I'm thinking about you!'' Arnold replied. "You
sound so much better than I expected.... Are you warm, my darling?"
"In the context of the altitude, the setting, I'm reasonably comfortable,"
Hall answered, doing his best not to alarm her.
"How are your feet?"
"I haven't taken me boots off to check, but I think I may have a bit of
"I'm looking forward to making you completely better when you come home,"
said Arnold. "I just know you're going to be rescued. Don't feel that you're
alone. I'm sending all my positive energy your way!" Before signing off,
Hall told his wife, "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't
worry too much."
These would be the last words anyone would hear him utter. Attempts to make
radio contact with Hall later that night and the next day went unanswered.
Twelve days later, when Breashears and Viesturs climbed over the South
Summit on their way to the top, they found Hall lying on his right side in a
shallow ice‑hollow, his upper body buried beneath a drift of snow.
Early on the morning of May 11, when I returned to Camp Four after searching
in vain for Harris, Hutchison, standing in for Groom, who was unconscious in
his tent, organized a team of four Sherpas to locate the bodies of our
teammates Weathers and Namba. The Sherpa search party, headed by Lhakpa
Chhiri, departed ahead of Hutchison, who was so exhausted and befuddled that
he forgot to put his boots on and left camp in his light, smooth‑soled
liners. Only when Lhakpa Chhiri pointed out the blunder did Hutchison return
for his boots. Following Boukreev's directions, the Sherpas had no trouble
locating the two bodies at the edge of the Kangshung Face.
The first body turned out to be Namba, but Hutchison couldn't tell who it
was until he knelt in the howling wind and chipped a three‑inch‑thick
carapace of ice from her face. To his shock, he discovered that she was
still breathing. Both her gloves were gone, and her bare hands appeared to
be frozen solid. Her eyes were dilated. The skin on her face was the color
of porcelain. "It was terrible," Hutchison recalls. "I was overwhelmed. She
was very near death. I didn't know what to do."
He turned his attention to Weathers, who lay twenty feet away. His face was
also caked with a thick armor of frost. Balls of ice the size of grapes were
matted to his hair and eyelids. After clearing the frozen detritus from his
face, Hutchison discovered that he, too, was still alive: "Beck was mumbling
something, I think, but I couldn't tell what he was trying to say. His right
glove was missing and he had ‑terrible frostbite. He was as close to death
as a person can be and still be breathing."
Badly shaken, Hutchison went over to the Sherpas and asked Lhakpa Chhiri's
advice. Lhakpa Chhiri, an Everest veteran respected by Sherpas and sahibs
alike for his mountain savvy, urged Hutchison to leave Weathers and Namba
where they lay. Even if they survived long enough to be dragged back to Camp
Four, they would certainly die before they could be carried down to Base
Camp, and attempting a rescue would needlessly jeopardize the lives of the
other climbers on the Col, most of whom were going to have enough trouble
getting themselves down safely.
Hutchison decided that Chhiri was right. There was only one choice, however
difficult: Let nature take its inevitable course with Weathers and Namba,
and save the group's resources for those who could actually be helped. It
was a classic act of triage. When Hutchison returned to camp at 8:30
A.m. and told the rest of us of his
decision, nobody doubted that it was the correct thing to do.
Later that day a rescue team headed by two of Everest's most experienced
guides, Pete Athans and Todd Burleson, who were on the mountain with their
own clients, arrived at Camp Four. Burleson was standing outside the tents
about 4:30 p.m. when he noticed
someone lurching slowly toward camp. The person's bare right hand, naked to
the wind and horribly frostbitten, was outstretched in a weird, frozen
salute. Whoever it was reminded Athans of a mummy in a low‑budget horror
film. The mummy turned out to be none other than Beck Weathers, somehow
risen from the dead.
A couple of hours earlier, a light must have gone on in the reptilian core
of Weathers's comatose brain, and he regained consciousness. "Initially I
thought I was in a dream," he recalls. "Then I saw how badly frozen my right
hand was, and that helped bring me around to reality. Finally I woke up
enough to recognize that I was in deep shit and the cavalry wasn't coming so
I better do something about it myself."
Although Weathers was blind in his right eye and able to focus his left eye
within a radius of only three or four feet, he started walking into the
teeth of the wind, deducing correctly that camp lay in that direction. If
he'd been wrong he would have stumbled immediately down the Kangshung Face,
the edge of which was a few yards in the opposite direction. Ninety minutes
later he encountered "some unnaturally smooth, bluish looking rocks," which
turned out to be the tents of Camp Four.
The next morning, May 12, Athans, Burleson, and climbers from the DAM team
short‑roped Weathers down to Camp Two. On the morning of May 13, in a
hazardous helicopter rescue, Weathers and Gau were evacuated from the top of
the Icefall by Lt. Col. Madan Khatri Chhetri of the Nepalese army. A month
later, a team of Dallas surgeons would amputate Weathers's dead right hand
just below the wrist and use skin grafts to reconstruct his left hand.
After helping to load Weathers and Gau into the rescue chopper, I sat in the
snow for a long while, staring at my boots, trying to get some grip, however
tenuous, on what had happened over the preceding seventy‑two hours. Then,
nervous as a cat, I headed down into the Icefall for one last trip through
the maze of decaying seracs.
known, in the abstract, that climbing mountains was a dangerous pursuit. But
until I climbed in the Himalayas this spring, I'd never actually seen death
at close range. And there was so much of it: Including three members of an
Indo‑Tibetan team who died on the north side just below the summit in the
same May 10 storm, and an Austrian killed some days later, eleven men and
women lost their lives on Everest in May 1996, a tie with 1982 for the worst
single‑season death toll in the peak's history.
Of the six people on my team who reached the summit, four are now dead
people with whom I'd laughed and vomited and held long, intimate
conversations. My actions ‑ or failure to act‑played a direct role in the
death of Andy Harris. And while Yasuko Namba lay dying on the South Col, I
was a mere 350 yards away, lying inside a tent, doing absolutely nothing.
The stain this has left on my psyche is not the sort of thing that washes
off after a month or two of grief and guilt‑ridden self‑reproach.
Five days after Namba died, three Japanese men approached me in the village
of Syangboche and introduced themselves. One was an interpreter, the other
was Namba's husband, the third was her brother. They had many questions, few
of which I could answer adequately. I flew back to the States with Doug
Hansen's belongings and was met at the Seattle airport by his two children,
Angie and Jaime. I felt stupid and utterly impotent when confronted by their
Stewing over my culpability, I put off calling Andy Harris's partner, Fiona
McPherson, and Rob Hall's wife, Jan Arnold, so long that they finally phoned
me from New Zealand. When Fiona called, I was able to say nothing to
diminish her anger or bewilderment. During my conversation with Jan, she
spent more time comforting me than vice versa.
With so many marginally qualified climbers flocking to Everest these days, a
lot of people believe that a tragedy of this magnitude was overdue. But
nobody imagined that an expedition led by Hall would be at the center of it.
Hall ran the tightest, safest operation on the mountain, bar none. So what
happened? How can it be explained. not only to the loved ones left behind,
but to a censorious public?
Hubris surely had something to do with it. Hall had become so adept at
running climbers of varying abilities up and down Everest that he may have
become a little cocky. He'd bragged on more than one occasion that he could
get almost any reasonably fit person to the summit, and his record seemed to
support this. He'd also demonstrated a remarkable ability to manage
In 1995, for instance, Hall and his guides not only had to cope with
Hansen's problems high on the peak, but they also had to deal with the
complete collapse of another client, the celebrated French alpinist Chantal
Mauduit, who was making her seventh stab at Everest without oxygen. Mauduit
passed out stone cold at 28,700 feet and had to be dragged and carried all
the way from the South Summit to the South Col "like a sack of spuds," as
Guy Cotter put it. After everybody came out of that summit attempt alive,
Hall may well have thought there was little he couldn't handle.
Before this year, however, Hall had had uncommonly good luck with the
weather, and one wonders whether it might have skewed his judgment. "Season
after season," says David Breashears, who has climbed Everest three times,
"Rob had brilliant weather on summit day. He'd never been caught by a storm
high on the mountain." In fact, the gate of May 10, though violent, was
nothing extraordinary; it was a fairly typical Everest squall. If it had hit
two hours later, it's likely that nobody would have died. Conversely, if it
had arrived even one hour earlier, the storm could easily have killed
eighteen or twenty climbers‑me among them.
Indeed, the clock had as much to do with the tragedy as the weather, and
ignoring the clock can't be passed off as an act of God. Delays at the fixed
lines could easily have been avoided. Predetermined turn‑around times were
egregiously and willfully ignored.
The latter may have been influenced to some degree by the rivalry between
Fischer and Hall. Fischer had a charismatic personality, and that charisma
had been brilliantly marketed. Fischer was trying very hard to eat Hall's
lunch, and Hall knew it. In a certain sense, they may have been playing
chicken up there, each guide plowing ahead with one eye on the clock,
waiting to see who was going to blink first and turn around.
Shocked by the death toll, people have been quick to suggest policies and
procedures intended to ensure that the catastrophes of this season won't be
repeated. But guiding Everest is a very loosely regulated business,
administered by a byzantine Third World bureaucracy that is spectacularly
ill‑equipped to assess qualifications of guides or clients, in a nation that
has a vested interest in issuing as many climbing permits as the market will
Truth be told, a little education is probably the most that can be hoped
for. Everest would without question be safer if prospective clients truly
understood the gravity of the risks they face ‑ the thinness of the margin
by which human life is sustained above 2 5,000 feet. Walter Mittys with
Everest dreams need to keep in mind that when things go wrong up in the
Death Zone ‑and sooner or later they always do ‑ the strongest guides in the
world may be powerless to save their clients' lives. Indeed, as the events
of 1996 demonstrated, the strongest guides in the world are sometimes
powerless to save even their own lives.
Climbing mountains will never be a safe, predictable, rule‑bound enterprise.
It is an activity that idealizes risk‑taking; its most celebrated figures
have always been those who stuck their necks out the farthest and managed to
get away with it. Climbers, as a species, are simply not distinguished by an
excess of common sense. And that holds especially true for Everest climbers:
When presented with a chance to reach the planet's highest summit, people
are surprisingly quick to abandon prudence all together. "Eventually," warns
Tom Hornbein, thirty‑three years after his ascent of the West Ridge, "what
happened on Everest this season is certain to happen again."
For evidence that few lessons were learned from the mistakes of May 10, one
need look no farther than what happened on Everest two weeks later. On the
night of May 24, by which date every other expedition had left Base Camp or
was on its way down the mountain, the South Africans finally launched their
summit bid. At 9:30 the following morning, Ian Woodall radioed that he was
on the summit, that teammate Cathy O'Dowd would be on top in fifteen
minutes, and that his close friend Bruce Herrod was some unknown distance
below. Herrod, whom I'd met several times on the mountain, was an amiable
thirty‑seven‑year‑old with little climbing experience. A freelance
photographer, he hoped that making the summit of Everest would give his
career a badly needed boost.
As it turned out, Herrod was more than seven hours behind the others and
didn't reach the summit until 5:00 p.m..,
by which time the upper mountain had clouded over. It had taken him
twenty‑one hours to climb from the South Col to the top. With darkness fast
approaching, he was out of oxygen, physically drained, and completely alone
on the roof of the world. "That he was up there that late, with nobody else
around, was crazy," says his former teammate, Andy de Klerk. "It's
Herrod had been on the South Col from the evening of May 10 through May 12.
He'd felt the ferocity of that storm, heard the desperate radio calls for
help, seen Beck Weathers crippled with horrible frostbite. Early on his
ascent of May 24‑25, Herrod had climbed right past the frozen body of Scott
Fischer. Yet none of that apparently made much of an impression on him.
There was another radio transmission from Herrod at 7:00 p.m.., but nothing
was heard from him after that, and he never appeared at Camp Four. He is
presumed to be dead‑the eleventh casualty of the season.
As I write this, fifty‑four days have passed since I stood on top of
Everest, and there hasn't been more than an hour or two on any given day in
which the loss of my companions hasn't monopolized my thoughts. Not even in
sleep is there respite: Imagery from the climb and its sad aftermath
permeates my dreams.
There is some comfort, I suppose, in knowing that I'm not the only survivor
of Everest to be so affected. A teammate of mine from Hall's expedition
tells me that since he returned, his marriage has gone bad, he can't
concentrate at work, his life has been in turmoil. In another case, Neal
Beidleman helped save the lives of five clients by guiding them down the
mountain, yet he is haunted by a death he was unable to prevent, of a client
who wasn't on his team and thus wasn't really his responsibility.
When I spoke to Beidleman recently, he recalled what it felt like to be out
on the South Col, huddling with his group in the awful wind, trying
desperately to keep everyone alive. He'd told and retold the story a hundred
times, but it was still as vivid as the initial telling. 'As soon as the sky
cleared enough to give us an idea of where camp was," he recounted, "I
remember shouting, 'Hey; this break in the storm may not last long, so let's
go!' I was screaming at everyone to get moving, but it became clear that
some of them didn't have enough strength to walk or even stand.
"People were crying. I heard someone yell, 'Don't let me die here!' It was
obvious that it was now or never. I tried to get Yasuko on her feet. She
grabbed my arm, but she was too weak to get up past her knees. I started
walking and dragged her for a step or two. Then her grip loosened and she
fell away. I had to keep going. Somebody had to make it to the tents and get
help, or everybody was going to die."
Beidleman paused. "But I can't help thinking about Yasuko," he said when he
resumed, his voice hushed. "She was so little. I can still feel her fingers
sliding across my biceps and then letting go. I never even turned to look
Author's Note: In this article, "Into Thin Air," I speculated that
Andy Harris, one of Rob Hall's guides, walked off the edge of the South Col
and fell to his death in the rogue storm of May 10. Only minutes earlier, I
had encountered him in the blizzard, spoken with him briefly, and then
watched him walk to within thirty yards of Camp Four, where he became
enveloped in clouds.
Two weeks after the magazine went to press, I discovered compelling evidence
that Harris did not walk off the Col ‑ and that in fact the person I
encountered was not Harris. In a telephone conversation, Martin Adams, a
client of Scott Fischer, revealed that he had encountered a climber just
above the Col at about the same time I had encountered Harris. In the stormy
darkness, Adams couldn't tell who the other climber was, but their
conversation, he says, was very similar to the one I reported having with
Harris. Adams and I are now certain that, in my hypoxic condition, I
confused him with Harris.
On July 25 in a four‑hour, face‑to‑face discussion, Lobsang Jangbu,
Fischer's head Sherpa (who two months later would die in an avalanche just
below the South Col on the Lhotse face), revealed something that hadn't come
up in our previous discussions: He had spoken with Harris on the South
Summit at 5:30 p.m. on May 10 ‑ about the same time I thought I saw Harris
near the South Col. By this late hour Hall had been radioing for help,
saying that Doug Hansen had collapsed on the Hillary Step and that both men
desperately needed oxygen. As Lobsang began descending he saw Harris himself
ailing, plodding up the summit ridge to assist Hall and Hansen. It was an
extremely heroic act for which Harris deserves to be remembered.
As I reported, when radio contact between Hall and Base Camp was
reestablished the next morning, a distraught, debilitated Hall said that
Harris "was with me last night. But he doesn't seem to be with me now. He
was very weak." From this snippet, which I interpreted as the incoherent
babble of a severely hypoxic man, it is impossible to say what became of
Harris. But the awful truth remains that he is gone.
For two months after returning from Everest, I was haunted by the thought
that Harris, who'd become a close friend, had been so near the safety of
camp and yet never made it. Unable to let the matter rest, I obsessively
mulled over the circumstances of his death even after my article went to
press‑which is how I discovered my error.
That I confused Harris for Adams is perhaps not surprising, given the poor
visibility, my profound exhaustion, and the confused, oxygen‑starved state I
was in. But my mistake greatly compounded the pain of Andy Harris's partner,
Fiona McPherson; his parents, Ron and Mary Harris; and his many friends. For
that I am inexpressibly sorry.
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