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1996: A Fateful Year on Everest
Wind the clock back to May 1996: exactly 20 years ago starting next month. It was the early days of the commercial guiding industry on the world's highest mountain, Mt Everest, and there were a number of guiding companies (called 'outfitters' in the trade) vying for a slice of the increasingly lucrative business.
At anything between $40 - 80,000 USD per person to undertake a guided summit bid, Everest had started to become a playground for satisfying the summit dreams of amateur climbers ranging from the semi-serious through to almost total novices who may be fit, but had no specific mountaineering experience. With the help of a team comprised of Sherpa guides and porters, a few Western guides, and an expedition leader based at base camp far below, such wealthy amateurs were offered the chance to attain a goal few others could ever hope to achieve: setting foot on the world's highest peak.
It was in this heady environment that two world-renowned climbers and expedition company leaders, Rob Hall from New Zealand (Adventure Consultants) and Scott Fischer from the USA (Mountain Madness), found themselves competing for clients and successful summit attempts in the months of April and May 1996. There was also a third, Taiwanese expedition, led by a colourful man named Makalu Gau who eventually had to be helicoptered off the mountain with severe frostbite.
Hall's Adventure Consultants expedition consisted of the following guides and paying clients:
- Rob Hall (guide and expedition leader)
- Andy Harris (guide)
- Mike Groom (guide)
- Ang Dorje Sherpa (guide/sirdar)
- Frank Fischbeck (53)
- Doug Hansen (46)
- Stuart Hutchison (34)
- Lou Kasischke (53)
- Yasuko Namba (47)
- John Taske (56)
- Beck Weathers (49)
None of the clients on Hall's team had ever reached the summit of an 8,000 m peak, and only Fischbeck, Hansen, and Hutchison had previous high-altitude Himalayan experience.
Fischer's 'Mountain Madness' expedition consisted of:
- Scott Fischer (Guide and expedition leader)
- Anatoli Boukreev (Guide)
- Neil Beidelman (Guide)
- Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa (Guide/Sirdar)
- Sandy Pittman (41)
- Charlotte Fox (38)
- Tim Madsen (33)
- Martin Adams (47)
- Lene Gammelgard (35)
- Dale Kruse (45)
- Klev Shoening (38)
- Pete Shoening (68)
Shoening and Kruse did not attempt the summit from this expedition.
I have got as much in the way of computers and electronic hardware as I have climbing equipment: two portable microcomputers, a camcorder, three 35 mm cameras, a digital camera, two tape recorders, a CD player, a printer and a sufficient quantity (I hope) of solar panels and batteries.. I would not like to leave without taking a blend of coffee from Dean & DeLuca, as well as my espresso machine.
— Sandy Hill-Pittman
A Journalist Tags Along
Into the mix of keen amateur and professional climbers attempting the summit that year, entered Jon Krakauer - a freelance journalist and renowned writer, who was writing a story on Hall's expedition in exchange for advertising space for Hall's company in 'Outside' magazine.
In addition to an article in 'Outside', Krakauer later wrote a book titled 'Into Thin Air', in which he was highly critical of many aspects of the decisionmaking on both Hall's and Fischer's expeditions. Right or wrong as his views may have been perceived by others on the expedition, Krakauer, being both a climber and a seasoned journalist, offers a uniquely valuable perspective on both the events over the fateful two days, and the commercial climbing business in general. However it should be noted that two men whose actions and decisions are criticised in Krakauer's book - Anatoli Boukreev and Lopsang Sherpa (both now deceased), felt that they were unfairly singled out for blame, and disputed some of Krakauer's facts and conclusions. It should be noted that many of Krakauer's interviews were conducted in haste, close in time to when the tragedy occurred. Other team members who may have been able to shed light on events (such as Martin Adams) were left out of the book.
The inclusion of Krakauer on Hall's expedition is an important fact to bear in mind, and many believe it may have contributed to some of the poor decision-making on the part of both expeditions that led to the tragic, fatal events of 10 May 1996. At the very least it can be stated with some certainty that Rob Hall was hoping for some positive publicity to come out of including Krakauer on his trip. Unsuccessful summit attempts would not necessarily give him the positive press he was seeking. All this is perfectly understandable, but it's very interesting and revealing that in a video interview with Hall (available on You Tube), he talks about the 'difficult balance' between pushing hard for the summit, and coming back alive.
Many commentators believe that both Hall and Fischer may have got that balance tragically wrong that day on Mt Everest, as they both sought to push their paying clients to the top of the mountain.
Why climb Everest? (Mallory was asked)
Because it's there (he replied)
— George Mallory
What went wrong?
The events of May 1996 have been well documented in print and on television, so will not be repeated here in great detail. For a full summary of both expeditions and what happened (in detail), see here.
Instead I'll summarise some of the key factors that played a part in the tragedy leading to the loss of eight lives. First though, a disclaimer. I am not a climber myself, nor do I know anyone in the climbing community. Secondly, while many of the events of the May 1996 expedition are not disputed (such as the weather, and the times various members summited and so on), other key facts are disputed (especially as regards Krakauer, versus other guides and expedition clients who dispute some of his 'facts' and assertions). It follows that the list below cannot be regarded as a catalogue of the definitive causes of the tragic deaths -merely as a list of possible contributing factors.
- Weather. The weather was perhaps the biggest 'culprit' in this tragedy. Had climbers been able to summit earlier in the day on May 10th, it wouldn't perhaps have been such a big issue, but many climbers died because of the freezing cold blizzard that blew in high up on Mt Everest late on 'summit day'. In 1996 weather reports were available, but were less sophisticated than they are now. Both expeditions were surprised by how quickly the weather turned on them. The effect of the blizzard that day was to drastically reduce visibility on the descent for all climbers, increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia in the oxygen-starved atmosphere at 8000m, wipe out some of the trails down to Camp 4, and cover over the fixed ropes with snow. The storm meant that those of the climbers who were already feeling weak or starved of oxygen, could effectively not battle their way down through the white-out. These climbers stranded near the summit included Andy Harris (guide), Doug Hansen, Beck Weathers, Scott Fischer and Makalu Gau (the Taiwanese climber).
- Delays in ascending. One of the key factors in the tragedy was delays to both expeditions at the 'Balcony' caused by the fact that ropes had not been fixed to the top of the mountain, despite both expeditions agreeing who should undertake this task. Krakauer says that the task was supposed to be carried out by a Sherpa on Fischer's expedition, but that the Sherpa was diverted by Sandy Pittman, who needed to be short-roped up the mountain. This account is disputed, but what's not in dispute is that a lack of fixed ropes, and a bottleneck at the Hillary step (one of the last technically challenging places before the summit) caused significant delays for most of the climbers attempting to summit that day.
- Turning around/Descending too late. It is said on most commercial expeditions that climbers should have already summited and have started down the mountain by 2pm on summit day at the latest. This is to allow them time to get all the way down to 'Camp 3' (and a reasonable altitude to spend the night), and to get replacement oxygen bottles, by nightfall. Many climbers, including both Hall and Fischer and several of their clients, were still ascending to the summit well past 3pm on summit day.
- 'Summit fever'. A phenomenon known in the climbing world as 'summit fever' may have played a part. Several climbers (e.g. postal worker Doug Hansen, who had already attempted Everest unsuccessfully twice before) were determined to get to the top that day, come hell or high water. Rob Hall was acutely aware of Hansen's yearning to get to the top, and was also aware Hansen had spent his life savings on Hall's Everest expeditions, so may have been unduly swayed by Hansen not to firmly stick to the 2pm turnaround time. Hansen ran out of supplementary oxygen near the summit, and Rob Hall remained with him well past 3pm on summit day, waiting for him to start moving down the mountain. Eventually this loyalty to Doug Hansen would be Ron Hall's undoing (he perished near the South Summit of Everest on the night of 11th May -unable to be rescued, after Hansen had died probably the day before).
- Guides' attitude and equipment. This is a factor that Jon Krakauer asserts is of considerable significance in the tragedy. Rob Hall's guides and Sherpas appeared to be fairly well equipped, and had plenty of oxygen. However Scott Fischer made the controversial decision (criticised by Krakauer in his book) to allow two of his guides (Boukreev and Lopsang Sherpa) to climb without supplemental oxygen. This meant that they were arguably in a much less favourable state at 8000m heights to be able to assist paying clients who were in distress. Both of Fischer's guides who were climbing without oxygen found themselves unwilling or unable to assist clients at key points during the tragedy. In Boukreev's case, he made the decision to climb without a pack (thus he did not carry ropes or oxygen to assist clients), and then after summiting he had to descend very quickly because of the lack of oxygen, to a safe altitude (Camp 4). This meant he was not available to help Fischer's clients down off the summit (although he did help later, from Camp 4). Lopsang stayed to help Fischer who had started feeling unwell, but earlier on Lopsang himself was sick, and had to be assisted by another guide. Krakauer argues both guides would have been more effective in the tragedy if they had been climbing with oxygen, as was the 'accepted practice' in guiding. Note: it is not universally accepted in the climbing community that a person using oxygen can outperform a person not using oxygen -see here.
The fallen and the wounded
By 11th May, there were 9 fatalities in total from the four expeditions to the summit. These were:
- Rob Hall (stranded near the South Summit, died of hypothermia)
- Scott Fischer (hypothermia near the summit)
- Andy Harris (unknown)
- Doug Hansen (hypothermia)
- Yasuko Namba (hypothermia)
- Half a climbing team from the Indo-Tibetan border Police (Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup, and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor), perished on Northwest ridge
- A Taiwanese team member Chen Yu-Nan (fell on Lhotse face)
In addition, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau, both near death, were suffering severe frostbite, and had to be helicoptered off the mountain and back to Kathmandu.
Please try not to worry too much about me, my love
— Rob Hall, to his wife Jan
Rob Hall: a brave gentleman to the end
It's not the cold, hard facts or statistics about the events of the fateful expeditions that really hit home. Rather, it's the intensely personal anecdotes of struggle, sacrifice, kindness, compassion, and sheer heroism in the face of certain death, that ensure these men and women will live on in the hearts and minds of family and friends 20 years on, and will never be forgotten.
The last hours of one man - expedition leader Rob Hall, in freezing cold, dark, icy conditions below the South summit, have come to represent the very best and most admirable qualities found amongst elite climbers.
Why do I relate to Hall? He's a Kiwi, like me, and I may even have met him once or twice in my tramping club days in the '80s (I can't remember exactly, but his face always looks very familiar to me).
First of all, it's clear that with his extreme fitness and athleticism and extensive high altitude mountaineering experience, Hall could have taken any number of opportunities to save himself and get down off the mountain after realising he could not get his client, Doug Hansen, to move down the mountain. Indeed, after attempting to save his client, Hall would have been forgiven for doing just that. But Hall didn't take the 'easy' option - he at his own personal cost, he remained with his client, Doug, till his last breath was taken. By then it was too late to save himself.
Next, Hall had two heartbreakingly poignant conversations with his wife Jan back in New Zealand - the first at 9am on the morning of May 11th, after spending the night in the freezing cold below the South Summit, and on the second occasion as he sat dying of hypothermia late on the afternoon of May 11th, after being told the last rescue attempt to save him had been abandoned because of the weather). Everyone at Base camp heard these terribly sad conversations, as they were conducted over Hall's radio, which had been patched through to Hall's wife Jan in New Zealand via the Base camp satellite phone.
These weren't the only phone conversations Hall had while stranded at the South summit - the night of May 10th veteran 8000m climber and friend Ed Viesturs, who was at Camp II further down the mountain with an expedition making an IMAX film of a summit attempt, spent nearly 6 hours on the phone to Hall trying to motivate him to get moving down the mountain.
It's very moving to read what Hall said to his wife Jan in those final conversations. Hall inquired how Jan was, and said he was doing OK. He didn't want her to worry too much about him. Later, both with the unspoken realisation that it was the last time they would ever talk, they discussed names for their unborn baby girl in Jan's womb (who was born later that year, and named 'Sarah', as Rob had wanted).
Sarah Arnold-Hall, now 20 and a university student, looks a lot like her late Dad around the eyes, and like him, has forged a close bond with Nepal and its Sherpa climbing community. She continues to look for ways to honour the memory of the father she never knew in person.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.