A couple of months back I was going through some articles on Mount Everest in Wikipedia, and I came across the 1996 Everest Disaster. Instantly hooked on to the topic, I read hundreds of articles and newspaper reports on the whole story. I also read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. It is a first-hand account of the event as Jon Krakauer, the author, on assignment from Outside magazine, was in one of the affected parties. National Geographic magazine has ranked this book 9th on their list of 100 greatest adventure books of all times.
The disaster gained wide publicity. The tragic deaths of world-renowned guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer are by now well documented in hundreds of articles and in many books, yet, when I spoke to my colleagues and friends, none of them seemed to have heard or known anything about this. So I decided to run the story here on my blog; a story of bone-chilling horror and of heartbreaking heroism.
Note: I have borrowed paragraphs and sentences from various sources, most notably, Wikipedia and National Geographic magazine to bring out a comprehensive article on the incident.
1996 Everest Disaster
Since the first ascent of Mt Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, at least 300 people have died on the slopes. On the night of May 10, the great mountain once again showed its hunger for human life. A sudden storm swept the peak’s fearsome “Death Zone” with snow, subzero cold and hurricane-force winds while more than 30 climbers were descending from the summit. All were in what climbers call the Death Zone, above 7,500 m where the air lacks oxygen enough to support life for long periods. Within 24 hours eight had died and three others had suffered severe frostbite.
That spring there were more climbers on the south side of Mount Everest than ever before. Shortly after midnight on May 10, 1996, three teams; Adventure Consultants, Mountain Madness, as well as an expedition sponsored by the government of Taiwan – a massive throng of 33 climbers began their summit attempt.
At the same time, an expedition by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, led by Commandant Mohinder Singh started their ascent from the North side of the mountain. The expedition was credited as being the first Indian ascent of Everest from the North side.
Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup, and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor were part of a six-man summit attempt from the North Side. Being a traditional type of expedition, the summit team did not have any Sherpas to guide them in their ascent. The team was the first team of the season to go up the North Face. It would be their responsibility to fix the ropes during ascent and break the trail to the top, a task that has its own share of difficulties.
On the south side, the expeditions quickly encountered delays. At the Balcony, a broad shoulder like area (8350 m/27395 ft), the failure of the climbing Sherpas or guides to set the fixed ropes by the time the team reached that point cost the team almost an hour. Upon reaching the Hillary Step, the climbers again discovered that no fixed line had been placed, and they were forced to wait for an hour while the guides installed the ropes.
Despite difficulties, the assault seemed to be going well for those who continued. They moved up steadily, and by 1:30 p.m. the first climbers reached the summit. They stood in weary triumph on the small patch of ice and snow that at 8,848 m is the highest point on the earth. But many of the climbers had not yet reached the summit by 2:00 pm, the last safe time to turn around to reach Camp IV before nightfall.
The worsening weather began causing difficulties for the descending team members. Then the big storm rolled in. The summit disappeared, the clouds lowered, swallowing up more and more of the upper mountain, burying the fixed ropes and obliterating the trail back to Camp IV that the teams had broken on the ascent. Krakauer’s account notes that by 5:30 pm, the weather had deteriorated into a full-scale blizzard. “Snow pellets born on 70-mph winds stung my face.”
In the North side, the Indian team was caught in the blizzard above Camp IV. While three of the six members turned down, Samanla, Paljor and Morup decided to go for the summit. Samanla was an accomplished mountaineer who had summitted Everest in 1984 and Kanchenjunga in 1991.
At around 6:00 pm the three climbers radioed to their expedition leader that they had arrived at the summit. Team leader, Commander Mohinder Singh, in turn conveyed the glad tidings to (then) Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, causing rejoicing in India.
While the Indian camp was jubilant in their celebrations, some of the other mountaineers at base camp expressed their reservations about the timing, which was quite late in the day to be on the summit.
The three climbers left an offering of prayer flags, katas and pitons. The leader, Samanla, decided to spend extra time for religious ceremonies and instructed the other two to move down. There was no radio contact after that.
Back at the camps below, anxious team members saw two headlamps moving slightly above the second step – at 8570 meters.
Over to the south side, Scott Fischer, leader of Mountain Madness expedition, and Macalu Gau, leader of the Taiwanese expedition were unable to descend below the Balcony in the storm. Fischer collapsed an hour above camp, his climbing sirdar, Lopsang stayed with him as long as he could, and later said he was prepared to die with his friend. Fischer threatened to jump if Lopsang, who had been climbing without oxygen, did not descend. Hoping to send back help, Lopsang finally agreed and left Fischer on a protected ledge.
Soon Rob Hall, leader of Adventure Consultants expedition, radioed saying that Doug Hansen, his American client had fallen unconscious, but was still alive. Doug Hanson was an American Post Office clerk, with 22 years’ climbing experience, he had mortgaged himself up to the hilt to pay for his Everest dream. Doug Hansen was the last one to summit on the day. Hall had offered to remain with Hansen while sending his other guides to help the descending clients.
Hall’s colleagues pleaded to abandon Hansen, a hopeless case, and descend, but, Hall insisted on remaining with the stricken man, knowing that at nearly 29,000 feet neither of them could survive long. Adventure Consultants guide Andy Harris began climbing to the Summit at 5:30 pm with supplementary oxygen and water to help Hall.
Hall and Fisher were world-renowned guides. Until 1996, Hall had ascended Everest more times than any other non-Sherpa mountaineer. Fischer was the first American to climb Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest peak. This was Fischer’s fifth trek to Everest. Several climbers from both Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness expedition became lost on the South Col. They wandered in the blizzard until midnight. When they could no longer walk, they huddled some 20 m from a dropoff of the Kangshung Face.
Near midnight, the blizzard cleared enough for the team to see Camp IV, some 200 m away. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide in the Mountain Madness team lead by Scott Fisher, located the climbers and brought three climbers to safety. But Yasuko Namba, a Japanese women at 47, who had just set the record that day as the oldest women to have reached the summit (her record was later beaten by Anna Czerwińska of Poland who summitted Everest at age 50), and a Texas physician by name Beck Weathers were left in the cold because Boukreev thought they were beyond any chance of survival. Having made two forays to rescue these climbers, Boukreev, in common with all other climbers then at Camp IV, was exhausted. Neither Boukreev nor any of the other climbers at Camp IV felt able to make another attempt to reach Namba.
Just above Camp 4, Macalu Gau, who was left with Fisher, struggled to stay awake. Later he told, “I told myself, ‘Please don’t sleep'”. “If I sleep, I die”. “I tried to radio for help, but I found I couldn’t open my walkie-talkie. When I touched my fingers together they were like glass.”
On May 11, at 4:43 am, Hall radioed down and said that he was on the South Summit. He reported that Hansen, who had been with him since the previous afternoon, was now ‘gone’. In addition, he said that Harris, his second guide was missing as well. Hall was not breathing bottled oxygen because his regulator was too choked with ice.
By 9:00 am, Hall had fixed his oxygen mask, but indicated that his frostbitten hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes. Later in the afternoon, he radioed to Base Camp, asking them to call his wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During this last communication, he reassured her that he was reasonably comfortable and told her,
“Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much”.
These would be the last words anyone would hear him utter.
Two Sherpas returned to Beck and Namba’s position to check up on them. After chipping blocks of ice off of their faces, the Sherpas found both of them to be breathing, but severely frostbitten and “as close to death as a human being can be”. The call once again was made to leave them for dead, since there was little that could have been done to save them even if they were able to drag the bodies back to camp (no small feat when you’re 29,000 feet into the troposphere). The Sherpas slogged back to camp and reported Weathers and Namba’s deaths.
But then something incredible happened. Beck Weathers opened his eyes. His entire body was numb, and he was stupid from altitude sickness. Despite all his deficiencies, he was able to stumble three hundred yards into the searing cold wind in an incredible feat of endurance. Finally, against all odds and to the shock of everyone who witnessed it, Beck Weathers lurched into Camp IV.
“I was lying on my back in the ice. It was colder than anything you can believe. I figured I had three or four hours left to live, so I started walking. All I knew was, as long as my legs would run, and I could stand up, I was going to move toward that camp, and if I fell down, I was going to get up. And if I fell down again, I was going to get up, and I was going to keep moving until I either hit that camp, I couldn’t get up at all, or I walked off the face of that mountain”.
But Namba never moved again. She died alone. Boukreev’s book The Climb expressed profound regret at her lonely death, saying that she was just a little 90-pound woman, and that someone should have dragged her back to camp so she could at least die among her companions. Neil Beidleman, a guide in Fisher’s team, remembers,
“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”.
Earlier in the day, climbing Sherpas located Fischer and Gau, but Fischer’s condition had deteriorated so much that they were only able to give palliative care before rescuing Gau. Boukreev made a subsequent rescue attempt but found Fischer’s frozen body at around 7 pm.
Over to the north side, none of the three Indian climbers had come back to high camp at 8320 meters. A Japanese expedition which departed from Camp 6 (8,300 m) for the summit attempt despite the harsh weather (on May 11) allegedly encountered the three Indian climbers. In Krakauer’s account, the lone climber, (whom Krakauer believes to be Paljor) was still moaning and frostbitten from exposure over the night. The Japanese climbers ignored him and set out for the summit. After they climbed the second step, they ran into the other two climbers, probably Samanla and Morup. Krakauer notes “No words were passed, No water, food or oxygen exchanged hands. The Japanese moved on …”.
There is also a dispute whether the three had actually reached the summit. Krakauer claims in his book, that the climbers were at 28,550 feet, roughly 500 feet short of the topmost point. This is based on the interview given by the Japanese team to Richard Cowpens of the London Financial Express. Due to bad visibility and thick clouds which obscured the summit, the climbers believed they had reached the top. This also explained why the climbers did not run into the teams that summitted from the South Side.
In the South Side – Camp 4, Beck Weather’s fellow climbers did not expect him to survive the night. With that assumption, they only tried to make him comfortable until he died. He lay alone in the tent unable to drink, eat, or keep himself covered with the sleeping bags he was provided. His cries for help could not be heard above the blizzard.
Later in the night colleagues attempted to make radio contact with Rob Hall, but went unanswered. Twelve days later, when the IMAX team 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. Rob and Jan’s farewell exchange has become part of Everest legend. Rob Hall, in the best spirit of his craft, tried to get his American client down. By then it became too late for him to save himself.
Beck Weathers had survived another freezing night. His companions were surprised to find him alive and coherent on May 12. Eventually, Beck Weathers, along with Macalu Gau were helped down the mountain by climbers Ed Viesturs and David Breashears of the IMAX crew.
Ed Viesturs is one of the world’s premier high-altitude mountaineers. He has appeared as himself in a guest role in the movie Vertical Limits. David Breashears is an American mountaineer and filmmaker. He is famous for guiding Richard Bass to the summit of Everest, thus completing Bass’s ascent of the Seven Summits. David Breashears was filming for his IMAX film Everest with Ed Viesturs when the storm broke out. Everest went on to become one of the highest grossing IMAX films of all times.
Beck Weathers, along with Macalu Gau were airlifted to safety from a flat spot near Camp II in what is certainly the most dramatic helicopter rescue in Everest history – a heroic effort by Nepalese Army helicopter pilot Madan K.C., who twice flew to above 21,000 feet to retrieve the two men.
Popular Books on the Disaster
Journalist Jon Krakauer related his experience in his bestseller, Into Thin Air. Anatoli Boukreev, who felt impugned by Krakauer’s book, co-authored a rebuttal book called The Climb. Beck Weathers and Lene Gammelgaard, a client in Hall’s team, wrote about their experiences of the disaster in their respective books, Left For Dead and Climbing High. The storm’s impact on climbers on the mountain’s other side, the North Ridge, where the Indian climbers died, was detailed in a first-hand account by British filmmaker and writer Matt Dickinson in his book The Death Zone, later republished as The Other Side of Everest.
Just before he left, Scott Fisher told a reporter for the Seattle Weekly that he was certain he would return. He said:
“It doesn’t count if you don’t make it back down”
Scott Fischer told Krakauer while Krakauer was shopping around for a commercial expedition for him to join, “We’ve got the big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired. These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”
Guide Rob Hall ran an ad boasting of a “100 percent success rate” in one of the magazines to attract customers.
One evening in late April Rob Hall told Jon Krakauer, “With so many incompetent people on the mountain, I think it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll get through this without something bad happening.” Krakauer in his book also says that Rob Hall was more worried about having to save other ‘incompetent people’ if disaster is to strike. Little did he know that it would be his team that would be in the center of the whole disaster and he himself would not survive.
“A human being does not belong on the summit of Mount Everest,” said David Swanson, an experienced mountaineer and former president of the Explorers Club. “Even on oxygen it’s extremely difficult to breathe. The body is cannibalizing itself.”
“The majority of those who have died on Everest were in the prime of their lives, with families and friends left bereft,” stresses Firth, who is an instructor in Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. “Mountaineering is for fun; it’s not worth dying or leaving others there to die. Appropriate caution is the hallmark of the elite mountaineer – the mountain will always be there next year.”