On the night of 10 May 1996, 19 climbers were stranded in a blinding storm on the upper flanks of Mount Everest. The temperature dropped to −100° Fahrenheit. Whipped up by fierce winds, spindrift blasted the mountainside on which envelopes of thick cloud had descended. Visibility was reduced to a few feet. The following day, eight climbers were dead. Of the survivors, one had his nose and hand amputated, another all his fingers and toes. The storm, typical of the region and time of year, requires no explanation, but why were so many people still so high on the mountain that late in the day?
Everest claims the life of one in four of those who make it to the top, yet there is no shortage of candidates. Once the exclusive playground of the climbing élite, Everest is today within the grasp of anyone with modest ability, average strength and a lot of money. The so-called ‘Yak route’, a technically undemanding approach from the South Col, can now be ascended by climbers hitched to fixed ropes under the watchful eye of Sherpas and the entrepreneurs who pay them. It is the advent of ‘high-altitude guiding’ that has made the difference. The qualifications that were a prerequisite twenty years ago are no longer essential. But ascending Everest remains an enormously hazardous undertaking, however experienced the climber. Paying to realise one’s dreams does not guarantee a trip home. In the spring of 1996, Everest killed 12 people – the worst single-season death toll since Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing first climbed the mountain. Some had paid as much as $65,000 for the experience.
At altitude, the extreme cold compromises equipment and bodily functions. All lifelines are vulnerable to it: our senses, human tissue, the oxygen mask. But it is undoubtedly the thinness of the air which most often constrains and may even kill those who are daring or foolhardy enough to strike at the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Above 25,000 feet, in the ‘Death Zone’, so little oxygen reaches the brain that some physical and mental impairment is inevitable. Movement becomes arduous, thought processes slow; individuals are prone to hypothermia, frostbite and, in the extreme, succumb to pulmonary or cerebral oedemas, both potentially fatal forms of altitude sickness. Added to the perils of height are rock and ice falls, avalanches and hidden, seemingly bottomless crevasses.
On 10 May five expeditions were vying for Everest’s summit. In Tibet, three Ladakhis from an Indo-Tibetan Border Police team and a rival Japanese group were ascending the North-East Ridge. Approaching from the South Col, on the Nepalese side of the mountain, were a Taiwanese party led by ‘Makalu’ Gau and two commercial expeditions consisting of mixed-ability climbers. Scott Fischer, head of the newly formed company, Mountain Madness, was shepherding eight clients with the help of two guides – Anatoli Boukreev and Neil Beidleman – and climbing Sherpas. His friend and competitor, Rob Hall, the owner of Adventure Consultants, a highly respected, well-established enterprise, was leading another party of eight with two guides – Andy Harris and Mike Groom – and climbing Sherpas. Jon Krakauer, a journalist, was on Hall’s guided climb. He later pieced together the details of the disaster that befell them.
At 4 p.m. the three Ladakhi climbers radioed down to announce what they believed to be their arrival on the roof of the world. They did not survive the descent. It is thought that, despite worsening conditions, they had continued upwards, so anxious were they to reach the summit before the Japanese did. No rescue attempt was launched when radio contact was lost and, hours later, when two members of the Japanese expedition came upon them, one crawling down head first, no help was offered. In all likelihood the three climbers died thinking a snowy mound at 28,550 feet was the summit.
The Ladakhis’ error explains why they did not meet up with Rob Hall and his client, Doug Hansen, the last person to set foot on the mountaintop that day. In allowing Hansen to continue, Hall had broken his own rules. Before setting off from Camp Four, at 26,000 feet on the South Col, Hall had told all his expedition members that if they were not within spitting distance of the summit by 2 p.m. they were to turn back without argument. According to Neil Beidleman, Fischer’s group also chose to enforce a 2 p.m. rule, at Hall’s suggestion, and Fischer agreed that he would tell any laggards in his group to go down. In the event, only three clients reached the summit before the prescribed turn-around time. Fischer, who was trailing behind, said nothing to anyone. The only person who was explicitly told not to go any further was Hall’s client, Beck Weathers, whose vision had failed. On Hall’s instructions, Weathers waited for hours at 27,600 feet for a guided descent as his teammates continued up Gridlock at the Hillary Step, a rocky outcrop on the South-East Ridge. The much weakened state of some of the climbers can only partially explain why so many of them were still so high up on the mountain so late in the day. As one veteran guide put it, ‘we think that people pay us to make good decisions, but what people really pay us for is to get them to the top.’
When the weather changed, Hall and Doug Hansen were still above the Hillary Step, high on the ridge. Hansen was out of bottled oxygen and in severe distress. Hall radioed for more oxygen. Details of precisely what happened next are sketchy. It seems that one of Hall’s guides, Andy Harris, now suffering seriously from the effects of altitude, climbed back up from 28,700 feet, where he had been waiting at the South Summit oxygen cache, to assist with Hansen. Sometime during the night both men perished, possibly falling to their deaths down the sheer South-West Face. The wisdom of Hall’s decision to let his charge reach the summit is debatable, but when he refused to descend without Hansen he knew that there was little chance that he would survive. ‘I know I sound like a bastard for telling Rob to abandon his client, but by then it was obvious that leaving Doug was his only choice,’ Guy Cotter, who was in radio contact with Hall at the time, said later. Hall wouldn’t consider it. By morning, Hall was unable to negotiate the fixed ropes. He remained on the South Summit.
Around the time Hall first attempted to take Hansen down, Scott Fischer and the Taiwanese expedition leader were tethered to a ledge several hundred feet below by three Sherpas. Both were critically short of oxygen and suffering from hypoxic dementia: it was impossible to carry on safely. The Sherpas descended to the South Col for help. When it finally came, attempts to revive Fischer proved futile. Too debilitated to descend, he was left behind. Gau regained sufficient command of his senses to be half-dragged 1200 feet down to Camp Four. Fischer was usually a strong climber, but that day he had been noticeably tired and unwell.
As the two commercial expedition leaders faded, seven of their fear-stricken clients, along with Neil Beidleman, Mike Groom and several Sherpas huddled far below them, a mere 20 minutes from Camp Four. Unable to find their way in the storm, they had converged and come to a halt. Thirty steps in the wrong direction would have sent them hurtling down a 7000-foot drop on the Kangshung Face. A lull in the gale enabled those who could still walk to locate the tents, where they sounded the alarm before collapsing from hypothermia. Anatoli Boukreev, Fischer’s most highly paid guide, who had been back at Camp Four for hours, worrying, emerged from his tent and, one by one, rescued three of the clients who were still marooned. It was assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that Weathers and Yasuko Namba, another of Hall’s clients, were dead, or as good as, and neither was brought in. Boukreev’s rescue sorties were undoubtedly courageous. Even so one is tempted to ask why he had raced down from the summit on his own, without any clients, and he was later criticised for this.
The next day, when a search party came upon Weathers and Namba, both were still breathing. After strained consultation it was decided that any attempt to lower the pair down to Base Camp from the South Col would jeopardise the lives of the others. Once again the two were abandoned to their fate. Ten hours later, Weathers miraculously revived and, somehow deducing the direction of the tents, staggered into Camp, his mittenless hand frozen solid in a gesture of salute.
Meanwhile Hall was still alive 3000 vertical feet up the mountain. A valiant rescue attempt by two Sherpas had been aborted due to gale-force winds. Slurring his speech and becoming ever more disorientated, he was patched through via satellite radio to his seven-months-pregnant wife in New Zealand.
Jon Krakauer was the only client in Hall’s expedition to reach the summit and survive. Hammered by the climb, he spent the night of 10 May inert and semi-conscious in his sleeping bag, incapable of any effective response to the drama unfolding above and around him. Yet he is now the expedition’s chronicler.
The series of events culminating in the death of four of his teammates, including Rob Hall, and of Scott Fischer, is the main focus of Into Thin Air. One need not be a climber to learn from this admirably written book, a work of self-professed catharsis free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death. Human error and poor judgment played a decisive part in the disaster, but Krakauer sounds an important note of caution:
in the midst of all the postmortem ratiocination, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that climbing mountains will never be a safe, predictable, rule-bound enterprise. This is an activity that idealises risk-taking; the sport’s most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. Climbers, as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence.
Joe Simpson, the author of Dark Shadows Falling, uses the story told by Krakauer to discuss the state of climbing in a more general way. Such sustained commentary is long overdue. Simpson’s wealth of experience in the mountains, coupled with his own brush with death on a remote peak in South America, enable him to understand better than most the ethical issues raised by developments in the sport. Although the self-deprecating, laddish humour, characteristic of his celebrated Touching the Void, figures again (there is even a photograph of a Sadhu demonstrating the strength of his vital organ by hoisting, sling-style, a load of bricks), this is a serious book. Not all the arguments Simpson advances are pushed to their logical conclusions, but there is an attractive candour in his search for an understanding of what climbing should be about. Despite his reservations about commercial expeditions to Everest, Simpson admits that he wouldn’t hesitate to join one.
‘Above 8000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality,’ Eisuke Shikegawa was to say, when pressed to explain why he and his Japanese compatriot had failed to offer so much as a kind word to the three Ladakhis dying on the North-East Ridge. At the victory party, one outraged Englishman reportedly entered the tent, ripped down the national flag and urinated on it. In both Krakauer and Simpson’s books, the insouciance displayed by the Japanese, their lack of concern for people’s lives, is contrasted with the monumental efforts that were made to save climbers that same night on the other side of Everest.
The duty to aid is variously understood by members of the climbing community. Hardcore pragmatists cling to the view that climbing is inherently risky and anyone who participates is responsible only for themselves; most rescue attempts at high altitude entail life-threatening risks, and therefore assisting a climber in distress is beyond the call of duty. Yet there is broad agreement that a grey area exists between the acceptable pursuit of self-interest and appropriate conduct towards others. Simpson’s own position is nuanced; he believes that there is an obligation to assist except when one’s own death is sure to result. He also insists that even on those occasions when an attempt to save somone’s life cannot be reasonably expected, it is morally impermissible not to offer comfort; that there is an unforgivable lack of humanity in the failure to show sympathy with the suffering of others – this despite the fact that, in the advanced stages of altitude sickness, an individual may not even register the presence of another person, let alone their sympathy. Simpson’s concern here is thus for the moral disposition of the passer-by.
Krakauer reports that after his first encounter with a desiccated corpse just above the Khumbu Icefall, he became immune to these regular features of the landscape. But the act of stepping casually over human remains en route to a summit is itself a powerful illustration of moral lassitude. In recent campaigns to clean up Everest, a thousand empty oxygen canisters were removed from the South Col, but no bodies were touched. Might not mountaineers on Everest, in the tedium which is a part of high altitude climbing, roll the corpses that litter the mountain into a crevasse? As Simpson notes, even in wartime soldiers bury their dead. When, at the South Summit, Krakauer came across Andy Harris behaving in an obviously irrational fashion, it did not occur to him that this was a situation in which a guide might be in need of help from a client. Like footsoldiers in war, clients of commercially run expeditions are encouraged to obey the orders of the high command. In military ethics, however, leaders are held responsible for all their decisions, even those made under duress, while climbing guides, themselves vulnerable to the effects of altitude, are not. At the very least, people who run expeditions ought to make their vulnerability plain – and the ratio of guides to clients ought to be increased.
Two features are thought to distinguish commercial from national expeditions on Everest: the experience of expedition members and the way risk is distributed between them. But neither distinction can be sharply drawn. First, in all commercial and many national expeditions, Sherpas typically perform a lot of the dangerous tasks. Among other things, they are responsible for blazing and maintaining the trail in the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most feared parts of the South Col route, through which they also repeatedly haul expedition members’ loads. Higher up, it is often Sherpas who fix ropes along exposed sections of the climb and who are sent to assist other climbers in distress. This is quite unlike Alpine climbing, where two or three individuals, whose fates are literally tied together, carry their own gear and map their own routes. Second, while the well-heeled and relatively inexperienced are attracted to expeditions such as Hall’s, much the same is true of national groups. In fact, Hall and Fischer’s teams were far from being the least experienced on Everest that day. The South African expedition, which suffered the twelfth casualty of the 1996 spring season, included a member wholly unfamiliar with basic mountaineering skills, and its leader, Ian Woodall, had wildly exaggerated his own credentials in order to secure the job. According to both Krakauer and Simpson, Woodall’s high-altitude climbing repertoire consisted of one expedition to Annapurna in 1990, on which he was a paying client. The British Army’s ‘Elite Long Range Mountain Reconnaissance Unit’, which Woodall claimed to have commanded and extensively trained with in the Himalayas, was his own creation; no such unit has ever existed. Hall, by contrast, was an extremely proficient climber, renowned for running a logistically tight operation without incident.
Inasmuch as national and commercial expeditions rely heavily on Sherpas, any participant without a proven record at altitude is imposing avoidable life-threatening risks on others. The problem is how to moderate risk. There is a limit to the intervention that can be reasonably expected of the Nepali and Tibetan Administrations. The income generated by the sale of peak permits is of considerable benefit to the economies of both countries. Self-regulation by the climbing community appears to be the only answer. Ensuring that expedition members have adequate experience is an obvious first step. The present requirement – that a member has already climbed one 6500-metre peak – is too lax. A whole series of prior ascents should be mandatory. We know that people are prepared to join expeditions for which they are not qualified and that they may not have thought through the potential consequences of doing so. But an expedition leader has to be more careful. The more exacting the selection criteria, the less culpable a leader will be if something goes wrong.
Insisting on competence should not be confused with snobbery. Today, the world’s leading climbers are contemptuous of people who climb Everest in the manner of Hall’s and Fischer’s clients, siege-style, attached to fixed safety ropes, sucking on bottled oxygen. Such ascents, it is claimed, do not move the sport forward. One must be circumspect about aesthetic objections of this sort. Would we be prepared to say the same about amateurs in other sports? And are the motivations of the élite really more pure than those of competent amateurs? There is an inescapable irony in one mountaineer criticising another for his, or her, desire to climb at altitude.