Anti-Social Climbing

Justine Burley

  • Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
    Macmillan, 293 pp, £16.99, August 1997, ISBN 0 333 69527 5
  • Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson
    Cape, 207 pp, £16.99, August 1997, ISBN 0 224 04368 4

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.

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