Prologue: I have been meaning to write this piece for at least a year and a half. Thanks are owed to NonFicWriMo for finally spurring me to write it.

May 10, 1996 was the deadliest day ever on Mount Everest. Deaths are not uncommon in mountaineering, and Everest has claimed many lives in its history, including some of the strongest in the climbing community. But never before had eight people died in a single day: the greatest tragedy on Mount Everest. Even after the climbing season was over, debate raged on about what had happened on that day.

The expeditions that were climbing the mountain in May 1996 had set out weeks before, because of the acclimatization period required when climbing the world's tallest peak. When you're on Everest, you're literally on top of the world - but it takes more than a month to get there. Climbers spend a full week at Base Camp, and then begin climbing to established camps higher up the mountain, and returning back to Base Camp. After weeks of up-and-down trekking, climbers finally make their first summit attempt over the span of a week. If they fail, it takes another week to get back down the mountain to resupply and recuperate before a second attempt is made.

There were quite a number of expeditions on Everest in early May 1996, taking a variety of routes up the mountain. The most common route, through the Khumbu Icefall and up the South Face, was chosen by two ill-fated expeditions: Adventure Consultants, operated by New Zealander Rob Hall, and Mountain Madness, operated by American Scott Fischer. Also on the mountain were David Breashears and Ed Viesturs, filming a documentary for IMAX theaters, a three-person Indian team climbing the Northeast Ridge, and expeditions from Japan and Norway on the same route as the Indians. All of these climbers would reach the summit, but not all of them would make it back down.

The Mountain Madness team had three guides, seven clients, and four Sherpas. Scott Fischer had already been to the summit once before, and guide Anatoli Boukreev had been there twice; the only guide without Everest experience was Neil Beidleman. Fischer's clients were Martin Adams, whose trip marked another completed peak in his attempt to climb the tallest mountain on each continent, Pete and Klev Schoening, a 68-year-old mountaineer and his nephew who was a member of the U.S. ski team, and Tim Madsen. Fischer also had three female clients: skilled climber Charlotte Fox (Madsen's girlfriend), much-derided socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who had failed to reach the summit on two previous expeditions, and Lene Gammelgaard from Denmark. The Mountain Madness Sherpas were Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa (making his fourth trip to the top, and doing so without the use of bottled oxygen), Nawang Dorje Sherpa (on his first trip), and Tenzing Sherpa and Tashi Tshering Sherpa, who were each on their third trip to the summit.

Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants team had three guides, four Sherpas, and eight clients. Hall himself was on his fifth summit trip, and Australian guide Michael Groom had first summitted Everest in 1993; New Zealander Andy Harris was also a guide for Hall. Their clients were Doug Hansen, an American postal worker who had failed to reach the top in 1995, Japanese female climber Yasuko Namba, American doctor Beck Weathers, American lawyer Lou Kasischke, Hong Kong publisher Frank Fischbeck, Canadian Stuart Hutchison and Australian John Taske, both doctors, and freelance writer Jon Krakauer. Sherpas for the team were Ang Dorje Sherpa and Norbu Sherpa, who were each making their fourth trip to the top, as well as Lhakpa Chhiri Sherpa and Kami Sherpa.

Although the debate of what went wrong (and what was done right) has never been settled, there is little disagreement about what happened. It is not at all uncommon for confusion and amnesia to affect Everest climbers; in an environment with so much less oxygen than is present at sea level, the brain works less efficiently and the body is sapped of its strength. Exhaustion also contributes to the addled state many climbers experience at high altitudes. It was this confusion and exhaustion that resulted in some poor decisions being made and, ultimately, the deaths of five members of the two teams.

A final bid for the summit typically begins in the middle of the night. As the small groups set out, they formed a column of climbers all the way up the Hillary Step and to the peak of the mountain. This overcrowding became dangerous because climbers were forced to move slowly, and as a fierce storm began on the afternoon of May 10th, many climbers were still far above Camp IV. Jon Krakauer and Andy Harris waited for a path to clear, and because they were not moving Krakauer asked Harris to turn down his oxygen flow. Harris, himself suffering from hypoxia, mistakenly turned the flow up. The weather worsened as Krakauer, one of the first descending from the peak, set out to get a fresh cylinder of oxygen. One of the first mistakes of the day occurred when guides Fischer and Hall did not express to their clients the urgency of getting down before the storm struck, and so they continued to sightsee from the top.

When the storm finally came upon them, visibility on the mountain was reduced to near zero. Krakauer was dismayed to find that all of the oxygen bottles at the South Summit were empty, according to Andy Harris. Mike Groom, another of Hall's guides, let Krakauer use his oxygen and the two of them made their way over to Harris - and saw that the six bottles there were full, but Harris refused to believe them, because his brain was so deprived of oxygen. Descending further, Krakauer - whose perspective is almost canonical because of the popularity of his book - encountered his teammate Beck Weathers. Weathers had discovered that the high altitude affected his vision following recent eye surgery, and was waiting for Rob Hall to return from the summit to guide him down. Krakauer, trusting that a guide would find Weathers, continued his descent. Shortly after leaving Weathers, Krakauer was approached by Andy Harris - at least he thought that was who it was. The man he believed to be Harris descended ahead of him, while the real Harris was still stuck at the South Summit under extreme duress from hypoxia.

Meanwhile, members of the Mountain Madness team were finally beginning their descent extremely late in the day. Guide Neil Beidleman had been waiting for his leader, Scott Fischer, but finally began his own descent with clients Gammelgaard, Fox, Madsen, and Pittman. Pittman's descent was as risky as her ascent had been: determined to reach the top, she had requested a Sherpa short-rope her up the mountain, a process that involves tying climbers together which is helpful to the weaker climber but a bit dangerous for the stronger one, who now has a weight tied to them. Thanks to a shot of the anti-altitude sickness drug dexamethasone, Pittman was able to continue her descent with the group and they came upon Mike Groom who was short-roping Beck Weathers down the mountain. It was dark by this time, and the group of seven could not find the camp in the snowstorm. For two hours, they stumbled around, not far from camp but failing to come upon it; they eventually gave up and formed a huddle, hoping for a break in the storm.

Finally some stars were visible, and a few of the climbers set out in what they believed was the direction of Camp IV. The others - all three women, Beck Weathers, and Tim Madsen who would not leave his girlfriend - were too weak to walk and stayed put. When the searchers finally reached camp, they were met by Fischer's guide Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who had been climbing without supplemental oxygen, had descended well ahead of anybody else on his team. The theory behind this was that he could prepare hot tea and other remedies for the others when they arrived. This was a major point of contention between Boukreev and Krakauer in their respective books about the tragedy: Krakauer felt it was irresponsible for a guide to go without extra oxygen, and to place his descent ahead of guiding the clients. Regardless, Boukreev had sufficient energy to go back into the storm. He returned with Fox, Madsen, and Pittman - and a report that Namba and Weathers were already dead.

In the morning, it quickly became evident that Andy Harris had not returned to camp. In fact, a set of footprints leading off the edge of the mountain spoke of a much worse fate. This was especially tragic because Krakauer had already reported to Base Camp that Harris was safe - remember, he thought he had seen him arrive at camp - and now Harris's wife had to be contacted again with the horrible news. Also that morning, it was realized that Fischer, Hall, and Doug Hansen were still missing. It was Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa that would tell Fischer's story. During the descent, while mad with hypoxia, he had suggested that he was going to jump off the mountain so he could get to Camp II more quickly. The Sherpa short-roped him, but Fischer was much larger and the Sherpa could only drag him so far. Finally, late at night on May 10th, the Sherpa had to leave Fischer behind and descend alone. Before leaving, he met three Sherpas from a Taiwanese expedition. Makalu Gau had successfully reached the summit, but he was too sick to descend under his own power and he was carried by the Sherpas. Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa helped the three others to tie Fischer and Gau together, and then they all descended without them.

Hypoxia also contributed to the situation of Rob Hall and his client Doug Hansen. They left the summit very late in the day, and were stranded on the Hillary Step when the storm hit. Hall communicated by radio to Base Camp that he needed more oxygen, and was told that there was some at the South Summit. But Andy Harris - still alive at that point, of course - jumped in on the radio and said that the canisters there were empty...which, again, they were not. But Hall and Hansen were both unable to think clearly, and they stayed together overnight. In the early morning hours of May 11th, Hall tried to coax Hansen further down the mountain. He was unsuccessful: later climbers would find Hansen's ice ax embedded in the ice, indicating that he had lost his grip and fallen down the Southwest Face. Hall himself made it to the South Summit, but he was very ill. At 5:00am a radio conversation was patched through from Base Camp to Hall's pregnant wife in New Zealand. Herself a mountaineer, she could tell from his voice that he was in grave danger. After their call ended, Hall prepared to try again to come down the mountain - but he never left where he was sitting.

Throughout the day on May 11th, rescue attempts were made to save Fischer, Hall, and Gau. When Sherpas reached Scott Fischer, they determined that he was barely breathing and mostly frostbitten; they attempted to give him hot tea and oxygen but he did not move to take them. He was essentially already dead, so they picked up Makalu Gau and carried him down the mountain. Team member Scott Hutchison attempted to save Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers, but they were both near death, and without gloves their hands were frozen solid. Under the advice of a Sherpa back at camp, Hutchison left them alone - even if they were successfully brought back to Camp IV, they would not survive the descent to Base Camp. And yet, that afternoon, Beck Weathers somehow beat all the odds. Despite his poor eyesight, frostbitten state, and lack of oxygen, he somehow got up and stumbled into camp. He could barely see, and if he had gone in the wrong direction he too would have walked off the mountain - but fortunately he chose well and survived.

Everyone who was still alive made it safely off the mountain; Gau and Weathers had to be carried down. Their condition was so grave that another life was put at risk to save them: Nepalese Air Force officer Colonel Madan K.C. flew his helicopter to Camp II to bring them back, in the highest ever airlift from Mount Everest.

The story of the 1996 Everest tragedy was over, but the drama had not yet ended. When Krakauer's article was published in "Outside" magazine, it did not paint a favorable picture of Anatoli Boukreev, and the two engaged in a battle of words through the media. Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, was published in 1998; Boukreev's book The Climb (written with Weston DeWalt) was published a few months later. Beck Weathers published his own book, Left For Dead, in 2001. In addition to these books, the story was also told through David Breashears's IMAX movie. Breashears's team had assisted in bringing Gau and Weathers down the mountain, and the documentary movie also told their story.

In all of these stories, three climbers are almost forgotten. Only five climbers died on Western expeditions, but three more died on the mountain that day as well. Tsewang Paljor, Tsewang Smanla, and Dorje Morup Sherpa climbed on the Northeast Ridge route. It is not known if they summitted or not, but they definitely did not survive.

Eight lives taken, and dozens more affected. Mount Everest may be an inanimate object, but it makes a profound impact around the world.

Additional resources

originally written for nonficwrimo 06

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