1996: All Eyes on Top of the World

Oct 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

Jon Krakauer speaking to reporters in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 16, 1996.

The 1996 tragedy on Everest, in which eight climbers were killed by a brief but brutal May snowstorm, was at once the most famous and most infamous mountaineering story of the century—an event that captured the public imagination even more than the first Everest ascent in 1953. Climbers routinely and stoically die faint, distant deaths. But this time around, staid network anchors, the front page of The New York Times, your neighbor who had never been outdoors—everybody had something to say about it.

This happened in part thanks to media serendipity. World-shrinking advances in communication technology had just coalesced: the Web, cell and sat phones, online journalism. At the same time, despite a wired world, there was the nearly unbearable suspense of a temporary news vacuum at the height of the storm. Then came reports of the numb, dying throes of veteran mountain guide Rob Hall. Exhausted and frozen near the summit, he was patched through via radio to his pregnant wife in New Zealand to say good-bye forever.
Outside editor-at-large Jon Krakauer—who climbed in Hall's group, and who barely survived Everest himself—first told his story in this magazine, in a riveting account that he later expanded into his international bestseller Into Thin Air. It wasn't just the story's pathos and finality that captured the world, but the Shakespearean drama of it all. The mortal mistakes on a mythic mountain, the ambition and hubris, the flawed heroes. Like all great drama, Everest '96 was, at heart, a morality play. Is it right to pay someone to drag you up Everest when you have no idea what you're doing? For that matter, is it right for anyone—someone's father or sister, mother or brother—to willfully attempt a mountain well-known for its deadly maliciousness? Who's responsible for whom? For a long interval, in the midst of peace and great plenty, the Everest disaster sparked heated, wonder-struck debates over the ethics of risk in late-20th-century American life.

And the moral? Despite humankind's inventiveness and transcendent boldness, nature remains unpredictable, unaccountable, and unconquerable.—Mark Jenkins

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