Mountaineering: Tragedy at the Top of the World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Mountaineering: Tragedy at the Top of the World

What really happened that fateful day?
By Jeff Herr

When you've just climbed to the top of Mount Everest, you want to linger there a few minutes, snapping photographs and basking in an extraordinary accomplishment, even though better sense tells you to get down immediately. At 1 p.m. last May 10, clouds obscured the lower flanks of the 29,028-foot peak, but the summit ridge was drenched in brilliant sunshine.

"Glorious," says Neal Beidleman, a professional mountain guide employed by the Seattle-based outfitter Mountain Madness, who helped lead a group of six amateur climbers to the summit that day. High fives flew all around, Beidleman recalls. Everybody milled about the living-room-size patch of rock and ice, sucking on bottled oxygen and picking out souvenir "summit rocks" to take home. "Well," he says, pausing, "at the time it seemed perfect."

Beidleman and the 32 other climbers on upper flanks of Everest that afternoon were unaware of the insidious and brutal storm that, as all the world now knows, was creeping up the mountain. It soon rendered the sky a roiling soup, produced minus-100-degree windchills, and left eight climbers dead, including world-renowned guides Scott Fischer of Seattle and Rob Hall of New Zealand. Eleven other climbers, several with little or no Himalayan experience, spent the night wandering like zombies at 26,000 feet, unable to find their tents.

The impact of those eight deaths-as well as the deaths of a Taiwanese, an Austrian, and a South African that same month-reached well beyond the Himalayas. As K2, the world's second-highest peak, did a year ago, Everest seemed to be sending a brusque message that it will not be taken lightly. And so some serious questions have been raised. Among them: Are too many people crowding onto Everest? And are guided expeditions a recipe for disaster? Answers aren't clear-cut, but what happened up there, says Jon Krakauer, a member of Hall's team and a contributing editor of Outside who was on assignment to examine these very questions, is "disturbing."

After spending five minutes at the top, Krakauer and New Zealander Andy Harris, among the first to summit, started down and came upon the notorious Hillary Step, a steep, rocky knife-edge, about 15 minutes later. Then, considering they were at 29,000 feet, something unusual-and perhaps telling-took place: a traffic jam. Coming up the Step was a conga line of more than 20 climbers, members of Hall's and Fischer's expeditions and a Taiwanese team. Krakauer and Harris waited 45 minutes for the route to clear.

By 3:30 p.m., all the teams had summited and had started down. The weather was still holding, but soon it started to snow lightly. By 5 p.m., with climbers strung out over the entire upper mountain, the wind was blowing at 70 mph, knocking people off their feet and churning up whiteout conditions. As they ran out of bottled oxygen, all the climbers became increasingly confused. By nightfall Krakauer and Harris had reached the edge of Camp Four. But mysteriously, Harris never made it to his tent. His body has not yet been found.

Meanwhile, higher on the mountain, things were going from bad to worse. By midnight, 15 climbers were missing: Harris, Hall, and Hansen, who thanks to radio communications were known to still be on the summit ridge; Fischer and Taiwanese team leader Makalu Gao, who were about halfway between Camp Four and the top; and 11 others, who were just a few hundred yards from their tents but utterly lost in the storm. Exhausted, disoriented, and in danger of walking off the edge of the South Col, the broad saddle where their tents were pitched, these 11 climbers huddled helplessly in the blizzard.

At 1 a.m., visibility improved, and six climbers, led by Beidleman, staggered into camp. They dispatched Russian Anatoli Boukreev back to rescue the others. Through a heroic effort, repeatedly going out into the gale, he brought back three climbers, but in the chaos two members of Hall's group, American Seaborn Beck Weathers and Japanese Yasuko Namba, had been wrongly presumed dead and left sprawled unconscious on the ice.
The next morning, a five-person rescue team found Weathers and Namba under five inches of snow, their faces caked with ice. Both were alive but so close to death that rescuers decided against trying to carry him to camp and left him in the snow. Seven hours later, Weathers miraculously regained consciousness. Horribly frostbitten and virtually blind, he somehow stumbled into camp. By storm's end, the dead would include three guides, Hall, Fischer, and Harris; two clients, Namba and Doug Hansen of Seattle; and three members of an Indian-Tibetan team who were climbing Everest from the northern Tibetan side, Tsewang Paljor, Dorjee Morup, and T. Samanla.

Of course, no story was more heartrending than that of Rob Hall. After summiting with Fischer, Namba, and Hansen, Hall remained behind with Hansen, who collapsed just above the Hillary Step. The next morning, by which time Hansen had died, Hall was too severely frostbitten to descend. A rescue team was dispatched to try to reach him but was turned back by wind. As Hall, who was out of bottled oxygen, prepared to spend a second night at 28,700 feet, he spoke via radio to his wife, Jan, pregnant with their first child back in New Zealand. "Don't worry about me," he told her, as those in his team listened via their radios. By morning, he was dead.

Does the guide-client relationship, which works so well on less forbidding peaks in the Alps and the Rockies, belong on the world's highest peak? It's a difficult question, says Krakauer. "But one thing is clear," he says. "When things went wrong up there, some of the strongest guides in the world not only found themselves powerless to save their clients' lives, they couldn't even save their own."

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