Dispatches, August 1997
It wasn't just the precarious footing on Mount Everest's Khumbu Icefall that was impeding Barbara Gurtler's progress last spring. "I was surprised to be passing all of these people," said the 62-year-old climber, a member of the 1997 Henry Todd British Expedition. "I thought they were trekkers that got too high. Then I realized they were the Malaysians."
Gurtler, the wheezy and inexperienced Malaysians, and some 200 other climbers were all headed to the same place, the upper ramparts of the 29,028-foot mountain, where another deadly if slightly less disastrous season was slowly unfolding. This time Everest took "only" eight lives: Three Russians, a German, and a Sherpa died on the north side in early May when they were apparently pinned down and disoriented by hurricane-force winds shortly after reaching the summit; on the south side, two Sherpas died in separate falls and noted Scottish climber Malcolm Duff suffered a fatal heart attack in base camp. Meanwhile, an estimated 78 climbers made it to the top and returned unscathed. But what's startling is the number of near-misses, given the implicit warning delivered by the tragedy of 1996, when 12 climbers lost their lives.
Take Indonesia's national expedition. Though the highlight of its 14 team members' limited rësumës was an ascent of Nepal's 20,300-foot Island Peak, one Indonesian — led by three Russians and two Sherpas — summited on April 26, while two others came within 100 yards. Waist-deep snow, however, kept them from reaching the top until about 3:30 p.m., well beyond the 1 p.m. hour that's understood as the turnaround time to avoid problems on the descent. As a result, they spent a night on the Balcony, a tiny ledge perched at 27,500 feet.
In the center of this decision was Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev, who received both praise and criticism for his role in the 1996 Everest debacle. The Indonesian team's "lead climbing consultant," Boukreev (who at press time was en route from the mountain and thus unavailable for comment) apparently surmised that his group might have trouble making it back to Camp Four by nightfall and so had stashed a tent and oxygen at the Balcony on the way up. "Boukreev actually set up a Camp Five for the Indonesians," says Gordon Janow, program director for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, whose own 12-person team, led by longtime Everest veteran Todd Burleson, saw six members summit but also suffered one death. "Now is that crazy or brilliant? Well, since it worked, I guess it's brilliant."
Not that there weren't plenty of other accidents waiting to happen: On May 22, some 40 climbers set out for the summit via the South Col route, creating the potential for a 1996-like logjam on the precipitous Hillary Step. "When there are a lot of people on the mountain, a false sense of security tends to creep in," says David Breashears, who summited Everest for a fourth time while making a Nova documentary for PBS. "I find that quite frightening." Then there's the story of Mexican climber Hugo Rodriguez, a client on the guided British OTT Expedition who summited the next day. After dragging himself to the top at 2 p.m. — he and two other clients had been allowed to continue with two Sherpas when their guide, John Tinker, turned around because of altitude sickness — Rodriguez found himself unable to continue and was forced to overnight alone at the 28,700-foot South Summit. Miraculously, though whiteout conditions hindered rescue attempts, the oxygen-starved climber himself initiated a successful descent the next morning. "Well, that's not how we do things," says Janow, ever diplomatic. "Clients either climb with their guides or not at all."
But even sage guides continue to face tough choices. AAI's Wally Berg, after summiting Everest for the third time, was beating a hasty descent in worsening weather when he met three AAI Sherpas coming up. "They wanted to go to the summit for their own sake. They were close, and I gave the nod of approval," Berg reported on the Internet. One of those Sherpas, Tenzing Norbu, soon disappeared, apparently falling down the 11,000-foot Kangshung face — and sadly, adding perhaps another lesson to the long list of those that seem yet to have been learned.