Going to the Source
He was almost everything a 14-year-old boy thought he wanted to become
The caption identified the man as Scott Fischer, leader of one of the disastrous expeditions on Everest in 1996, but no matter how long I stared at the photo, I couldn't tell if it was the Fischer I knew. This man had long hair and a three-week mountain beard; my Fischer had been a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor in the summer of 1976 and—at least in my memory—was clean-shaven and close-cropped. He was also just about everything a 14-year-old boy would want to be: strong, handsome, well liked, and outrageously confident. Not only did my old NOLS instructor bear no resemblance to the man in the photo, but it was inconceivable that the Scott Fischer I knew could have died on Everest. To me, he was simply too good at climbing—at everything—to die. I put the magazine back in the rack and walked away.
A year later I was on a flight from L.A. to New York, reading furiously through Jon Krakauer's account of the Everest tragedy, Into Thin Air. Fischer was from New Jersey, I read, and had worked for years as a guide and instructor. He took insane risks on climbs and should have died years ago. He left a string of broken hearts a mile long in his wake. I closed the book and looked out the airplane window. We were flying at roughly the height of Mount Everest. It was the same guy, all right, and he was dead.
My earliest memory of Scott is from a rest break on my first day at NOLS in Wyoming. We were struggling up the flanks of the Wind River Range under a cold rain, and I asked if it always rained like this out West. I'd never been past Ohio and just wanted to know whether this was what the rest of the trip would be like. Scott threw his head back and laughed. “No, it almost never rains in July,” he said. “In fact I've never even seen it like this.”
He was right; we spent the next 30 days drenched in western sun. There were 12 students in our group and three instructors, all first-rate climbers, but Scott was clearly the one to study. At 20, he wasn't that much older than the rest of us, but he gave the impression that he could do absolutely anything. One day, one of the three female students sprained her ankle and he took her pack, 60 pounds on top of the 80 he was already carrying. He walked all day with it, uphill, downhill, across streams, over scree, at a steady hammering pace that even the other instructors had trouble keeping up with. Most days he walked with large stones in his hands, which he lifted like barbells at each step. It was to keep himself in shape for climbing. The boys either admired him, as I did, or dismissed him as a show-off. The girls just stared.
And there were stories about Scott, of course. The other instructors ribbed him about a woman who worked at the NOLS office in Lander. I was just starting to grasp the world of men and women, and gradually figured out that Scott would get in from a trip, spend a couple of days with his girlfriend, and then head back out into the mountains. The fact that there were arrangements like that out there—and that they might even be waiting for me when I got older—seemed almost too good to be true.
Scott was one of the few instructors who led back-to-back trips, and whatever pleasures awaited him in town, it was clear that the mountains were his main priority. He intended to become the best climber in the world and had no problem saying so. At the end of a day of hiking, as people straggled into camp, Scott would find some obscenely difficult bouldering problem and work on it until dark. Every so often, if we were camped near some cliffs, I would look up to see Scott far above me, unroped, climbing some offset crack. He climbed slowly and deliberately and with tremendous strength. He climbed in a way that almost made you feel sorry for the rock. He climbed as if he couldn't fall.
He had fallen, of course—only once, according to him—and the story became legend in our small group. A few years earlier another climber had set up a faulty anchor, and Scott clipped in for a rappel without checking the rope. He stepped to the edge of the cliff, leaned back, and fell. He dropped 150 feet, rotating slowly, and landed in a sitting position in an angled snowbank. It was the only position he could have landed in and survived. He regained consciousness days later, in a hospital bed. He'd shattered his pelvis and broken numerous other bones, but he was alive. He had no memory of the climb, or the fall, or the evacuation. As far as Scott was concerned, one moment he was in the mountains, the next moment he was in bed.
I was the youngest in the group, and in some ways the trip was one long, homesick, forced march. But whenever I began to lose heart, there was always Scott to emulate. On hikes—when not lifting rocks—he would hook his thumbs under the shoulder straps of his pack, and I started doing that, too, because it made me feel like I could walk as fast as he did. On steep snow Scott had a slow, methodical way of kicking steps into the incline that made an ascent look easy, almost inviting; I copied it as best I could. He did little to conceal his impatience with the slower, clumsier students, and I desperately tried to set myself apart from them. “We split into three groups and hiked four and a half miles with packs, uphill to a new camp place on Twin Lakes,” I wrote in my journal on July 25, 1976. “I was the leader [of my group] and personally I think I did real well, and so did Scott.”
I was trying to impress him, but I was also trying to learn something that I could bring home with me. I was a hopelessly solitary kid, and I saw in Scott some kind of salvation from the insecurities that battered me back home. Practically everything he did, the way he climbed, the way he walked, even the way he stood oozed a blithe confidence, and for years I used it all as a model for what I wanted to be. It was an image mostly untarnished by reality and made uncomplicated by the passage of time. The only flaw that I acknowledged in him—a fearlessness so extreme that it seemed close to a death pact with the mountains—was too disconcerting to deal with. I just wrote it off as something I would understand when I got older.
“Scott is the lead instructor, he's blond, looks like Robert Redford except his nose is too big, and he's real strong,” I wrote in my journal another day. “The only thing I don't like about him is that at times he isn't really concerned with your safety, like when we crossed the Popo Agie River. He lets things go unheeded.”
The crossing of the Popo Agie, a chest-deep torrent that we encountered a week into our trip, was a debacle from the start. Scott went across first, setting up a grab-line from one bank to the other, and then the rest of us followed. Within half an hour one girl slipped and almost drowned under her pack, another girl was washed downstream and had to be saved by an instructor, and one of the boys dislocated his shoulder. It frightened everybody—instructors included—except Scott. If anything, he seemed puzzled that people could get in trouble in such a mundane way. Crossing a river? It didn't even register on his scale of challenges. At age 20 he seemed in a desperate hurry to get to his future, and accidents just slowed him down.
Our course lasted 30 days, and the last four were called “survival.” We finished off our food, and the instructors had us split into three groups and prepared us to fend for ourselves on a long, famished trek out of the mountains. We had fishing poles and a rudimentary knowledge of wild plants to sustain us, but basically we just went hungry. Mark and Tom—the other two instructors—were to join us at the trailhead, but Scott was going back into the high peaks to meet another NOLS group. He said good-bye to us, shouldered his pack, and headed off up the trail. He had his thumbs hooked under his shoulder straps, as usual, and he never looked back around. I never saw him again.
Sebastian Junger's October, 1994 article “The Storm” was later expanded into his best-selling book The Perfect Storm. He lives in New York.