How eight Everest mountaineers really did disappear 'Into Thin Air'

Eight climbers died near the summit of Mount Everest eight years ago because the sky fell below them, a scientist has claimed. The calamity that befell two groups of climbers near the mountain top in May 1996, was later immortalised by Jon Krakauer, who was among them, in his book
Into Thin Air.

Eight climbers died near the summit of Mount Everest eight years ago because the sky fell below them, a scientist has claimed. The calamity that befell two groups of climbers near the mountain top in May 1996, was later immortalised by Jon Krakauer, who was among them, in his book Into Thin Air.

Kent Moore, a physicist at the University of Toronto in Canada, has discovered that the title is more accurate than anyone realised. And he has suggested that climbers attempting the highest peaks should avoid days with high winds, which will strip vital oxygen from the air.

Professor Moore told New Scientist magazine that weather patterns that day led to the atmospheric pressure falling so dramatically that in effect the stratosphere dropped onto the summit of the 8,848m mountain. Normally the peak sits just below the atmospheric layer.

That would be the equivalent of raising the summit by 500 metres on a normal day, and would cut the available oxygen in the air, which on the summit is just one-third that at sea level, by 14 per cent. Although most climbers at the summit use supplementary oxygen, they still rely on the air to help them breathe. Above 8,000 metres there is too little oxygen to sustain life, so people should spend as little time as possible at such heights.

The events of May 1996 have been pieced together from survivors' accounts. Led by Scott Fischer, a New Zealander, some of the group climbed through the night of 9 May and reached the summit in clear weather early in the afternoon of 10 May. Then they noticed storm clouds below them on the mountain, and decided to descend as fast as possible.

But as the team made their way down, Fischer, who had climbed Everest several times began to struggle, said Neal Beidleman, one of two other highly experienced guides with the group.

By late afternoon, amid 75mph winds, some of the group had to be abandoned, disoriented, on the upper reaches of the mountain. Fischer and seven others eventually died.

Professor Moore's hypothesis also sheds new light on the heroism that day of one of the professional climbers on Fischer's team, Anatoli Boukreev from Russia. He helped rescue several of the group stranded on the mountain below the summit, climbing repeatedly up to them and leading or even dragging them down to the safety of their camp below 8,000 metres. Boukreev kept going for more than 12 hours with no bottled oxygen, in the teeth of the storm and when the air would have been severely depleted.

Professor Moore said the "jet streak" winds travelling at more than 100mph up the sides of the mountain would have dragged up a huge volume of air, causing the pressure to drop and leaving less oxygen for the climbers.

"At these altitudes, climbers are already at the limits of endurance," he said. "The sudden drop in pressure could have driven some of them into severe physiological distress."

Atemporary weather station at the top of Everest recorded a fall in pressure of 16 millibars in 1998 when a similar "jet streak" struck - in effect raising the summit by 500 metres.

Experts reckon that if the summit of Everest was 500 metres higher, it would be impossible to climb without oxygen: no one could survive the distance from the start of the "death zone" to its summit and back.

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