Sacrificed to the fatal lure of Everest

As the death toll mounts on the peak for another season, Tim Cornwell reports on the bitter row over last year's doomed climb

Tim Cornwell
Saturday 17 May 1997 23:02

One year later, two survivors from the Everest expeditions of 1996 are worlds apart.

Jon Krakauer, an American writer, was somewhere between Nashville, Tennessee, and Miami, Florida, last week, ably promoting his book, Into Thin Air, for which he got a six-figure advance. But Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian raised in a coal-mining village in the Urals, was trekking back to the Everest Base Camp, testing weather conditions for an attempt on the Lhotse- Everest traverse. Only two weeks ago, Mr Boukreev led an Indonesian national team to the summit; he lost 20lb on the climb.

In 1996, Mr Krakauer, 42, a proficient amateur climber and best-selling author, joined the Everest expedition led by Rob Hall, the famed New Zealand mountaineer. He was aiming for a magazine article about wealthy trophy climbers who paid fees of up to $65,000 (more than pounds 40,000) to scale the world's highest peak. Mr Boukreev, meanwhile, was hired for $25,000 as a guide for a rival outfit, under Scott Fischer, an American.

As the two groups made their way to the summit, a high-altitude horror ensued. Hall and Fischer, caught in a vicious storm, froze to death with another guide and two clients The total death toll for the season was 12. Mr Krakauer got more material than he ever dreamed of; Mr Boukreev personally rescued three people from the storm. But, largely thanks to the American, the Russian is left with a question-mark over his reputation, publicly accused of rushing down from the summit before his clients.

And history is repeating itself on Everest this May. As daily dispatches from Base Camp appear on the World Wide Web, promising the inside story of high adventure - just as in 1996 - climbers are dying on the peak. This week's count was five, possibly six dead, including three members of a military expedition from Kazakhstan, a Sherpa and a German climber. Malcolm Duff, Scottish leader of a commercial expedition, died in his sleep of a heart attack on the mountain last month.

In the May weather window, when the coming monsoon deflects the jet stream from the mountain's summit, eight teams are reported to be waiting out high winds. Once again the clientele includes businessmen paying pounds 25,000 for the adventure of a lifetime - inquiries actually increased sharply in the wake of last year's disaster.

The trick of climbing Everest's 29,028ft is not just to get up but to return alive, with an early turnaround time to get off the mountain before oxygen runs out or a storm strikes. One in four does not make it back. But the mountain has become increasingly crowded since a Texan banker with little experience made it up in 1985.

One day two years ago there were 48 people standing at the summit. At another crowded moment, a Texan twirling a lariat almost fell off the mountain. He would have fallen to his death if the rope had not caught on a rock.There are currently thought to be about 150 climbers readying to approach from the Tibetan side and slightly more on the Nepalese side. When the weather breaks, several dozen people are likely to converge on the North Ridge and South Col routes.

The mountain neither hides nor gives up its dead. Climbers trudge past or even scale over the bodies. In the so-called Death Zone, five miles up, it is simply too much effort to carve them out of the ice. Bruce Herrod, a Briton who died last year, lies at the base of Hillary step. Rob Hall, whose last satellite phone call to his wife as he drifted into frozen death became the modern equivalent of Scott's notebook, lies across the path to the peak.

Since 1953, close to 150 people have died on Everest. But Mr Krakauer's book and his publicity tour - in which he regularly reduces audiences to tears - has revived a rancorous year-long debate over who and what were to blame. Mr Boukreev's own book, The Climb is out this autumn. Amid the book and movie deals - at least two film companies have bought rights - the bitter second-guessing continues.

"Walter Mittys with Everest dreams need to keep in mind that when things go wrong in the Death Zone - and sooner or later they always do - the strongest guides in the world may be powerless to save their clients' lives," Mr Krakauer wrote in the article for Outside magazine that was the basis of his book. His writing is wrung through with survivor's guilt. He blames himself in particular for failing to spot that a guide, Andy Harris, was weakened and acting irrationally from altitude and lack of oxygen. Mr Krakauer thought he had watched him return to camp; in fact, he apparently strayed over a 4,000ft precipice. "My actions - or failure to act - played a direct role in the death of Andy Harris."

He was also deeply troubled by the fact that once safely returned from the top, he remained in his tent while two fellow climbers were dying only a few hundred yards away. But his self-critical honesty has apparently freed him to criticise others - such as Sandy Hill Pittman, the New York socialite who he reported was "short-roped" - effectively towed - for six hours by a Sherpa whose job should have been to set up fixed ropes ahead of the party. And he reports that Mr Boukreev was accused by one client of "cutting and running" from the summit, and said the Russian "owes an explanation that he is unwilling and unable to give".

At issue in part is his decision to climb that day without oxygen, which critics say weakened his strength and judgment. Almost every US survivor from last year has publicly spoken of a recurrent nightmare. Beck Weathers, who walked into camp after others had left him for dead, has the physical scars: one arm amputated at the elbow, and all four fingers on the other hand lost to frostbite. Surgeons gave him a new nose by taking cartilage from his ears and growing it for three weeks under his forehead, where the blood supply is rich, before putting it in place.

Mr Boukreev, by contrast, seems to shrug off climbing Everest, which he compares to playing Russian roulette with the mountain, the altitude and the weather. He did indeed come down the mountain early, he says, but insists it was by agreement with Fischer. In the event of problems it was planned he would return to camp for reserves, particularly oxygen. It was from there that he unquestionably went out later to save three lives.

Mr Boukreev, 38, was a competitive cross-country skier, recruited to the Russian national climbing team in 1987 for a Himalayan ascent. But with the break-up of the Soviet Union, funds dried up, and he began looking for work as a personal guide, selling his growing Himalayan expertise. In an e-mail account of the Indonesian climb he led in April, Mr Boukreev recounted pausing to bury two casualties from 1996, covering the bodies with stones. One was Fischer, the other Yasuko Namba, 47, Japan's leading woman climber. She had just become the oldest woman to scale Everest when she died.

When he reached the top, he took a flag prepared by Fischer's widow, Jeannie, and tied it to the aluminium pole that marks the true summit of Everest, where "it blows now in the wind". He marked Fischer's body with the shaft of an ice axe, as "the last respect that I could offer for a man who represented the best and brightest expression of American mountaineering".

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