American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Season in Everest, The Rest of the Story

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

A Season on Everest

The rest of the story by Elizabeth Hawley

As the whole world seems to know, disaster struck climbers high on Mount Everest on May 10, and immediately the mountain, and the men and women assaulting it, were headline news around the world—on radio and television, in newspapers and news magazines, and, for the first time in history, on the Internet, where facts, errors and rumors appeared and disappeared almost constantly. The sudden world-wide attention, fueled by satellite communications equipment at Base Camp and a ceaseless flow of Internet postings, continued day after day with international and local media scrambling for new details and new approaches to the tragic drama that . unfolded over three or four days at the highest altitudes on earth. This drama, in the end, left five people dead on the Nepalese side of Everest and three more on the Tibetan side. With three other fatalities during the month of May, the total death toll was 11—the largest number of people ever to die on the great mountain in a single season.

Not all the notable events on Everest were tragic, but the happy results received scant public attention. They deserved better. One example: two weeks after the fatal storm, the 39-year-old Italian, Hans Kammerlander, successfully scaled the normal route from the Tibetan side with astonishing swiftness after having acclimatized on one of the 8000-meter summits of nearby Shishapangma. Although there was a camera crew with him on the lower part of the mountain, he climbed alone steadily through the night of May 23, and managed to cut more than four hours off the previous speed record for an ascent of his route, which had been set in May, 1995, by another Italian from the South Tirol, Reinhard Patscheider. In only 16 hours, 45 minutes, Kammerlander ascended from Base Camp at 6400 meters to the 8848-meter high top of the world. He then proceeded to ski down almost the entire length of the same route (he could not use his skis on rocky sections that he claimed totaled only 250 vertical meters) in six hours, 45 minutes, thus having accomplished the round-trip in the truly remarkable total elapsed time of 23-and-a-half hours. Patscheider had taken 21 hours to go from base to the top. Despite not having used any bottled oxygen, and therefore having felt slightly drunk very high up, Kammerlander returned safely to his base in good health, although much thinner.

It is widely believed that there are no new routes to be scaled on Everest, but a 14-member Russian team from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, led by Sergei Antipine, disproved this belief by making the first ascent of Everest by a difficult, steep (mostly 65 degrees, in one section 90 degrees) rock and snow couloir between the north and northeast ridges that starts at an altitude of about 6400 meters and emerges onto the north ridge at 8250 meters. Three of these Russians, Petr Kouznetsov, Valeri Kohanov and Grigori Semikolenkov, gained the summit on May 20 via their couloir and at the top of it joined the normal route on the north ridge and continued up the north face, where they began to use artificial oxygen. They descended the normal route all the way, capping their team’s success with no accidents or serious frostbite.

A most unusual kind of filming took place on the normal route on Nepal’s side of the mountain. The heaviest camera ever to get to the top of Everest took shots for the laigest screens in the cinematic world. Veteran Everest summitter David Breashears, a well-known professional mountain cinematographer, led to the summit a team of ten people who set up and operated their IMAX camera which, loaded and with lens attached, weighed 40 pounds. To get such a heavy camera and its

equipment to the top of the world was a notable feat of logistics and endurance, and they were very lucky to have clear weather in which they shot two and a half minutes of the dramatic vista.

Altogether in the pre-monsoon season a grand total of 398 men and women from 30 countries climbed on Everest’s slopes. Eighty-seven of them said they had succeeded in gaining its highest point; this was the second-highest number of successes in a single season (the highest was 90 in the spring of 1993).

The successful summitters included a diverse group: a Swede, Goran Kropp, who bicycled all the way from Stockholm to the closest point he could cycle to Everest, summitted via the South Col route, and returned home the same way; an Austrian, Robert Schauer, now 42 years old, who made his second ascent of Everest 18 years after his first one; Jamling Tenzing Norgay from India, son of first summitter Tenzing Norgay Sherpa; the first person to “conquer” Everest 10 times, Ang Rita Sherpa of Nepal; Rob Hall, the first non-Sherpa to summit the mountain five times; the first Scandinavian woman ever to get to the top, Lena Nielsen-Gammelgaard from Copenhagen; the first Spanish woman, Araceli Segarra; the oldest woman, Japan’s Yasuko Namba, and the first people from Africa, Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall. A new route was pioneered, the first ski descent of very nearly all of the mountain was achieved, and a team of Nepalese Sherpas cleared a large amount of junk from the Nepalese side of Everest.

But the headlines were grabbed by the tragedies. The year before, in the spring of 1995, 11 teams assaulted Everest from its northern slopes and sent 67 climbers to the summit. One veteran Everest leader remarked then on their enormous good luck: “Most people who summitted would not have gotten to 8300 meters in normal weather conditions on the north side,” he said. “There would have been dead people everywhere if there had been a sudden drop in temperature or increase in the winds.” In 1995, though, fine weather lasted for many days, and not one of them died.

This May the luck didn’t hold. Eight people perished and two more suffered severe frostbite in the storm that raged on Everest on May 10 and 11. Three more climbers died by the end of the month: a Taiwanese fell to his death the day before the storm, an Austrian succumbed later to altitude sickness, and toward the end of this eventful May, the last summitter, a Briton, disappeared during his descent.

While the May 10 tragedy on the Nepalese side of the mountain [chronicled later in this journal by Charlotte Fox] dominated most of the media coverage, a similar crisis arose on the northern (Tibetan) side for three Indian mountaineers. The three were part of a summit team from a large expedition of one Mongolian and 24 Indian climbing members plus 15 Indian Sherpas organized by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force posted along India’s border with Tibet. The team was led by an ITBP officer, Mohinder Singh. Their first summit party was composed of six Indians, but three turned back at the so-called First Step, a steep rock formation at 8400 meters. The other three pressed on despite severe weather conditions, and at 6 p.m. Chinese time (3:45 p.m. Nepalese time), the ITBP men, T. Samanla, Tsewang Paljor and Dorje Morup, radioed to their leader that they had managed to arrive at the summit.

They reported that Samanla, a deeply religious man, had decided to spend extra time at the top performing religious rites and was sending the other two down ahead of him. Then this trio, too, somehow got into trouble. After the six o’clock radio contact, there was no further communication from any of them, although two headlamps (presumably those of Paljor and Morup) were later sighted moving above the Second Step at roughly 8570 meters. None of the three ever returned to their highest camp, which had been pitched at 8320 meters on the day before they went for the top.

A five-man party from a Japanese expedition, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa, with three Sherpas, Pasang Tshering, Pasang Kami and Any Gyalzen, arrived at the summit by the same northern route at 11:45 a.m. (Nepalese time) on the next day (May 11). They were buffeted by very strong winds but found little fresh snowfall—nor had there been much snowfall on the previous day on their side of Everest, according to their climbing leader, Koji Yada. They returned safely.

Yada said that Mohinder Singh asked him late in the afternoon of May 11 whether his summit party knew anything about the three missing Indians, and Yada put the question to his summit- ters by radio. They answered that they had seen five climbers but had no idea who they were or from which of the teams then on the mountain they came. The Japanese reported that two of the five they saw were descending the north ridge, one was standing at the First Step, and two were at the Second Step, one standing, one lying down. None of them spoke to the Japanese; not one of them indicated in any way that he or she was in distress and needed to be helped.

A statement issued by the ITBP Directorate General in New Delhi on May 13 said that “it is puzzling that the Japanese team, which had assured the Indian expedition leader of rescuing the [Indian climbers] [an assurance Yada says he never gave since he had no contact with Mohinder before late afternoon of May 11 ] did not call off their summit attempt and render help in rescuing Paljor and T. Samanla, who had good chances of survival.” Both Paljor and Samanla might have been saved if they had been given oxygen by the Japanese, the statement claimed, and Mohinder Singh was quoted as informing New Delhi headquarters that “all the foreign teams at Advance Base Camp met yesterday and expressed unhappiness about the Japanese not saving the lives of the Indian climbers.”

However, at a press conference a month later, after their return to Delhi, the commander of the ITBP declared that “the Japanese team is not responsible for the tragedy. It was unfortunate that the three [ITBP] members were caught in a blizzard. We do not blame anyone for the tragedy.. .. Bad weather cost the lives of our men.” And Singh himself told the press, according to a report in a Delhi paper, The Statesman, that the expedition “did not have any complaint or grudge against anyone for the unfortunate incident.… The climbers faced very rough weather on their way back [from the top] and got trapped in the blizzard and could not reach camp.” He added that it was as a “befitting tribute to their lost comrades” that a second ITBP summit party of five more men succeeded on May 17.

There is, in fact, some question as to whether the first Indian summit party did actually reach the very top: some of the other climbers then on the northern side of the mountain—Germans, Greeks, Taiwanese and others—have said that for various reasons, including strong winds, extreme cold, the absence of fixed ropes high up (no one had at that point been as high), and the distance the Indians had to climb, they very much doubted the Indians’ success.

The most specific reason given by any of the doubters was provided by the Sherpas who summitted with the Japanese on May 11. They reported that at a bump on the mountainside at an altitude of about 8700 meters, perhaps only 150 vertical meters below the top, they found prayer flags, white cotton scarves and rock pitons that appeared to have been part of a religious offering, and above this point they saw no more footprints in the snow.

One of the Germans reported that the Indians and Japanese were competing with each other to be the first to go to the top. The ITBP statement of May 13 said, “It is understood that the Japanese and the Indian teams had both reached Camp VI [at 8320 meters] and were poised to move up. The Indian climbers, in a gesture of self-sacrifice, decided to move first, which meant a lot of hard work to surmount the two vertical Steps that form the main obstacles on the northern route.”

Summitters or not, they tragically perished, and this fatal drama seemed to reoccur on Everest two weeks later, when the last six of the season’s summitters reached the top from the Nepalese side—and one of them never returned. They belonged to South Africa’s first expedition to Everest, which had President Nelson Mandela as its patron. They arrived in Kathmandu with six climbing members, one of them a black South African, another a Briton, and the leader, Ian Woodall, claiming both British and South African citizenship.

However, by the time the team arrived at Base Camp, there were only three climbing members, plus one more who was added later on but who was unable to climb very high because of lack of acclimatization. The three others, including the black, Ed February, had “resigned,” according to Woodall, who refused to give any reply to why or how except to say “no comment.” The South African press suggested that a key element was Woodall’s authoritarian leadership style.

The three high-climbing members, Woodall, Cathy O'Dowd and the Briton, Bruce Herrod, made it to the summit on May 25 with three Nepalese Sherpas. Woodall and O'Dowd were not only the first South Africans but the first from the whole African continent to scale the mountain successfully. Five of them were on the top before 11 a.m. and back safely in Camp IV by 4 p.m., but Herrod, a professional photographer, moved much more slowly than the others, partly due to his photography, and it was not until 5 p.m. that he radioed his arrival at the summit. “He sounded pleased to be there,” O’Dowd reported.

But Herrod failed to come on the radio again at the scheduled hour of 6 p.m., and he was never heard from or seen after that. No one tried to go back up from Camp IV to search for him. O’Dowd and the three Sherpas went down the next morning while Woodall waited in Camp IV until mid-afternoon, when his supply of bottled oxygen had become exhausted and there was no sign of Herrod on a fine clear day; then he, too, descended. Herrod has vanished. Woodall speculates that since his friend had not called at six o’clock, he had probably already fallen somewhere above the South Summit; but more recent summitters reported seeing a body wearing clothes that have been identified by Cathy O’Dowd as being those worn by Herrod. The body is sitting at the bottom of the Hillary Step tied in to the fixed rope, and an oxygen mask is still on his face. Now the speculation is that he sat down to rest and drifted off into unconsciousness and froze to death.

Thus on Mount Everest, the month of May—and the 1996 spring season—ended as it had begun on the first summit day, on a note of success combined with death. And no sooner had the fatal drama of the month unfolded than questions began to be asked. Why had more people died this season than during any other in the mountain’s climbing history? Mountaineering is and always will be a dangerous activity, but did nine of the 87 summitters have to perish? There was of course the onset of a ferocious storm. But were too many people on the mountain?

There were 14 teams on the Nepalese side and 16 in Tibet, the largest number of expeditions to have attempted Everest in any one season. This situation had apparently come about as a result of the drastic reduction in the number of permits given for a single season by the Nepalese authorities starting in the autumn of 1993, when more teams therefore went to the Tibetan side than ever before. Then suddenly this spring, Nepal’s government, under pressure from Nepalese citizens who earn a living from expeditions, canceled its limit on the number of teams. With the least difficult route up Everest being on its southern side, Nepal now also got a good number of expeditions.

Too many people being in the same place at the same time can obviously cause congestion at difficult points such as the Hillary Step, where, on May 10, climbers had to wait half an hour before they could move down below the summit. Delays can be extremely serious if the weather suddenly turns worse or a climber’s oxygen supply suddenly runs out.

Were too many of the people on the mountain insufficiently skilled and physically too weak for the task of scaling the highest mountain on earth? Ed Viesturs, an American guide and Everest veteran who went to the summit from the Nepalese side on May 23, told an interviewer, “A lot of people are here who shouldn’t be here. Even some national teams, not just guided teams, are marginal. They’re competent mountaineers, but Everest is another ball game.”

Do commercially guided expeditions attract clients with mediocre abilities who can pay as much as $65,000 for membership but are not fully competent to attempt Everest? Some commentators say that nowadays one must be rich to go to Everest, and the rich are not exceptionally skilled and experienced mountaineers. But this requirement of personal wealth is not entirely correct. Certainly it helps to have money, but sponsors can be found, and equipment suppliers and other enterprises can be persuaded to help. A few years ago two men from Hong Kong summit- ted Everest in the same season: one was a top British executive of a great Hong Kong property- owning company who could well afford the cost himself, while the other was a Chinese laborer in a sheet-metal factory whose employer and fellow workers provided his financing.

Another topic for discussion about events on May 10 has been why Rob Hall and Scott Fischer permitted their clients to continue up the mountain when it was beginning to be a bit late in the day for safe return from the top. Leaders of other teams have suggested that it was due to competition between them and their two Everest guiding firms, that the two were rivals for future business and wanted the best possible record of clients’ successes for their advertising. Perhaps Hall, they thought, felt this more keenly since he had failed to get Doug Hansen or any other clients to the summit last year; he would now not want to disappoint Hansen again, and he would not want two years in a row with no client success.

These leaders further suggested that Hall and Fischer felt another kind of competitive threat from the organizers of less expensive commercial expeditions, which charged each client only about $20,000 while providing fewer Sherpa helpers, less bottled oxygen and no professional guides at all or only the one guide-leader for a dozen members. They might have feared a threat to their earnings if the cheaper teams succeeded while theirs did not. (In the event, the cheaper ones on their side did not send anyone to the top.)

Another leader who commented on this situation and who himself also summitted on May 23 said he could scarcely believe it when he passed Fischer’s and Hall’s bodies and saw they were not wearing down-filled outer clothing but had on lighter-weight clothes. He wondered whether this indicated over-confidence in their own proven skills to get everyone up and down without serious problems or delays.

Hall and Fischer are not able to reply to all this speculation, and it is very easy to be wise after the event. The two men were extremely strong, skilled, experienced Everest climbers, and they were fine men with a great sense of duty to their clients. Hall apparently paid the ultimate price for his high degree of conscientiousness. One can only wish the brutal environment extremely high on Mount Everest had not exacted such a tragic toll.

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