The summit of Mount Everest
|Date||10 May 1996 – 11 May 1996|
Altitude 8,848 metres (29,029 ft)
|Organised by||Adventure Consultants|
Indo-Tibetan Border Police
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster occurred on 10–11 May 1996, when eight people caught in a blizzard died on Mount Everest during attempts to descend from the summit. Over the entire season, 12 people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest season on Mount Everest at the time and the third deadliest behind the 16 fatalities of the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche and the 22 deaths resulting from avalanches caused by the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. The 1996 disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.
Numerous climbers were high in altitude on Everest during the storm, including the Adventure Consultants team led by Rob Hall and the Mountain Madness team led by Scott Fischer. While climbers died on both the North Face and South Col approaches, the events on the South Face were more widely reported. Four members of the Adventure Consultants expedition perished in the disaster, including Hall, while Fischer was the one casualty of the Mountain Madness expedition. Three officers in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police also died in the storm.
Following the disaster, several memoirs were written by survivors. Journalist Jon Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine and in the Adventure Consultants team, published the bestseller Into Thin Air (1997), about his experience. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide in the Mountain Madness team, felt impugned by Krakauer's book and co-authored a rebuttal book called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest (1997). Beck Weathers, of Hall's expedition, and Lene Gammelgaard, of Fischer's expedition, wrote about their experiences of the disaster in their respective books, Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest (2000) and Climbing High: A Woman's Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy (2000). In 2014, Lou Kasischke, also of Hall's expedition, published his own account of the tragedy in After the Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy, One Survivor's Story (2014).
In addition to the members of the Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness teams, Mike Trueman, who coordinated the rescue from Base Camp, added to the story with The Storms: Adventure and Tragedy on Everest (2015). Graham Ratcliffe, who climbed to the South Col of Everest on 10 May, has documented in A Day To Die For (2011) that weather reports delivered to expedition leaders, including Hall and Fischer before their planned summit attempts on 10 May, forecast a major storm developing after 8 May and peaking in intensity on 11 May. As Hall and Fischer planned their summits for 10 May, portions of their teams summitted Everest during an apparent break in this developing storm, only to descend into the full force of it late on 10 May.
The following is a list of climbers en route to the summit on 10 May 1996 via the South Col and Southeast Ridge, organized by expedition and role. All ages are as of 1996.
The Sherpas listed here were the climbing Sherpas hired by Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants. There were many other Sherpas working at lower elevations, who performed duties vital to the Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness expeditions. Most climbing Sherpas' duties require them to ascend at least as high as Camp III or IV, but not all of them summit. The expedition leaders intend for only a select few of their climbing Sherpas to summit. Legendary sardar Apa Sherpa was scheduled to accompany the Adventure Consultants group but withdrew due to family commitments.
None of the clients on Hall's team had ever reached the summit of an 8,000 m peak, and only Fischbeck, Hansen and Hutchison had previous high-altitude Himalayan experience.
Hall had brokered a deal with Outside magazine for advertising space in exchange for a story about the growing popularity of commercial expeditions to Everest. Krakauer was originally slated to climb with Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team, but Hall landed him, at least in part, by agreeing to reduce Outside's fee for Krakauer's spot on the expedition to less than cost. As a result, Hall was paying out-of-pocket to have Krakauer on his team.
Pete Schoening had decided, while still at Base Camp (5,380 m or 17,650 ft), not to make the final push to the summit. The team began the assault on the summit on 6 May, bypassing Camp I (5,944 m or 19,501 ft) and stopping at Camp II (6,500 m or 21,300 ft) for two nights. However, Kruse suffered from altitude sickness and possible high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and stopped at Camp I. Fischer descended from Camp II and escorted Kruse back to Base Camp for treatment.
The previous day (9 May), Taiwanese team member Chen Yu-Nan had died following a fall on the Lhotse Face.
Half the climbing team from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police North Col expedition from India (Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup, and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor) died on the Northeast Ridge.
Shortly after midnight on 10 May 1996, the Adventure Consultants expedition began a summit attempt from Camp IV, atop the South Col (7,900 m or 25,900 ft). They were joined by six client climbers, three guides, and sherpas from Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness company, as well as an expedition sponsored by the government of Taiwan.
The expeditions quickly encountered delays. The climbing Sherpas and guides had not set the fixed ropes by the time the team reached the Balcony (8,350 m or 27,400 ft), and this cost the climbers almost an hour. There is some question as to the cause of this failure, which cannot now be resolved as the expedition leaders perished.
Upon reaching the Hillary Step (8,760 m or 28,740 ft), the climbers again discovered that no fixed line had been placed, and they were forced to wait an hour while the guides installed the ropes. Because some 33 climbers were attempting the summit on the same day, and Hall and Fischer had asked their climbers to stay within 150 m (500 ft) of each other, there was a bottleneck at the single fixed line at the Hillary Step. Hutchison, Kasischke and Taske returned towards Camp IV as they feared they would run out of supplementary oxygen due to the delays.
Climbing without supplemental oxygen, guide Boukreev from the Mountain Madness team reached the summit (8,848 m or 29,029 ft) first at 13:07. Many of the climbers had not yet reached the summit by 14:00, the last safe time to turn around to reach Camp IV before nightfall.
Boukreev began his descent to Camp IV at 14:30, having spent nearly 1.5 hours at or near the summit helping others complete their climb. By that time, Hall, Krakauer, Harris, Beidleman, Namba and Mountain Madness clients Martin Adams and Klev Schoening had reached the summit, and the remaining four Mountain Madness clients had arrived. After this time, Krakauer noted that the weather did not look so benign. At 15:00 snow started to fall, and the light was diminishing.
Hall's Sirdar, Ang Dorje Sherpa, and other climbing Sherpas waited at the summit for the clients. Near 15:00, they began their descent. On the way down, Ang Dorje encountered client Doug Hansen above the Hillary Step and ordered him to descend. Hansen did not respond verbally, but shook his head and pointed upward, toward the summit. When Hall arrived at the scene, the Sherpas offered to take Hansen to the summit, but Hall sent the Sherpas down to assist the other clients, and instructed them to stash oxygen canisters on the route. Hall said he would remain to help Hansen, who had run out of supplementary oxygen.
Scott Fischer did not summit until 15:45. He was exhausted from the ascent and becoming increasingly ill, possibly suffering from HAPE, HACE, or a combination of both. Others, including Doug Hansen and Makalu Gau, reached the summit even later.
Boukreev recorded that he reached Camp IV by 17:00. The reasons for Boukreev's decision to descend ahead of his clients are disputed. Boukreev maintained that he wanted to be ready to assist struggling clients farther down the slope, and to retrieve hot tea and extra oxygen if necessary. Krakauer sharply criticized Boukreev's decision not to use bottled oxygen. Boukreev's supporters (who include G. Weston DeWalt, Boukreev's co-author of The Climb (1997)) state that using bottled oxygen gives a false sense of security. Krakauer and his supporters point out that, without bottled oxygen, Boukreev was unable to directly help his clients descend, and that Boukreev said that he was going down with client Martin Adams, but later descended faster and left Adams behind.
The worsening weather began causing difficulties for the descending team members. The blizzard on the southwest face of Everest was reducing visibility, burying the fixed ropes, and obliterating the trail back to Camp IV that the teams had broken on the ascent.
Fischer, helped by Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, was unable to descend below the Balcony (8,350 m or 27,400 ft) in the storm. Sherpas left Makalu Gau (at 8,230 m or 27,000 ft by Gau's account) with Fischer and Lopsang when Gau, too, became unable to proceed. Eventually, Lopsang was persuaded by Fischer to descend and leave him and Gau.
Hall radioed for help, saying that Hansen had fallen unconscious but was still alive. At 17:30 Adventure Consultants guide Andy Harris, carrying supplementary oxygen and water, began climbing alone from the South Summit (8,749 m or 28,704 ft) toward Hansen and Hall at the top of Hillary Step.
Krakauer's account notes that by this time, the weather had deteriorated into a full-scale blizzard. "Snow pellets borne on 70 mph [110 km/h] winds stung my face.",[page needed] Boukreev gives 18:00 as "the onset of a blizzard".
Several climbers became lost on the South Col. Mountain Madness members Beidleman (Guide), Klev Schoening, Fox, Madsen, Pittman, and Gammelgaard, along with Adventure Consultant members Mike Groom, Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba wandered in the blizzard until midnight. When they could no longer walk, they huddled some 20 m (66 ft) from a dropoff of the Kangshung Face.
Near midnight, the blizzard cleared sufficiently for the team to see Camp IV, some 200 m (660 ft) away. Beidleman, Groom, Schoening, and Gammelgaard set off to find help. Madsen and Fox remained on the mountain with the group, to shout for the rescuers. Boukreev located the climbers and brought Pittman, Fox, and Madsen to safety. Boukreev had prioritized Pittman, Fox, and Madsen (all of whom were from his Mountain Madness expedition) over Namba (from the Adventure Consultants expedition), who seemed close to death; he did not see Weathers (also from the Adventure Consultants expedition). All the climbers then at Camp IV, were exhausted and unable to reach Namba and Weathers from the Adventure Consultants expedition.
On 11 May, at 04:43, Hall radioed Base Camp and said he was on the South Summit (8,749 m or 28,704 ft). He reported that Harris had reached the two men, but Hansen, who had been with him since the previous afternoon, was now "gone", and Harris was missing. Hall was not breathing bottled oxygen because his regulator was too choked with ice.
By 09:00, Hall had fixed his oxygen mask but indicated that his frostbitten hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes. Later in the afternoon, he radioed Base Camp, asking them to call his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During this last communication, they chose a name for their unborn child, he reassured her that he was reasonably comfortable and told her, "Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."[This quote needs a citation] Shortly thereafter, he froze to death in his sleep. His body was found on 23 May by Ed Viesturs and fellow mountaineers from the IMAX expedition, but was left there as requested by his wife, who said she thought he was "where he'd liked to have stayed".[This quote needs a citation] They did, however, bring her back his wedding band. The bodies of Doug Hansen and Andy Harris have never been found. Viesturs stated in the IMAX film that upon finding Hall's body, he sat down and cried beside his friend.
Meanwhile, Stuart Hutchison, a client on Hall's team who had turned around before the summit on 10 May, launched a second search for Weathers and Namba. He found both alive, but barely responsive and severely frostbitten, and in no condition to move. After consulting with Lopsang he made the decision that they could not be saved by the hypoxic survivors at Camp IV nor evacuated in time, he left them for nature to take its course, which the other survivors soon agreed was the only choice.
Later in the day however, Weathers regained consciousness and walked alone under his own power to the camp, surprising everyone there, though he was still suffering severe hypothermia and frostbite. Despite receiving oxygen and attempts to rewarm him, Weathers was practically abandoned again the next morning, 12 May, after a storm had collapsed his tent overnight, and the other survivors once again thought he had died. Krakauer discovered he was still conscious when the survivors in Camp IV prepared to evacuate. Despite his worsening condition, Weathers found he could still move mostly under his own power. A rescue team mobilized, hopeful of getting Weathers down the mountain alive. Over the next two days, Weathers was ushered down to Camp II with the assistance of eight healthy climbers from various expeditions, and was evacuated by a daring, high-altitude helicopter rescue. He survived and eventually recovered, but lost his nose, right hand, half his right forearm, and all the fingers on his left hand to frostbite.
The climbing sherpas located Fischer and Gau on 11 May, but Fischer's condition had deteriorated so much that they were only able to give palliative care before rescuing Gau. Boukreev made a subsequent rescue attempt but found Fischer's frozen body at around 19:00. Like Weathers, Gau was evacuated by helicopter.
The disaster was caused by a combination of events including:
Jon Krakauer has suggested that the use of bottled oxygen and commercial guides, who personally accompanied and took care of all pathmaking, equipment, and important decisions, allowed otherwise unqualified climbers to attempt to summit—leading to dangerous situations and more deaths. In addition, he wrote that the competition between Hall and Fischer's guiding companies may have led to Hall's decision not to turn back on 10 May after the pre-decided time for summiting of 14:00; Krakauer also acknowledges that his own presence as a journalist for an important magazine for mountaineers may have added pressure to guide clients to the summit despite growing dangers. He proposed banning bottled oxygen except for emergency cases, arguing that this would both decrease the growing litter on Everest—many discarded bottles have accumulated on its slopes—and keep marginally qualified climbers off the mountain. He does point out, however, that climbing Everest has always been a highly dangerous endeavour even before the guided tours, with one fatality for every four climbers who reach the summit. Furthermore, he notes that many of the poor decisions made on 10 May were after two or more days of inadequate oxygen, nourishment, and rest (due to the effects of entering the death zone above 8,000 m or 26,000 ft). He concludes that decisions made in such circumstances should not be strongly criticized by the general population, who have not experienced such conditions.
Krakauer also elaborated on the statistical curiosities of fatality rates on Everest and how 1996 was "business as usual". The record number of 12 fatalities in the spring climbing season that year was 3% of the 398 climbers who had ascended above Base Camp—slightly below the historical average of 3.3% at that time. Additionally, 12 climbers had died that season, and 84 had reached the summit. This is a ratio of 1 in 7—significantly less than the historical average before 1996 of 1 in 4. Since the fatality rates on Everest have dropped considerably, accounting for the volume of climbers in 1996 compared with previous years, 1996 was statistically a safer-than-average year.
In May 2004, Kent Moore, a physicist, and John L. Semple, a surgeon, both researchers from the University of Toronto, told New Scientist magazine that an analysis of weather conditions on 11 May suggested that atmospheric oxygen levels fell by an additional 6%, resulting in a further 14% reduction in oxygen uptake.
The use and non-use of supplementary oxygen was the focus of much discussion and analysis after the disaster with a guide and a sardar both being criticized by Jon Krakauer for not using supplementary oxygen while performing guide duties. Both men gave detailed written explanations as to why they preferred not to use oxygen but both carried a bottle on the summit day that could be used if it was needed in an emergency or extraordinary situation.
There were several issues and problems surrounding radios and their use on summit day. Scott Fischer's sardar did not have a company issued radio, but did have a 'small yellow' radio that was owned by Sandy Pittman. Rob Hall's team also had an issue with a radio during a discussion over oxygen bottles that caused confusion.
|Name||Nationality||Expedition||Location of death||Cause of death|
|Andrew "Harold" Harris (Guide)||New Zealand||Adventure Consultants||near South Summit, 8,749 m||Unknown; hypothesized as falling during descent near summit|
|Doug Hansen (Client)||United States|
|Rob Hall (Guide/Expedition leader)||New Zealand||Exposure|
|Yasuko Namba (Client)||Japan||South Col, ~7,900 m|
|Scott Fischer (Guide/Expedition leader)||United States||Mountain Madness||Southeast Ridge, 8,300 m|
|Subedar Tsewang Samanla||India||Indo-Tibetan Border Police||Northeast Ridge, 8,600 m|
|Lance Naik Dorje Morup||India|
|Head Constable Tsewang Paljor||India|
The following is a list of the other fatalities during the spring 1996 climbing season on Everest. These deaths were not directly related to the storm or the events of the 10–11 May 1996 Everest disaster.
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Statement by Ang Dorje
Moore explains that these jet streaks can drag a huge draught of air up the side of the mountain, lowering the air pressure. He calculates that this typically reduces the partial pressure of oxygen in the air by about 6%, which translates to a 14% reduction in oxygen uptake for the climbers. Air at that altitude already contains only one third as much oxygen as sea-level air.