Thursday, April 24, 2014

Left me breathless.

While I was dealing with Dan Simmons back in March, I started some research into Everest, mainly in an attempt to get a better idea of what he was going on about. Bits of that lead into the 1996 disaster on the mountain, which in turn lead to Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.

For those who don't remember, on May 10th and 11th, 1996, three expeditions attempted to summit Mount Everest from the Nepal side. (There was also a team ascending from Tibet, but they evidently didn't summit. Their fate, however, was just as bad.)

Jon Krakauer was on one of the 3 Nepalese-side expeditions that summited during this period, having joined Rob Hall of New Zealand's Adventure Consultants for the long journey to the roof of the world. (Jon was/is writing for Outside magazine, who ponied up the cash for Jon to go. They did this partially by giving Rob Hall advertising in the magazine for a reduced fee. Which, given the amount spent on equipment, permits, travel, Sherpas etc. adds up to be more cash than I'll ever see at one time.)

Krakauer suggests at the outset of the narrative that half of what he wanted to discuss was the severe danger of overcrowding on the mountain, as more and more people trying to make summit attempt in a very small window presented by the weather as the typhoon moves in and the jet stream moves out. Also, given that anyone with the money can buy a chance at the summit, regardless of experience or fitness.

Not that it still happens at all in the new millennium, as this photo by SubinThakuri
(published by National Geographic) shows. (Yep. That's the line to the summit in 2012
on the Hilary Steps on the way from the south summit to the summit.)

Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants is one of three expeditions at the base camp planning on a summit attempt on May 10th. Another, Mountain Madness, is being lead by Hall's friend and competitor Scott Fischer. The third, which, like the South African expedition, weren't really interested in participating in negotiations on which teams would be trying for summit when, was the Taiwanese group. (The South African group get almost a full chapter devoted to their drama. Which has to do with names not being listed on the permit, passports of countries other than South Africa, and the leader being something of a fascist dictator. And not in the way a mountain guide should be.)

I should mention here that the book starts with Krakauer waiting at the top of the steps after summiting trying to descend back down to Camp IV, only to be delayed by the number of folks climbing up the steps. (See above, although the picture above is a few more people than what Krakauer is faced with.)

Most of the first half of the book is devoted to travel to Everest from Kathmandu and the acclimatization process employed by Hall to keep his clients from passing out and dying even with oxygen at the higher camps. (Which mainly seems to involve climbing up to various camps, staying for some period of time, then returning to base camp.)  A few of the expeditions attempt the summit in the days preceding the May 10th attempt Hall and Fischer's groups are shooting for. Due to weather, none of those groups make it. However, as May 10th rolls around, the weather looks good and both Hall and Fischer's groups roll out at some ungodly hour of the morning to begin a summit attempt. (As a fun sidebar to this, David Breashears had a group recording an IMAX movie of their attempt, and they got involved in the issues happening higher up. As such, if you watch Everest: IMAX, you get to see live shot footage of some of the events in this book.)

Krakauer and a few others from Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness manage to summit fairly early, well before the 2PM turn around set by Hall. (The idea being, for safety concerns, no matter how close to the summit you are, at 2PM you turn around and head back to Camp IV.) This is in spite of a few missteps along the way, such as two portions of the summit route not being roped before climbers arrive. (This is largely placed at the feet of Sherpas from the different groups being mad at each other and refusing to work together.) 

Which brings us back around to the book's opening. Except now we hear from one of the climbers, a former airline pilot, that the clouds rolling in on the path look to be thunderheads. And thanks to a confused guide at the south summit (given the conditions, probably suffering with hypoxia), no one thinks there's any more oxygen waiting at the south summit for the climb down to the South Col.  There are also people still ascending even as the thundersnow rolls in, creating a nightmare blizzard of zero visibility. (I'm skipping bunches of stuff in here in the name of keeping it short.)

So, basically, even as Krakauer passes out from exhaustion and lack of oxygen, people are getting quite stranded trying to get up and down the path from Camp IV and the Summit.  (Among other issues, somehow, one client, Doug Hansen, had failed to summit the past year. That the guides got him to the summit at 4PM, much later than the turn around time didn't help. Doug and two of his guides died about 500 feet from each other around the South  Summit. It's assumed that Doug and Andrew "Harold" Harris managed to pall off the ridge. Hall died a few days later of exposure. Fischer died in the same general vicinity.) 

Now, the remains of the two non-Taiwanese groups that were still alive and not stuck above the South Summit did manage to get down to the South Col and get stuck in zero visibility away from Camp IV. Of these, only one died of exposure. Beck, who was part of the Adventure Consultants group, was left for dead, woke up the next morning and walked into camp. He almost died again, but was managed to get down to Camp II at the top of the Western Cwm, where they managed to land a helicopter to get him evacuated. 

Again, we're skipping a lot of narrative here. 

Most of the disaster portion of the book is centered around survivor guilt, for lack of a better term. what Krakauer could have done to save people if he;d been in better condition. (For instance, in his hypoxia, Krakauer managed to mistake a 130 pound American for a 200 pound New Zealander guide. Thinking the guide had returned safely to camp, he reported it as such. Then he found crampon tracks leading off the Lhotse face that he thought might have belonged to the guide. Found out those belonged to one of the Sherpas who'd overshot the Col. Come to find out the guide had gone to find Hall and Hansen to deliver more oxygen.)

Anyway, Adventure Consultants managed to lose 4 of the 6 members who summited. Mountain Madness managed to lose one guide, who happened to be the owner. On the other side of the mountain, 3 Indo-Tibetan climbers managed to die. Including one who now has the ignominious role of landmark and the nickname Green Boots.

Green Boots, as photographed by 
Dominic Goff, published in Smithsonian

There were other fatalities that season, but the 8 killed in one day was something of a record. Although, as Krakauer points out, the grand total of 12 fatalities for the 1996 Spring climbing season is lower than normal. 
I knew from previous research that there was a bit of controversy with Into Thin Air, mainly with his portrayals of Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev, and to a lesser extent, socialite climber Sandy Hill Pittman. In fact, Boukreev and a partner (Gary DeWitt) wrote a rebuttal titled The Climb. The rebuttal to this rebuttal makes up an postscript in Krakauer's book. 
For my part, I'm not a climber. The closest to high altitude I've made it involves a trip to Colorado at a much younger age. I will say that I understand why Krakauer thinks Boukreev was in the wrong for not using oxygen and descending well ahead of any of the folks he was supposed to be guiding up to the summit. But, oddly enough, had Boukreev done that, he likely would have died with the others above the South Summit instead of being able to run search and rescue in the storm. By all accounts, Boukreev and Krakauer had reached detente prior to Boukreev's death in an avalanche on Annapurna I in 1997.

Really, I enjoyed this book. It makes an interesting companion to Everest: IMAX, since thinks glossed over in one are discussed more thoroughly in the other. And particularly in light of the current Sherpa strike in Nepal, it's quite interesting to see how long the problems have been here, and how few answers are available that would actually be feasible.