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Mike Groom 27,600 feet above sea leval on Mt. Everest shortly after sunrise, May 10, 1996. Photo © Jon Krakauer

When You Reach the Summit of Everest, You Are Only Halfway There

Climbing the highest mountain in the world is an exceedingly dangerous activity. Always has been, probably always will be. I learned this the hard way when I climbed Everest on assignment for Outside magazine in 1996. During the descent, a storm took the lives of four of the five teammates who reached the summit with me. All told, by the end of that awful month twelve climbers had died.

Upon my return from Nepal I wrote a book about my experience on Everest: Into Thin Air. Below is an excerpt I’ve adapted from Chapter 13, which describes our team’s ascent to the summit on May 10, 1996. It may provide some insight as to why fatalities on Everest are to be expected.

Above 26,000 feet, up in the so-called Death Zone, survival is to no small degree a race against the clock. Upon setting out from our Camp Four on the South Col of Everest a little before midnight, each client on Rob Hall’s commerical expedition carried two 6.6-pound oxygen bottles, and would pick up a third bottle on the South Summit from a cache to be stocked by Sherpas. At a conservative flow rate of two liters per minute, each bottle would last between five and six hours. By 4:00 or 5:00 P.M., everyone’s gas would be gone. Depending on each person’s acclimatization and physiological makeup, we would still be able to function above the South Col — but not well, and not for long. We would instantly become more vulnerable to high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), hypothermia, and frostbite. The risk of dying would skyrocket.

Rob Hall, a mountaineering guide from New Zealand who had ascended Everest four times previously, understood as well as anybody the need to get up and down quickly. Recognizing that the basic climbing skills of some of his clients were highly suspect, Hall intended to rely on fixed lines to safeguard and expedite our group over the most difficult ground. The fact that no expedition this year had been to the top yet concerned him, therefore, because it meant that ropes had not been installed over much of this terrain. On the morning of our summit bid, the only ropes that had been strung along the precipitous serrations of the upper Southeast Ridge were a few ancient, tattered remnants from past expeditions that emerged sporadically from the ice.

Anticipating this possibility before leaving Base Camp, Hall and Scott Fischer, the leader of another commercial expedition, convened a meeting attended by guides from both teams, during which they agreed that each expedition would dispatch two Sherpas — including their climbing sirdars, Ang Dorje and Lopsang Jangbu — from Camp Four ninety minutes ahead of the main groups. This would give the Sherpas time to install fixed lines on the most exposed sections of the upper mountain before the clients arrived. “Rob made it very clear how important it was to do this,” recalls Neal Beidleman, a guide from Fischer’s expedition who participated in the meeting. “He wanted to avoid a time-consuming bottleneck at all costs.”

For some unknown reason, however, no Sherpas had departed ahead of us when we left camp and started climbing toward the summit. Perhaps the violent gale that had struck the mountain on May 9, and hadn’t stopped blowing until 7:30 P.M., prevented the Sherpas from mobilizing as early as they’d hoped. After the expedition, Lopsang insisted that at the last minute Hall and Fischer had simply scrapped the plan to fix ropes in advance of their clients, because they’d received erroneous information that the Montenegrins had already completed the job as high as the South Summit.

But if Lopsang’s assertion is correct, neither Beidleman, nor Anatoli Boukreev (Fischer’s senior guide), nor Mike Groom (Hall’s senior guide), were ever told of the altered scheme. And if the plan to fix lines had been intentionally abandoned, there would have been no reason for Lopsang and Ang Dorje to depart with the 300 feet of rope that each Sherpa carried when they set out from Camp Four at the front of their respective teams.

In any case, no ropes had been fixed ahead of time on the upper reaches of the mountain. At 5:30 A.M., when Ang Dorje and I first arrived on a promontory known as the Balcony at 27,600 feet, we were more than an hour in front of the rest of Hall’s group. At that point we could easily have gone ahead to install the ropes. But Rob had explicitly forbidden me to go ahead, and Lopsang was still far below, short-roping a client named Sandy Pittman, so there was nobody to accompany Ang Dorje.

Quiet and moody by nature, Ang Dorje’s disposition seemed especially somber as we sat together watching the sun come up in the sub-zero cold. My attempts to engage him in conversation went nowhere. His ill humor, I figured, was perhaps due to the abscessed tooth that had been causing him pain for the previous two weeks. Or maybe he was brooding over the disturbing vision he’d had four days earlier: On their last evening at Base Camp, Ang Dorje and some other Sherpas had celebrated the coming summit attempt by drinking a large quantity of chhang — a thick, sweet beer brewed from rice and millet. The next morning, severely hungover, he was extremely agitated; before ascending the Ice Fall he confided to a friend that he’d seen ghosts in the night. An intensely spiritual young man, Ang Dorje was not one to take such portents lightly.

Sunrise from the southeast rirdge of Everest, May 10, 1996. Photo © Jon Krakauer

It was possible, though, that he was simply angry at Lopsang, whom he regarded as a showboat and a goldbrick. In 1995, Hall had employed both Lopsang and Ang Dorje on his Everest expedition, and the two Sherpas had not worked well together.

On summit day that year, Hall’s team had reached the South Summit late, around 1:30 P.M., to find deep, unstable snow blanketing the final stretch of the summit ridge. Hall sent a Kiwi guide named Guy Cotter ahead with Lopsang, rather than Ang Dorje, to determine the feasibility of climbing higher — and Ang Dorje, who was the sirdar on that climb, took it as an insult. A little later, when Lopsang had climbed to the base of the Hillary Step, Hall decided to abort the summit attempt, and signaled Cotter and Lopsang to turn around. But Lopsang had ignored the command, untied from Cotter, and continued ascending to the summit alone. Hall was angry about Lopsang’s insubordination, and Ang Dorje had shared his employer’s displeasure.

This year, even though they were on different teams, Ang Dorje had again been asked to work with Lopsang on summit day — and again Lopsang appeared to be acting squirrely. Ang Dorje had been working extremely hard, well beyond the call of duty, for six long weeks. Now, apparently, he was tired of doing more than his share. Looking sullen, Ang Dorje sat beside me in the snow, awaiting the arrival of Lopsang, and the ropes were left unfixed.

As a consequence, ninety minutes after moving beyond the Balcony, I ran smack into the first bottleneck at 28,000 feet, where the intermingled teams encountered a series of massive rock steps that required ropes for safe passage. Clients huddled restlessly at the base of the rock for nearly an hour while Beidleman — taking over the duties of an absent Lopsang — laboriously ran the rope out.

Here, the impatience and technical inexperience of Hall’s client Yasuko Namba nearly caused a disaster. An accomplished businesswoman employed by Federal Express in Tokyo, Yasuko didn’t fit the meek, deferential stereotype of a middle-aged Japanese woman. At home, she’d told me with a laugh, her husband did all the cooking and cleaning. Her quest for Everest had turned into a minor cause célèbre in Japan. Previously on the expedition she’d been a slow, uncertain climber, but today, with the summit in her crosshairs, she was energized as never before. “From the time we arrived at the South Col,” says Australian client John Taske, who shared a tent with her at Camp Four, “Yasuko was totally focused on the top — it was almost like she was in a trance.” Ever since leaving the Col she’d been pushing extremely hard, jostling her way toward the front of the line.

Now, as Neal Beidleman clung precariously to the rock 100 feet above the clients, the overly eager Yasuko clamped her jumar to the dangling rope before the guide had anchored his end of it. As she was about to put her full body weight on the rope — which would have pulled Beidleman off — Mike Groom intervened in the nick of time and gently scolded Yasuko for being so impatient.

Sherpas carrying heavy loads to Camp Four on the South Col, 25,000 feet above seal level, safeguarded by fixed ropes on Everest’s “Yellow Band,” May 9, 1996. Photo © Jon Krakauer

The traffic jam at the ropes grew with each arriving climber, so those at the rear of the scrum fell farther and farther behind. By late morning, three of Hall’s clients — Stuart Hutchison, John Taske, and Lou Kasischke, climbing at the back near Hall — were becoming quite worried about the lagging pace. Immediately in front of them was a Taiwanese team, moving especially sluggishly. “They were climbing in a peculiar style, really close together,” says Hutchison, “almost like slices in a loaf of bread, one behind the other, which meant it was nearly impossible to pass them. We spent a lot of time waiting for them to move up the ropes.”

At Base Camp before our summit bid, as a safety measure, Hall had contemplated two possible turn-around times — either 1:00 P.M. or 2:00 P.M — after which all his clients would be required to descend, regardless how close they were to the top. He never declared which of these times we were actually to abide by, however — which was curious, considering how much he’d talked about the importance of setting a hard deadline and sticking to it no matter what. The understanding, only vaguely articulated, was that he would withhold making a final decision until summit day, after assessing the weather and other factors, and would then personally take responsibility for turning everyone around at the proper hour.

By mid-morning on May 10, Hall had still made no announcement about what our turn-around time was going to be; Hutchison, conservative by nature, was operating on the assumption that it would be 1:00 P.M. Around 11:00, Hall told Hutchison and Taske that the top was still three hours away, and then he sprinted ahead to try and get past the Taiwanese. “It seemed increasingly unlikely that we would have any chance of summitting before the one P.M. turn-around time,” says Hutchison. A brief discussion ensued. Kasischke was reluctant to concede defeat, initially, but Taske and Hutchison were persuasive. At 11:30, the three men turned their backs on the summit and headed down, and Hall sent Sherpas Kami and Lhakpa Chhiri down with them.

Electing to descend must have been supremely difficult for these three clients, as well as for Frank Fischbeck, who’d turned around hours earlier. Mountaineering is a sport that attracts men and women who are not easily deflected from their goals. For more than a month now most of us on the mountain had been presented with myriad compelling reasons to quit and go home. The misery had frequently been monumental, the danger impossible to deny. It would have been inconceivable for any of us to reach this point on the mountain without having an uncommonly obstinate personality.

Unfortunately, the sort of psyche that enables one to keep pushing upward in the face of great pain and suffering is apt to incline one to ignore signs of clear and present danger, as well. A perilously thin line demarcates laudable perseverance from reckless determination. Which is one of the main reason the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.

John Taske, Stuart Hutchison, Lou Kasischke, and Frank Fischbeck had each spent as much as $70,000 and endured great hardship to have this shot at the summit. All were driven men, unaccustomed to losing and even less to quitting. And yet, faced with a hard decision, they were among the few who made the right choice that day.

Above the rock step where John, Stuart, and Lou turned around, the fixed ropes ended. From this point the route angled steeply upward along a graceful arête of wind-compacted snow that culminated in the South Summit — where I arrived at eleven o’clock to find a second, even worse bottleneck. A little higher, seemingly no more than a stone’s throw away, was the vertical gash of the Hillary Step, and slightly beyond that the summit itself. Rendered dumb with awe and exhaustion, I took some photos, then sat down with Neal Beidleman, Anatoli Boukreev, and Andy Harris (one of Rob Hall’s guides) to wait for the Sherpas to fix ropes along the spectacularly corniced summit ridge.

I noticed that Boukreev, like Lopsang, wasn’t using supplemental oxygen. Although Boukreev had summitted Everest twice before without gas, and Lopsang thrice, I was surprised that Scott Fischer had given them permission to guide the peak without it, which didn’t seem to be in their clients’ best interest. I was also surprised to see that Boukreev didn’t have a backpack — customarily a guide would carry a pack containing rope, first aid supplies, crevasse-rescue gear, extra clothing, and other items deemed necessary to assist clients in the event of an emergency. Boukreev was the first guide I’d ever seen, on any mountain, ignore this convention.

It turned out that he had departed Camp Four carrying both a backpack and an oxygen bottle; although Boukreev didn’t intend to use gas, he wanted to have a bottle handy in the event that he needed it higher on the peak. Upon reaching the Balcony, however, he jettisoned the pack and asked Beidleman to carry his oxygen canister. Because he wasn’t using gas, Boukreev wanted to strip his load down to the bare minimum to gain every possible advantage in the appallingly thin air.

Anatoli Boukreev climbing the Hillary Step, as a fierce wind rips across the summit ridge of Everest. Photo © Jon Krakauer

A 20-knot breeze raked the ridge-crest, blowing a plume of spindrift far over the Kangshung Face, but overhead the sky was an achingly brilliant blue. Lounging in the sun at 28,700 feet inside my thick down suit, gazing across the roof of the world in a hypoxic stupor, I completely lost track of time. None of us paid much attention to the fact that Ang Dorje and Ngawang Norbu, another Sherpa on Rob Hall’s team, were sitting beside us sharing a thermos of tea, and seemed to be in no hurry to go higher. Around 11:40, Beidleman eventually asked, “Hey, Ang Dorje, are you going to fix the ropes, or what?”

Ang Dorje’s reply was a quick, unequivocal “No” — perhaps because none of Scott Fischer’s Sherpas were there to share the work.

Growing alarmed at the crowd stacking up at the South Summit as more and more climbers arrived, Beidleman roused Harris and Boukreev and strongly suggested that the three guides install the ropes themselves; hearing this, I quickly volunteered to help. Beidleman pulled a 50-meter coil of rope from his pack, I grabbed another coil from Ang Dorje, and with Boukreev and Harris we got underway at noon to fix lines up the summit ridge. But by then another hour had already trickled away.

Bottled oxygen does not make the top of Everest feel like sea level. Climbing above the South Summit with my regulator delivering just under two liters of oxygen per minute, I had to stop and draw three or four lungfuls of air after each ponderous step. Then I’d take one more step, and have to pause for another four heaving breaths — and this was the fastest pace I could manage. Because the oxygen systems we were using delivered a lean mix of compressed gas and ambient air, 29,000 feet with gas felt like approximately 26,000 feet without gas. But the bottled oxygen conferred other benefits that weren’t so easily quantified.

Climbing along the blade of the summit ridge, sucking gas into my ragged lungs, I enjoyed a strange, unwarranted sense of calm. The world beyond the rubber mask was stupendously vivid but seemed not quite real, as if a movie were being projected in slow motion across the front of my goggles. I felt drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli. I had to remind myself over and over that there was 7,000 feet of sky on either side, that everything was at stake here, that I would pay for a single bungled step with my life.

Half an hour above the South Summit I arrived at the foot of the Hillary Step. One of the most famous pitches in all of mountaineering, its thirty feet of near-vertical rock and ice looked daunting, but — as any serious climber would — I’d wanted very badly to take the “sharp end” of the rope and lead the Step. It was clear, however, that Boukreev, Beidleman, and Harris all felt the same way, and it was hypoxic delusion on my part to think that any of them was going to let a client hog such a coveted lead.

In the end, Boukreev — as the senior guide and the only one of us who had climbed Everest previously — claimed the honor; with Beidleman paying out the rope, he did a masterful job of leading the pitch. But it was a slow process, and as he painstakingly ascended toward the crest of the Step, I nervously studied my watch and wondered whether I might run out of oxygen. My first canister had expired at 7:00 A.M. on the Balcony, after lasting about seven hours. Using this as a benchmark, at the South Summit I’d calculated that my second canister would expire around 2:00 P.M., which I’d stupidly assumed would allow plenty of time to reach the summit and return to the South Summit to retrieve my third oxygen bottle. But now it was already after 1:00, and I was beginning to have serious doubts.

At the top of the Step I shared my concern with Beidleman, and asked whether he minded if I hurried ahead to the summit instead of pausing to help him string the last coil of rope along the ridge. “Go for it,” he graciously offered. “I’ll take care of the rope.”

Plodding slowly up the last few steps to the summit, I had the sensation of being underwater, of life moving at quarter-speed. And then I found myself atop a slender wedge of ice, adorned with a discarded oxygen cylinder and a battered aluminum survey pole, with nowhere higher to climb. A string of Buddhist prayer flags snapped furiously in the wind. Far below, down a side of the mountain I had never laid eyes on, the dry Tibetan plateau stretched to the horizon as a boundless expanse of dun-colored earth.

Neal Beidleman leading a client up the final slope of Everest. I took this photo looking down from the summit at 1:17 PM on May 10, 1996, shortly before everything went bad. Photo © Jon Krakauer

Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I’d coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.

This post has been adapted from Chapter 13 of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, published by Anchor Books.

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Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer

Author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Classic Krakauer, and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. www.instagram.com/krakauernotwriting/

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