On May 10–11, 1996 nine climbers die on Mount Everest, including New Zealand climbing veteran Rob Hall. Just one day on Mount Everest saw the death of nine climbers, including New Zealand climbing veteran Rob Hall. Was it a fierce storm, extreme ambition or something else that caused their demise?
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster refers to the events of 10–11 May 1996, when eight people died on Mount Everest during summit attempts. In the entire season, fifteen people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest single year in Mount Everest’s history. The disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.
Journalist Jon Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine, was in a party led by guide Rob Hall that lost four climbers, and afterwards published the bestseller Into Thin Air which related his experience. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide whose party lost no clients, felt impugned by Krakauer’s book and co-authored a rebuttal book called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Beck Weathers, of Hall’s expedition and Lene Gammelgaard, of Boukreev’s expedition, wrote about their experiences of the disaster in their respective books, Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest and Climbing High. The storm’s impact on climbers on the mountain’s other side, the North Ridge, where several climbers also died, was detailed in a first-hand account by British filmmaker and writer Matt Dickinson in his book The Death Zone (later republished as The Other Side of Everest).
Shortly after midnight on May 10, 1996, the Adventure Consultants expedition began a summit attempt from Camp IV, atop the South Col (7,900 m/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/27,395 ft), and this cost the team 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/28,740 ft), the climbers again discovered that no fixed line had been placed, and they were forced to wait for 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 of each other, there were bottlenecks at the single fixed line at the Hillary Step.
Climbing without supplemental oxygen, guide Boukreev from the Mountain Madness team reached the summit (8,848 m/29,029 ft) first at 1:07 pm. Many of the climbers had not yet reached the summit by 2:00 pm, the last safe time to turn around to reach Camp IV before nightfall.
Boukreev began his descent to Camp IV at 2:30 pm, having spent nearly 1.5 hours at or near the summit helping others complete their climb. By that time, his Mountain Madness clients Martin Adams and Klev Schoening had reached the summit, but Beidleman and the remaining four Mountain Madness clients had not yet arrived. After this time, Jon Krakauer noted that the weather did not look so benign, and at 3:00 pm snow started to fall and the light was diminishing. Gau summitted about 3:00 pm and noticed incoming bad weather at 3:10.
Hall’s Sirdar, Ang Dorje Sherpa, and other climbing Sherpas waited at the summit for the clients. Near 3:00 pm, 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. When Hall arrived at the scene, he sent the Sherpas down to assist the other clients, and stated that he would remain to help Hansen, who had run out of supplementary oxygen.
Scott Fischer did not summit until 3:45 pm. He was exhausted from the ascent and becoming increasingly ill, possibly suffering from HAPE or HACE, or a combination of both. Rob Hall and Doug Hansen reached the summit even later.
Boukreev recorded that he reached Camp IV by 5:00 pm. 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. Boukreev’s decision not to use bottled oxygen was sharply criticized by Jon Krakauer. Boukreev’s supporters (who include G. Weston DeWalt, who co-wrote The Climb) 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. They state that Boukreev said that he was going down with client Martin Adams, but Boukreev later descended faster and left Adams behind.
The worsening weather began causing difficulties for the descending team members. By now, the blizzard on the Southwest Face of Everest was diminishing 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/27,395 ft) in the storm. Sherpas left Makalu Gau (at 8,230 m/27,000 ft by Gau’s account) with Fischer and Lopsang when he 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 5:30 pm Adventure Consultants guide Andy Harris, carrying supplementary oxygen and water, began climbing alone from the South Summit (8,749 m/28,700 ft) to 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 winds stung my face.” Boukreev gives 6:00 pm as “the onset of a blizzard”.
Several climbers became lost on the South Col. Mountain Madness members Beidleman, Klev Schoening, Fox, Madsen, Pittman, and Gammelgaard, along with Adventure Consultants’ Mike Groom, Beck Weathers, and Yasuko Namba, wandered in the blizzard until midnight. When they could no longer walk, they huddled some 20 m from a dropoff of the Kangshung Face.
Near midnight, the blizzard cleared enough for the team to see Camp IV, some 200 m away. Beidleman, Groom, Schoening, and Gammelgaard set off to find help. Madsen and Fox remained 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 over Namba, who seemed close to death. Boukreev did not see Beck Weathers. Having made two forays to rescue these three climbers, Boukreev, in common with all other climbers then at Camp IV, was exhausted. Neither Boukreev nor any of the other climbers at Camp IV felt able to make another attempt to reach Namba and Weathers.
On May 11, at 4:43 am Hall radioed down and said that he was on the South Summit (8,749 m/28,700 ft). He reported that Harris had reached the two men, but that Hansen, who had been with him since the previous afternoon, was now ‘gone’. In addition, he said that Harris was missing as well. Hall was not breathing bottled oxygen because his regulator was too choked with ice.
By 9:00 am, 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 to Base Camp, asking them to call his wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During this last communication, he reassured her that he was reasonably comfortable and told her, “Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.” Shortly thereafter, he died, and his body was found on May 23 by mountaineers from the IMAX expedition. The bodies of Doug Hansen and Andy Harris have never been found to date.
Meanwhile, Stuart Hutchison, a client on Hall’s team who turned around before the summit on May 10, launched a second search for Weathers and Namba. He found both alive but barely responsive and severely frostbitten, and in no condition to move. Making a difficult 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.
However, Weathers later in the day regained consciousness and walked alone by his own power to the camp, surprising everyone there, though he was still suffering severe hypothermia and frostbite. Despite oxygen and attempts to rewarm him, Weathers was almost abandoned again the next morning, May 12, after a storm had collapsed his tent overnight and the survivors once again thought he had died; Krakauer discovered he was still conscious as the survivors in Camp IV prepared to evacuate. Despite his worsening condition, Weathers found he could still move mostly under his own power and a rescue team was mobilizing, 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 would be evacuated by a daunting helicopter rescue. He would eventually recover but lose his nose, right hand, and all the fingers on his left hand due to frostbite.
The climbing Sherpas located Fischer and Gau on May 11, 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 7 pm. Like Weathers, Gau was also evacuated by helicopter.