On 10 May 1996, four groups of climbers set out to summit Mount Everest. One group was led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants, the other by Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Also present was an expedition organized by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and one Taiwanese expedition.
The day would turn out to be the single most disastrous event in the mountain’s history. Eight climbers were killed and others were injured after an unexpected blizzard ravaged the climbers, trapping them high on the mountain.
This analysis recounts the official accounts of occurrences between 10 May 1996 – 12 May 1996. We’ll discuss the events from two sides of the same tragedy, which were eventually written into two books: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev. These accounts have remained controversial and conflicting in their beliefs of what and who was to blame for the tragedy. (Read more in “1996 Everest Disaster – The Whole Story“)
Also, see “cited films and articles of interest” in the bibliography at the end of this piece, including “Descent Step by Step,” which notes the occurrences of that day by-the-hour.
Abbreviations & People:
- AC – Adventure Consultants
- MM – Mountain Madness
- Jon Krakauer – Journalist on assignment for Outside Magazine reporting on the commercialization of Everest (AC team)
Analysis of “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer
Into Thin Air has received a plethora of praise and criticism alike. Supporters state that the author poured his soul out onto the pages of the book in an attempt to portray a hopeless and inconceivable ordeal to readers. But the other believes he aimed to capitalize on the tragedy.
Soon after its publishing, controversy ensued, prompting Anatoli Boukreev (Head Guide for Scott Fischer’s expedition company, Mountain Madness) to fire back at Krakauer’s version of the events. Claims later surfaced of a possible negative bias Krakauer had against the Boukreev.
After reading Into Thin Air, I can neither say that Krakauer disliked Boukreev or tried to capitalize on the events. The book is written in a humble, expressive tone. It seems to simply be aiming at explaining the events as they occurred in the eyes of the author, who was present. It’s an attempt to bring some type of sense to this inconceivable tragedy.
Why Krakauer Wrote Into Thin Air
Krakauer also notes in the book that, either way, he was on assignment for Outside Magazine and was required to write an article about the expedition and the commercialization of Everest.
He felt that the article alone did not give enough detail, thus his decision to write the book was an attempt to elaborate on claims he made in the article. Krakauer also wanted to correct inconsistencies he initially wrote in the article, which he openly admitted to having written in error because he was still referencing from hypoxic memories – in my opinion, a noble thing to do.
Jon Krakauer’s Relationship with Anatoli Boukreev
On occasion, Krakauer makes references to Boukreev, stating once that he did not know much about the guide. But Rob, his expedition leader, came across as a very likable person, something most people who met him said. This is a clean statement, but some readers perceived this as a silent jab.
In other sections of the book, Krakauer made detailed statements as to how Boukreev ascended to the summit without supplemental oxygen. This forced him to descent before his clients to avoid high altitude sickness. As a result, they all had to descend with only the help of their guide, Neil Beidleman. Their leader, Scott Fischer, was late ascending and lagging behind.
Again, this was perceived as a jab, however, this is simply how it occurred. The author is explaining actions that possibly contributed to the endangerment of people on the mountain that day. Why Boukreev did what he did isn’t Krakauer’s job to defend.
Contributing Factors to the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster
According to Krakauer’s version of the events, Mount Everest was crowded that spring with expeditions from Taiwan, America, New Zealand, South Africa, and more. This is the first contributing factor to the tragedy. Second, the commercialization of Everest was noted to be a contributing factor. Competition to reach the summit increased with the pursuit of publicity.
Both AC and MM had two public figures present that season, Krakauer on assignment for Outside Magazine and Sandy Hill Pittman, a socialite and journalist on Scott Fischer’s team.
The Fixed Rope Plan Falls Apart
A third contributing factor came with leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer deciding to work together to reach the summit on the same bid day. In doing so, both decided that one sherpa from each team would be designated to set fixed ropes leading to the summit. Eventually, they chose Lopsang Jangbu of MM and Ang Dorje of AC.
However, on Summit Day, Lopsang Jangbu didn’t begin ascending before the team to assist Dorje with the ropes.
Lopsang Jangbu Short-ropes Sandy Hill Pitman
Instead of helping Dorje, he short-roped Sandy Pittman for the ascent, causing him to climb at a slow rate. Consequently, Ang Dorje refused to work alone.
This was the major factor that Krakauer hints as being the catalyst to the proceeding catastrophe.
Later, Krakauer would interview Jangbu to ask him why he veered from the designated plan. Jangbu stated that, at first, he thought he had short-roped another climber who was lagging. When he realized it was Sandy an hour later, he unclipped her. He would later change his story to say that Pittman reaching the summit was important to Fischer, as it would come with publicity and increased clientele.
Because she was not a significantly experienced climber, Jangbu thought short-roping her would increase her chances of reaching the top if he escorted her at a steady rate past the others. It should be noted that Jangbu did this even though Fischer never asked him to.
Both Jangbu and Pittman stated that the short-roping did not last for more than an hour. But, we know now that various other climbers attested to it lasting up to five hours.
The Bottleneck, Storm and Delays
Ultimately, as a result of the fixed ropes not being attended to, a bottleneck of climbers accumulated toward the summit. It slowed everyone down. A turn-around time of 2:00 PM had been established, and some climbers were delayed because of the bottleneck. This included Krakauer who had been ahead of the team from the start.
Eventually, Boukreev and Beidleman assumed responsibility of the ropes, and it took quite a while to set them.
Climbing Past the Turnaround Time
By this time, a storm had been brewing below them. The positive course of action would have been for Rob Hall and Scott Fischer’s guides (who were now leading their team without Fischer) to turn their clients around. But even though the guides knew they wouldn’t reach the summit before 2:00 PM, they chose to keep going. This was the fourth contributing factor according to Krakauer.
Those ahead of the line summited, including Krakauer. They turned around and began their descent, passing Rob Hall and the rest of the teams who were still on their way up. These descending climbers headed right into the storm.
So far, Krakauer simply states the events as they happened. And while highlighting these may seem like he is placing blame, in the end, it is what happened.
On Boukreev’s Solo Ascent
Krakauer’s reference to Boukreev’s early descent happens near this section of the book. He discusses how after reaching the summit, Boukreev quickly descended before the MM team made it to the top. As mentioned earlier, this left them to descend slowly with little help.
Ideally, if Boukreev had descended with the team and been carrying supplemental oxygen, he may have been able to assist them in descending mush faster. They could have possibly made it to camp before the storm erupted into a fierce rage.
Later, Boukreev would state that he descended because he wanted to be fresh and reach camp so he could assist in a rescue in case something happened to the descending climbers.
Though this information made Boukreev seem like an incompetent leader, Krakauer does praise him for his rescue efforts later on, so I still don’t see how Krakauer can be portrayed as “not liking” Boukreev.
The Expeditions Are Consumed by the Storm
Close to 4:00 PM, client Doug Hansen finally reached the summit with the assistance of Rob Hall, who remained behind to see his bid through. Shortly after, Hansen collapsed and Hall refused to leave him, setting the stage for a tragedy. Both were trapped on the South Summit by the storm.
Below, members of the AC and MM team were also trapped by the storm 600 ft. from the nearest camp. As the storm raged on, Boukreev would attempt to rescue the lower-lying members. He saved Sandy Pittman, Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen – all members of his MM team. AC climbers, Yasuka Namba and Beck Weathers were determined to be “un-savable” and were left behind.
Over the course of the night, Doug Hansen would die. Rob Hall would tragically die on the South Summit the next day. His guide, Andy Harris, was stricken with hypoxia and would also perish.
Due credit was given to Boukreev, noting him a hero for braving the storm to save the clients. Credit was also given to Scott Fisher’s guide, Neal Beidleman, for getting this group of clients as far as he could down the mountain.
Nowhere in the explanation of these events does it seem that Krakauer “hates” Boukreev or was attempting to capitalize on the situation. Instead, he openly details how Neal Beidleman singlehandedly dragged three members of his team and two members of the AC team down the mountain until he couldn’t go any further. He also detailed how Boukreev bravely came through and saved three of those five.
Jon Krakauer’s Invaluable Role as the Story Teller
Toward the beginning of the book, Jon Krakauer hints at the concept of readers not always being best served when a journalist directly involved in a situation is the reporting party. I personally believe that in this case, it takes a journalist to be immersed in this tragedy to bring light and reason to the situation for others to see.
Had Jon not been there, the story may not have been told with as much detail or non-bias facts as it eventually was. The commercialization of Everest has become a notable controversy. And, as history has shown, mountaineers are often reluctant to include facts that may impart blame or further compromise access to the mountain. Enough scrutiny can result in stricter requirements for climbing Mount Everest.
With stricter requirements also come more expenses for climbing it. Thus, we often see climbers sharing incomplete stories with unintentional and yet deliberate omissions.
This is no more evident than in the controversies surrounding the David Sharp incident and the 2008 K2 Disaster, the latter still being referred to as a “mystery” because of its conflicting stories and careful telling.
2015 Everest Film Controversy
Finally, I am in the camp that believes the 2015 film Everest did not do justice to the tragedy’s events. Many factors were deliberately omitted, most likely in an effort to eggshell the memories of those in charge that day. In doing so, viewers miss out on a lot of contexts.
For example, the movie makes ambiguous body language hints that Andy Harris may have been confused, but never officially said that he was (he was).
The movie depicts Scott Fischer as being extremely tired but did not give any reference as to why he may have been tired. In reality, that was due to his liver disease and his various unscheduled trips to and from Base Camp aiding sick sherpas and clients. These were things he asked Boukereev for help with but eventually had to handle himself.
The movie also leaves out the huge role Neal Beidleman played in aiding people that day. It also portrays Beck Weathers as an extreme asshole, for lack of a better word, when in fact, with the exception of a few incidents, he was a pretty good guy.
Reading Krakauer’s book before watching this movie would explain much more. There is another made-for-TV film, Into Thin Air, which I feel covers the events much better. Granted, it is based on this very book. But even so, it goes into detail and paints a much more vivid picture. Into Thin Air can be watched on youtube or purchased on Amazon.
My Final Thoughts on “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer
My point is that many people urged Krakauer not write this book so close (in timeframe) to the tragedy. His decision to do so led to the most accurate and detailed account of the disaster by far. I fear that if he had waited, guilt, remorse or “other” may have led him to also trek with the same eggshell nature everyone else ultimately did.
My analysis of this book shuts down the claims that Krakauer intentionally meant to capitalize on the situation. It also shuts down the idea that he disliked Boukreev at the time of publication, and that he deliberately set out to issue “blame” to those in charge.
This book is simply a vivid, fresh-in-memory telling of a tragic set of events that led to a disaster that cost eight lives. Perhaps, his decision to write the book so soon led to such claims. But, perhaps if he hadn’t, this would not be the story we now know.
Analysis of “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev
Check out the analysis of The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev where he hits back at Krakauer’s claims and version of the story. Boukreev’s book was the National Best Seller when it published.
Films & Television Programs of Interest
- Everest. Dir. Baltasar Kormákur. Perf. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin. Universal Pictures, 2015. Film.
- Frontline: Storm Over Everest (YouTube). Dir. David Breashears. Perf. Neal Beidleman, David Breashears, Guy Cotter. PBS, 2008. DVD.
- Everest: IMAX. Dir. David Breashears, Greg MacGillivray, and Stephen Judson. Perf. Liam Neeson, Ed Viesturs, David Breashears. Miramax, 1998. DVD.
- Everest: The Death Zone (YouTube). Dir. David Breashears and Liesl Clark. Perf. Jodie Foster, David Breashears, David Carter. Nova, 1998. DVD.
- Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (YouTube). Dir. Robert Markowitz. Perf. Christopher MacDonald, Peter Horton, Richard Jenkins. Columbia TriStar Television, 1997. DVD.
- Johnson, Gareth, dir. “Into the Death Zone (YouTube).” Seconds From Disaster. 26 Nov. 2012. Television.
All movies and episodes have been linked to YouTube where available. We encourage you to purchase or rent the DVDs if possible.
Articles of Interest
- Krakauer, Jon “Into Thin Air.” Outside Magazine, Sept. 1996
- Alderman, John & Arnold, Katie “The Descent, Step By Step.” Outside Magazine, Sept. 1996
- “The Day the Sky fell on Everest.” New Scientist, May 2004
- “Nepal – Everest Survivor Speaks.” AP Archive, May 1996
- Haddock, Sharon M. “Dead Climber, Utahn Shared Name and Goal.” Deseret News, May 1996
- Nuwer, Rachel “The Tragic Tale of Everest’s Most Famous Dead Body.” BBC, Oct. 2015
Notice of Deaths During & After 1996 Expedition
- Venebles, Stephen “Obituary: Anatoli Boukreev.” Independent, Jan. 1998
- “Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa Killed on Mount Everest.” Mountainzone.com, Sept. 1996
- Venebles, Stephen “Obituary: Rob Hall.” Independent, May 1996
- “Guide Scott Fischer Dies on Mount Everest.” Mountainzone.com, May 1996
- (Yasuka Namba) “Nepal – Tragedy on Mount Everest.” AP Archive, May 1996
- (Andy Harris & Team) Davila, Florangela & Biorhus, Jennifer “Two Area Climbers Killed on Everest – Six Others Also Die in Unexpected Storm.” The Seattle Times, May 1996
- (Doug Hansen) Haddock, Sharon M. “Dead Climber, Utahn Shared Name and Goal.”Deseret News, May 1996
- (Charlotte Fox) Wexcomb, Catherine “Charlotte Fox Survivor of 1996 Everest Disaster Dies” Base Camp Magazine, June 2018