On May 10, 1996, four groups of climbers set out to summit Mount Everest – one group led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants, another led by Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness, an expedition organized by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and a Taiwanese expedition. The day would turn out to be the single most disastrous event in the mountain’s history, killing 8 and injuring others after an unexpected blizzard ravaged the climbers, trapping them high on the mountain. The year 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Everest Disaster.
The tragedy was a result of what some call Summit Fever and the over-commercialization of the mountain which led to delays; at the heart of the disaster, was a decision made by one of the team’s Sherpa guides, his leader’s ambitions and their head guide’s neglectful work ethic that resulted in a life-changing delay that killed 5 of the 8 mountaineers. This is what happened on that fateful Summit Bid Day, May 10, 1996.
1996 Everest Disaster Names You Need to Know
While every name involved with that event is important, there are a few names that require noting in order to understand the events of that day, those are:
- Rob Hall (Adventure Consultants Leader/Owner)
- Scott Fischer (Mountain Madness Leader/Owner)
- Lopsang Jangbu (Sherpa guide for Mountain Madness
- The legendary Ang Dorje (Sherpa guide for Adventure Consultants)
- Sandy Hill-Pittman (socialite and press journalist for Mountain Madness)
- Jon Krakauer (journalist for Adventure Consultants on assignment for Outside Magazine)
- Anatoli Boukreev (head guide for Mountain Madness)
The Events that Caused the 1996 Everest Disaster
The Crowding and Overcommercialization of Everest
According to Jon 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 as competition to reach the summit increased with the pursuit of publicity. Both Adventure Consultants (AC) and Mountain Madness (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 Ropes Are Not Set
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; chosen were Lopsang Jangbu of MM and Ang Dorje of AC. However, on Summit Day, Lopsang Jangbu did not begin ascending before the team to assist Dorje with the ropes, instead, 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; he stated that, at first, he thought he had short-roped another climber who was lagging, and when he realized it was Sandy an hour later, he unclipped her. Later, he would 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, he thought short-roping her would increase her chances of reaching the top if he escorted her at a steady rate past the others – even though Fischer did not ask him to do so. Both Jangbu and Pittman stated that the short-roping did not last for more than an hour, however, various other climbers attested to it lasting up to five hours.
Ultimately, as a result of the fixed ropes not being attended to, a bottleneck of climbers accumulated towards the summit, slowing everyone down. A turn-around time of 2:00 pm had been established, and some climbers were delayed because of the bottleneck, including Krakauer who had been ahead of the team from the start. Eventually, Anatoli Boukreev and Neal Beidleman assumed responsibility of the ropes, and it took quite a while to set them.
Climbers Continue Past the Turnaround Time
By this time, a storm had been brewing below them. Instead of turning clients around, because the guides knew they would not reach the summit before 2:00 pm, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer’s guides (who were now leading their team without Fischer) chose to keep going, the fourth contributing factor. Those ahead of the line summited (Krakauer was one of them), 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.
Anatoli Boukreev Ascends Alone, Leaving Team Behind
Here, we meet the fifth contributing factor. Boukreev decided to make an early ascent. Since working for Scott Fischer, Boukreev had a habit of climbing ahead of clients and reaching the summit on his own, his reasoning for this was that he felt guides were not there to babysit climbers, and he felt that those who chose to go to the mountain should be able to take care of themselves. In fact, Fischer and Boukreev got into a few arguments over the matter. On May 10, 1996, the situation was no different, Boukreev ascended the mountain alone and descended alone, not guiding any of the climbers up or down, even though he was the “head guide.”
On this day, after reaching the summit, he quickly descended before the MM team made it to the top, leaving 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, possibly making 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 if needed in case something happened to the descending climbers. Though this information made Boukreev seem like an incompetent leader, we do have to give him praise for this, as in the end, he was one of the only climbers in Camp 4 that had enough energy to save anyone stuck in the storm.
The Storm Traps Climbers During 1996 Everest Disaster
Close to 4:00 p.m., 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, and below, members of the AC and MM team were also trapped by the storm 600 ft. from the nearest camp. These climbers had managed to get this far because of the almost superhuman dedication shown by MM guide Neal Beidleman who literally helped drag 5 climbers down the South Ridge as far as he could. Beidleman guided Sandy Pittman, Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen from the MM team and Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers from the AC team down as far as he could, literally dragging everyone if they stopped, all while battling a raging storm. He then stopped and left the climbers in a relatively safe location and headed for Camp 4 in search of help.
As the storm raged on, Boukreev would attempt to rescue the lower lying climbers, saving Sandy Pittman, Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen – all members of his MM team; AC climbers, Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers were determined to be “un-savable” and were left behind.
8 Climbers Die During the 1996 Everest Disaster
Over the course of the night, Doug Hansen would die, Rob Hall would tragically die on the South Summit the next day, and his guide, Andy Harris, stricken with hypoxia, would also perish. Rob Hall was the last of all the climbers to die, surviving two nights on the South Summit and part of a third day. He was patched to his wife, who was heavily pregnant, via satellite phone and said his goodbyes. His last words to her were heartbreaking:
“Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.”
The bodies of Andy Harris and Doug Hansen were never found. The body of Scott Fischer was tied to the mountain by his Sherpa, Lopsang Jangbu, and later recovered. The body of Rob Hall remained on the South Summit for a short time until it fell 12,000 to the base of the mountain. In 1997, Anatoli Boukreev found Yasuko Namba’s body and erected a cairn to protect her from scavenging birds. Later that same year, her husband would fund an expedition to bring her body down from the mountain. Beck Weathers miraculously survived and would later go on to write “Left for Dead,” the tale of how he was abandoned on the mountain three times and left for dead, ultimately having to save himself. His wife, Peach, went down in history as having organized a historic rescue mission that saw the first ever helicopter land higher than Camp 1 that saved his life. He lost his nose, all five fingers on his left hand and half of his right arm to frostbite.
John Krakauer went on to detail the events in his book “Into Thin Air,” and Anatoli Boukreev did the same in his Bestseller, “The Climb.”
Other climbers also died during the storm, Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Paljor. The last, Tsewang Paljor, sought refuge in a small cave and would later be known as “Green Boots” for two decades by climbers who used his body as a trail marker. The name was in regards to a pair of lime green climbing boots Paljor was wearing when he died. Almost 10 years later to the day, on May 15, 2006, English mountaineer David Sharp would also die in the same cave after attempting to summit the mountain alone and at night. All were climbing the North Route.
Due accreditation was given to Boukreev, noting him a hero for braving the storm to save the clients; credit was also given to Neal Beidleman. Neal Beidleman singlehandedly dragged 3 members of his team and 2 members of the AC down the mountain until he couldn’t go any further and it was detailed how Boukreev bravely came through and saved 3 of those 5.
The event has stayed with mountaineers for two decades. That is a lifetime ago, but in Mountaineering history, everything is like it happened yesterday, especially when today could be your last. All things must be remembered as if they occurred yesterday.
In memory of those who perished on May 10-12, 1996 on Mount Everest.
Films & Television Programs of Interest
- Everest. Dir. Baltasar Kormákur. Perf. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin. Universal Pictures, 2015. Film.
- Frontline: Storm Over Everest. 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. Dir. David Breashears and Liesl Clark. Perf. Jodie Foster, David Breashears, David Carter. Nova, 1998. DVD. On YouTube Pt1. Pt2. Pt.3 Pt.4
- Into Thin Air: Death on Everest. Dir. Robert Markowitz. Perf. Christopher MacDonald, Peter Horton, Richard Jenkins. Columbia TriStar Television, 1997. DVD.
- Johnson, Gareth, dir. “Into the Death Zone.” 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