Everest 2017 marks the 21st anniversary of the 1996 Everest Disaster that killed eight climbers on May 10, 1996. Among them were Adventure Consultants leader Rob Hall and Mountain Madness leader Scott Fisher. This day remains with everyone in the mountaineering community as a tragic unfolding of events that began on the 10th with an epic storm and would not end until the 12th.
In its path, the storm left eight climbers dead and one clinging to life, left for dead and only being saved by a tenacious wife who would not give up on him.
We’ve covered the 1996 Everest Disaster quite a bit, and so have many in the mountaineering community. On its 20th anniversary, even Hollywood came out in full regalia to present the tragedy on the silver screen in the 2015 blockbuster film Everest, starring Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke. Watch/rent.
A previous film of the events had been made called Into Thin Air, a made-for-TV production that was largely based on the NY Times Best Seller “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer. In the book, Krakauer retells his version of the harrowing experience on the mountain at the time of the events. Krakauer was present and climbing on the Adventure Consultants team. To learn more, read our analysis of Into Thin Air.
The events of May 10, 1996, were widely reported on by the media, with NBC’s Dateline dedicating a special to it as well. In fact, immediately after, the tale was also featured in Director David Breashears’ film Everest: IMAX, a film he had been working on while on Everest during the unfolding of these tragic events. In the film, Breashears is seen crying against the site of Rob Hall’s death near the South Summit just days after he died – both were dear friends.
The tragedy hits closer to home when we realize that two of the world’s most experienced Everest mountaineers at the time were killed for testing the limits that day. It brings to light a concept that our editor, C.J. Leger, often iterates:
In mountaineering, the rock cares not for who you are or where you’ve been. Up there, we are all the same and any of us, at any given time, can be made an example of. Most mountains, Everest included, are not conquerable. They allow us the privilege to reach their peaks within a small window of time. -C.J. Leger
8 Climbers Die During The 1996 Everest Disaster
Along with the deaths of Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, six other mountaineers died. On Rob Hall’s team were:
- Yasuko Namba, a Japanese climber who was climbing Everest as her last stop on her Seven Summits campaign
- Andy Harris, a guide who succumbed to Hypoxia
- Doug Hansen, a mail carrier who also is believed to have died from exhaustion and altitude sickness
- Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Paljor from unrelated expeditions. They were from an Indo-Tibetan Border Police Expedition and a Taiwanese Expedition.
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. His body was removed from the cave a few years ago.
While Rob Hall’s team suffered 4 deaths, Hall included, Scott Fisher was the only climber on his team who died. It was an ironic twist of fate that saw two teams go up and their respective leaders (and founders of these guiding companies) die on the descent.
Events That Led to the 1996 Everest Disaster
There were a few factors involved in the 1996 Everest Disaster – 21-years later, there’s no reward in placing blame on any one individual. But remembering how the tragedy occurred keeps future generations from making the same fatal mistakes.
The 1996 Everest Disaster unfolded in a major part due to a lack of good judgment on behalf of climbers in leadership positions. The overcommercialization of Everest also contributed, as did the fact that fixed ropes were not set when they were supposed to be.
In-depth details about the tragedy can be read in our piece “The 1996 Everest Disaster – The Whole Story,” but here we’ll give the quick version.
Overcommercialization of Everest Leads to Disaster
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, as bottlenecks were created and this delayed climbers. In the Death Zone, delays can mean the difference between life and death.
Overcommercialization began with the first guided ascent of Mount Everest by Richard Bass. Shortly after, he set out to climb his own version of the Seven Summits. Since then, guided expeditions have been both a good and bad thing for mountaineers.
The Joint Fixed Rope Plan Fails
Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, decided to work together to reach the summit on the same bid day on May 10, 1996. 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 Mountain Madness and Ang Dorje of Adventure Consultants.
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 and this delayed the climb more.
Turn-Around Times Were Ignored
Late into the day, 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.
Those ahead of the line summited, 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 a storm that was brewing and would eventually trap Rob Hall above it and the rest of the climbers within it. Those who died suffered Altitude Sickness, exposure and exhaustion.
If there is anything we’ve learned from this tragic event is that turnaround times must be strictly adhered to. If you haven’t reached the summit by this designated time, turn around and try again on the next available day or the next season. It may cost you many dollars to do so, but at least it won’t cost you your life.
For many, those who perished on May 10, 1996, are still very much alive in our hearts and minds. We heed the warnings they did not, and we’ve learned many lessons since. Wherever their souls have gone after their tragic deaths, we hope sincerely that Rob Hall, Scott Fisher, Yasuko Namba, Andy Harris, Doug Hansen, Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Paljor have all found peace and comfort.
Below is information on the programs, books and films we’ve mentioned in this article for further viewing.
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. S6:E5 Television.
All movies and episodes have been linked to YouTube where available. We encourage you to purchase or rent the DVDs if possible. If you notice broken links, let us know, we’ll update the list.
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
- Wexcomb, Catherine “Charlotte Fox, Survivor of 1996 Everest Disaster Dies.” Base Camp Magazine, 30 June 2018