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1996 Mount Everest Disaster

Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. It is located on the Himalayan region in the country of Nepal. It has the highest altitude among all the mountain peaks in the world i.e. 8848 meters above sea level. We can call it the king of the mountains. Being the highest mountain, it is the ultimate destination for mountain climbers and expeditioners. Mount Everest is also known as Sagarmatha in Nepalese dialect. Mount Everest attracts many climbers from all around the world. Climbing the world’s highest mountain is considered the greatest achievement in mountaineering.Everest-1996

British mountaineers were the first to make efforts to reach the summit of Everest. They had to go through the north side from Tibet as Nepal didn’t allow foreigners into the country for climbing. The first reconnaissance expedition by the British was made in 1921 where they reached the height of 7,000 m. The first time a human had climbed over 8000m was in 1922 but it was with a cost as seven porters were killed in an avalanche during the descent. There are two main climbing routes for Everest; one is the route approaching the summit from the southeast in Nepal, which is the standard route and the other route is from the north in China. Even though the mountain doesn’t have substantial technical challenges to climb it, factors such as altitude, wind makes objections like avalanche, storm which can cause deaths in the mountain. Many have died trying to conquer the mountain, with over 200 corpses lying in the mountain, some of them serve as a landmark for climbers today. Many have reached the summit but fallen during the descent due to harsh weather conditions, altitude sickness. Many have died on the way, not being able to go back in time due to storms.

On 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made an attempt to the summit but never returned. Whether they were the first to reach the summit or not, no one knows and it is still a topic of debate today. The body of George Mallory had been found in 1999 at 8155m on the North Face. The first official ascent of Everest was made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 when they reached the summit using the southeast ridge route. Tenzing had previously reached 8585m in the earlier 1952 swiss expedition. The summit ascent was made from the north ridge by a Chinese mountaineering team of Wang Fuzhou, Gonpo and Qu Yinhua on 25 may, 1960.

Since then, A lot of climbers all around the world had started to come to Nepal to conquer Everest and put up their name on the list of conquering the highest mountain in the world. Soon, it started to become a commercial competition between expeditioners and Everest began to be filled with climbers from all over the world but, not everyone succeeds in such a hard task. The climate, weather, lack of oxygen and the sheer mountain itself prove to be the factors that can cause the death of the climbers.  There are more than 200 bodies on Everest.  Its more like a graveyard of climbers if you choose to see it in a way. Many have died during the ascent, many have conquered and fallen during the descent. The basic fact is climbing Everest is not an easy task and one simple error or calamity can cause disaster.

The conditions can get harsh at the higher altitude part of the mountain. Hence, the region above 8000 meters is considered as the death zone. The death zone can be found in only 14 mountains around the world, including Everest. In that altitude, the human body can no longer sustain its normal workings because the oxygen level is so low and the freezing temperature and winds make the condition worse. Since, the oxygen level is one third of that found on the sea level, the human body exhausts more oxygen than it can get. Such conditions affect the human body and the brain leading to hallucinations, deterioration of body parts, loss of consciousness and eventually death. Imagine getting stuck in a storm in such conditions with limited amount of oxygen and the task of ascending to and descending from the top. No matter how experienced the climber, a person cannot spend more than approximately 48 in such conditions.

According to reports, there are approximately 150-200 bodies that remain on Everest today. Almost all of them are located on the death zone. Since the conditions are so harsh there, rescue attempts have a huge risk of failure so the bodies are just left there and are often used by climbers as landmarks. The body of TsewangPaljor , also known as green boots is one of the famous landmarks that can be seen on the Northwest ridge on the  route to the summit. The name originates from the green mountaineering boots that’s on the body.

There is a high possibility of something going wrong while climbing the highest mountain in the world because even a small mistake can lead to a big disaster in such conditions, and there have been many disasters since the climbing season began. The 1996 disaster is considered one of the most fatal disasters to have happened in the history of mountaineering.  On May 10-11, one of the worst disasters occurred on Mount Everest. It would be recorded as a tragic date in the history of mountain climbing. When several expedition teams were trying to reach the summit on the day, they were caught in a blizzard and eight people died when they were caught in the blizzard while ascending to and descending from the summit. That season, 12 people died trying to conquer the mountain, making it one of the deadliest seasons prior to the 2014 Everest Avalanche and 18 deaths from the 2016 Nepal Earthquake. There’s a flood of climbers who try to climb the season on May because the climbing season is favorable by weather in that two weeks’ window but an unexpected blizzard ruined all the plans for them. There were numerous climbers who were at a high altitude and were about to reach the summit during the storm.

There were mainly two rival expedition teams, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, who were competing to reach the summit on the same day.  Rob Hall was the expedition leader for Adventure Consultants while Scoot Fisher was the expedition leader for Mountain Madness. Along with them, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police expedition team tagged along for the climb on the same day. These three expedition teams had to endure the worst of the storm.

The survivors of the disaster have spoken about it in words, including some famous books like, Into Thin Air by Journalist Jon Krakauer who was in the party led by Rob hall and was working for Outside Magazine. The book was a best seller and portrayed the experience from his eyes. AnatolliBoukreev, who was a guide in Scott Fischer’s team didn’t agree with the Krakauer’s book and co-authered his own book called “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest “on 1997. Other books like “Left for dead: My journey Home from Everest” and “Climbing High: A woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy (2000)” were released by Beck Weahters(Hall’s team) and LeneGammelgaard(Fischer’s team) respectively. These books have shed a lot of light on what happened on that day based on personal experiences and even if the perceptions differ, we can all agree on how much harsh it must had been for all those people.

According to Lou Kasischke, who was a survivor of the tragedy, blames deadly rivalry among the two mountaineering expedition teams for the tragedy.  Kasischke was on a commercial ascent of the mountain and was a part of Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall.

Adventure Consultants was in an unofficial competition with the rival expedition team Mountain Madness which was led by Scott Fischer. At a point, the party was stuck at a point called Hillary step which was a huge 40ft rock which caused a bottleneck problem for the climbers, it was already late but seeing Fischer try to climb it, Rob Hall couldn’t go back.

Rob was famous for being a world leader of professionally organized expeditions at high altitude and he saw Scott as wanting to get his turf.

Before learning about what exactly happened in detail. Here is the list of expedition teams, their members with their age as of 1996 and the victims who died:

Adventure Consultants:

The Adventure Consultants was led by Rob Hall and consisted of the following members:

The Adventure Consultants was led by Rob hall with two other guides

Guides:

Rob hall- Expedition leader

Mike Groom

Andy Harris

Clients:

  • Frank Fischbeck (53)- Frank Fischbeck had attempted to climb Everest three times and had reached the south summit in ’94.
  • Doug Hansen (46) – Had previously attempted to climb Everest in ’95 with Hall’s team.
  • Stuart Hutchinson (34) – He was the youngest client on Hall’s team. Some of his previous high altitude mountaineering expedition were K2 winter expedition in 1988, Broad Peak west ridge in 1992 and Everest north side in 1994.
  • Lou Kasischke(53)- Had climbed six of the seven summits. He had climbed the highest mountain on other six continents and only Everest was left to conquer.
  • Jon Krakauer (41) – He was a journalist on assignment from Outside Magazine, an accomplished climber but never had 8,000 m experience.
  • Yasuko Namba (47) : She had climbed the seven summits; and was the oldest woman to summit Everest at the time.
  • John Taske (56): He was the oldest climber in the Adventure Consultants team with no prior 8,000m experience.
  • Beck Weathers (49) : had a climbing experience of 10 years but with no prior 8,000m experience.

None of Hall’s clients had previously reached the summit of an 8,000-m peak with only Fischbeck, Hutchinson and Hansen having previous experience of high-altitude Himalayan experience. Rob Hall had made a deal with outside magazine for advertising space on the magazine in exchange for a story about the growing popularity of commercial expeditions to Everest. Jon Krakauer was assigned for the job, he was originally assigned with Scoot Fischer’s team, but Hall managed to land him in his team by agreeing to reduce the cost of the fee, which meant Hall was paying out of pocket to put Krakauer in his team.

Mountain Madness:

Scott Fischer was the lead climbing guide for the Mountain Madness expedition. The team included eight clients.

Guides

Clients

None of the clients on the Mountain Madness team died but Scott Fischer couldn’t make it while descending from the summit.

There were other two expedition teams who were attempting to climb Everest on that day.

Taiwanese Expedition team:

A five member Taiwanese expedition team were making an attempt to the summit that day.  While on the previous day, a team-member Chen Yu-Nan had died following a fall on Lhotse Face.

Indo-Tibetan Border Police:

A six-man team from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were also making an attempt to the summit where three of the members died on that day.

A total of eight people died that day, including Scott Fischer, four people from Adventure Consultants including Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, Andrew Harris, Yasuko Namba and three from the Indo-Tibetan border police expedition team.

The disaster didn’t happen suddenly. It took its course over two days during the ascent and descent.  Delays on the ascent caused the climbers to lose precious time and descending downwards with a deadly storm caused the disaster to be fatal.

How the ascent started:

On that day, four expedition teams including Adventure Consultants, Mountain Madness, Taiwanese Expedition team and Indo-Tibetan Border Police were preparing to make an attempt to the summit. After midnight on 10th May, The Adventure Consultants began their attempt to summit from Camp IV, at the South Col (7,900m, 25,900 ft).  They were joined by other expeditions teams trying to compete with them including Mountain Madness as well as the Taiwanese Expedition team.

As soon as the expedition started, it started getting delayed. The climbing Sherpas and the guides had not set the fixed ropes by the time the team reached the Balcony (8350m, 27,395 ft). This cost the climbers about half an hour of precious time. There have been lot of speculations regarding the reason for the disaster and many claim the delay of such preparations was the major reason for the disaster.

The major delay was caused when the team reached the Hillary step (8760 m,28740 ft). The Hillary step is a nearly vertical rock face with height of around 12m/39 ft. located on the South-East Ridge. It lies halfway between the “South summit” and the true summit and is considered the last real challenge before reaching the summit via the South-East route. The step was named after Sir Edmund Hillary who was the first one to scale the step along with Tenzing Norgay who were the first ones to reach the summit. The Hillary step is considered an important point in climbing Everest as the ascent is generally made with the help of fixed ropes which is usually placed by the first ascending team of the season. The Hillary Step acts as a bottle neck during the ascent as only a few climbers can climb it at a time which causes to lose valuable amount of time and if not prepared on time, it can mean the difference between life and death for the climbers, which happened to be true for those expedition teams in May 1996.

Upon reaching the Hillary step, more delays followed as they discovered that the fixed lines had not been placed. The guides and Sherpas were responsible for setting up the fixed ropes but no such arrangements had been made so the climbers were forced to wait an hour while the guides installed the ropes. Around 33 climbers were attempting to reach the summit that day, the bottleneck at the Hillary step proved out to be a fatal reason on that day as they had to wait a long time to climb it.

The first one to climb the Hillary step and reach the summit was guide Boukreev from the Mountain Madness team, who had reached the summit first at 13:07. Boukreev had reached the summit without supplement oxygen. 14:00 is considered the last safe time to reach the summit as any later than that would not provide good conditions to descend to Camp IV before nightfall. Many of the climbers had not reached the summit by 14:00. By 14:30, Hall, Krakauer, Harris, Beidleman, Namba and clients from the Mountain Madness, Martin Adams and KlevSchoening had reached the summit. Boukreev has stayed until 14:30 at the summit and nearby helping other climbers get to the summit. The weather was starting to degrade as there was snowfall and light was fading out as Krakauer had mentioned in his book.

At around 15:00, the ones at the summit including Ang Dorje Sherpa who was Hall’s helper started to descend.  On the way, down, Ang Dorje Sherpa encountered client Doug Hansen above the Hillary step and ordered him to descend. Hansen refused and pointed at the top using his head declaring that he wanted to reach the top. When Hall arrived at the scene, the Sherpas offered to take Hansen to the summit, but Hall sent the Sherpas down to assist other clients, and instructed them to stash oxygen canisters on the route. Hall said he would stay behind Hansen, who had run out of supplement oxygen.

Meanwhile, Scott Fischer had a bigger problem. He reached the summit at 15:45 and looked exhausted from the climb and was becoming increasingly ill. It was thought that he was suffering from HAPE, HACE which are caused by high altitude sickness.  Doug Hansen and Makalu Gau reached the summit even later. 14:00 was the last safe time to reach the summit and descend but it was nearly 2 hours after the last safe time that Fischer, Hansen and others reached the summit.

Descent:

Boukreev, the one who reached the summit first was the first one to descend and reach Camp IV. The reason why Boukreev reached the camp before the clients is still at a dispute. His support says that the descended to get ready to assist the climbers to climb down and get extra oxygen and hot tea. However, Krakauer has criticized that decision in his book and question not using the bottled oxygen.

The storm and the weather got worse as the climbers descended from the summit. The blizzard affected the visibility, buried the fixed ropes, and obliterated the trail back to the Camp IV.

Scott Fischer was stuck below the Balcony along with LopsangJangbu Sherpa and was unable to descend below. Gau was also stuck at 8,230m. Eventually, they were stuck together and Fischer persuaded Lopsang to leave him and Gau behind and proceed downwards.

Meanwhile, Hall was at the top of the Hillary step with Hansen alongside him. He had radioed for help, saying that Hansen was alive but unconscious. Andry Harris, another guide from Adventure Consultants, carried oxygen and water and alone began climbing from the south summit towards the Hillary step to help Hall and Hansen.

Krakauer’s account note stated that the weather had deteriorated to a full-scale blizzard at around 17:30 while “Snow pellets borne on 70-mph winds stung my face.” Due to the heavy storm, several climbers got lost on the South Col. `Advenrure Consultant members Mike Groom, Beck Weathers, and Yasuko Namba along with Mountain Madness members Beidleman, KlevShoening, Fox, Madesn, Pittman, and Gammelgaard roamed around the trails until midnight. They had to huddle some 20m from a dropoff off the Kangshung Face when they couldn’t walk. The blizzard had cleared away to an extent that the team could see Camp IV around midnight, which was around 200m away.

Seeing that they were so near to Camp IV, team members beidleman, Groom, Schoening, and Gammelgaard descended to find help while Madsen and Fox remained in the same place with the group. Boukreev was already on Camp IV and he located the climbers. He brought Pittmann, Fox, and Madsen to safety. Though he had already saved lives, he was blamed by many to have prioritized Pittman, Fox and Madsen, who were all from his Mountain Madness expedition team over Namba and Weathers who were from the Adventure Consultants team and seemed to be more close to death. Even in the face of death, the sense of competition didn’t seem to go away. Boukreev had already made two runs to save three climbers to CAMP IV and was exhausted from the rescue and couldn’t do any further rescue to make an attempt to reach Namba and Weathers.

On 11 May, at 04:43, Hall contacted Base Camp with the help of radio and said that he was on the South Summit (8749m/ 28,700 ft.). He told the base camp that Harris had reached the two men, but Hansen, was now “gone” and Harris went missing.  Hall’s regulator was choked with ice so he wasn’t breathing bottled oxygen.

By 09:00, Hall had fixed his oxygen mask but had said that the frostbite on his hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes. Later in the afternoon, he radioed Base Camp, perhaps in his dying moments, asking them to call his wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. Jan Arnold was pregnant so Hall left her home at New Zealand for this expedition. During his last communication, he talked to his wife and reassured her that everything was alright and told her, “Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.” Shortly after the conversation, he died then and there. His body was found on 23 May by mountaineers from the IMAX expedition. They had asked if they should bring the body but his body was left there upon his wife’s request because she thought he was “where he’d liked to have stayed”.  The bodies of Doug Hanen and Andy Harris were never found and lies on the snow covered peak somewhere near the Hillary step.

Stuart Hutchison, who was a client on Hall’s team and had decided to turn around before the summit on 10 May, started a second search for Weathers and Namba. He found both of them alive, but both of them were barely responsive as frostbite had affected their body and they were in no condition to move. He decided to leave them there as they were, as he thought they couldn’t be saved by survivors at Camp IV who were already in a bad condition. He left them and moved on.

However, as a surprise, Weathers regained consciousness and walked alone under his own power to the camp. Everyone was surprised to see him reach there as they had left him for dead. Though he was still suffering from severe hypothermia and frostbite, he had managed to descend to the camp alone. Sadly,several attempts to rewarm him didn’t succeed. He was abandoned again in the morning, 12 may, after a storm had collapsed his tent overnight and he was thought to be dead by the survivors. To everyone’s surprise, He was still found conscious as Krakauer discovered him when they were preparing to evacuate camp IV. A rescue team was then mobilized, to get Weathers down the mountain alive and after two days, Weathers was brought down to Camp || with the assistance of eight healthy climbers from different expeditions. Weathers was then rescued by a daring, high altitude helicopter rescue, which was in fact a record breaking attempt for the highest altitude helicopter rescue in the world. He survived and recovered, but lost his nose, right hand, half of his right forearm, and all the fingers on his left hand due to frostbite.

Meanwhile Fischer was stuck with Gau without being able to proceed ahead. The climbing Sherpas located them on 11 May, but Fischer was in a very bad health condition and he couldn’t be treated there. He had to be left there as there didn’t seem to be a possibility of him making it through so the Sherpas took Gau and left him there. Boukreev made a rescue attempt but was too late, he found Fischer’s frozen body at around 19:00. Meanwhile, Gau was rescued by a helicopter.

Eight people died during the two days, which was Everest’s highest death toll on a single expedition.

Looking closely at the climbers who lost their lives during that day:

Rob Hall:

Rob Hall was a New Zealand mountaineer. He was born in 14 January 1961. Before 1996 expedition, Hall had already reached the summit of Everest four times, which was more than that time than any other non-Sherpa mountaineer.

Hall was married to Jan Arnold, who he had met during his Everest Summit attempt in 1990. Jan Arnold was a physician and also loved mountaineering. They climbed Denali for their first date and later got married. They summited Everest together in 1993. She would have accompanied him in the 1996 season, but she was pregnant. Hall had his last conversation with her on a satellite phone in his dying moments on 11 May.

Andy Harris:

Andryharris was a New Zealand Mountain Guide. He was born in 29 September 1964. He was one of the guides for Adventure Consultants 1996 Mount Everest Expedition. It was Harris’ first attempt to summit Everest. He had no prior 8,000m experience but his climbing experience in New Zealand had made him qualified to guide the expedition.

Yasuko Namba: 

Yasuko Namba was a Japanese Mountaineer. She was born in February 2, 1949. She was the second Japanese woman to reach all of the Seven Summits. Namba used to work as a businesswoman, but her love for mountaineering met no bounds. She travelled all around the world conquering the highest peaks of the region. She teamed up with Rob Hall with the Adventure Consultants team with Rob hall,and when she summited Everest in 1996, she became the oldest woman to reach the summit at that time.

Scott Fischer:

Scott Fischer was born in December 24, 1955.  He was an American mountaineer and mountain guide. Scott was renowned in the business for his ascents of the world’s highest mountains made without the use of supplemental oxygen. He was one of the first Americans to summit Lhotse (8516m) and K2(8611m) without supplemental oxygen. Fischer was the expedition leader for Mountain Madness on the 1996 Everest expedition where he had previously summited Everest in 1994.

Three Indians also lost their lives on May 10. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police expedition team consisted of 6 climbers and as they attempted to summit from the North Col. Much description wasn’t received from their expedition but they reached the summit from the North col and three of the members died of exposure during the descent when the blizzard hit them.

The three members of the Indo-Tibetan border police expedition were:

TsewangSamanla

TsewangPaljor

DorjeMorup

Their bodies still lie on Everest like the other climbers who had met their death during the descent in the terrible blizzard due to lack of oxygen and exposure.

After the 2015 earthquake and 2014 avalanche, 1996 was the third worst year in Everest. Eight in one day and a total of twelve deaths in that year.

After the 1996 disaster was brought to the media, a lot of improvements were made so that such mistakes don’t occur and such disasters don’t happen again. Communication has become more reliable between the expedition teams and there is increase in cooperation between the climbers, but even though how reliable the preparations may be, Everest is still one of the dangerous mountains to climb and even the most experienced mountaineers can perish when a rash decision is made.

Reading all this might have made you question, “Where are the survivors today?”

Some have portrayed the incident in their books while some refuse to comment. The ones who speak have told us about how they encountered the disaster and how that experience have changed their lives. Here’s what eight of those survivors are doing today:

Jon Krakauer:

Jon Krakauer was a famed journalist when he was assigned to the Everest expedition with Outside Magazine. After surviving the disaster, the released the initial article on the tragedy and later interviewed the survivors for a full length book which was titled, “Into Thin Air ” . It became a best seller. He then published another book, “Missoula: Rape and Justice System in a College Town”.

Neal Beidleman:

Beidleman was the guide for Mountain Madness expedition team for the 1996 expedition. Now, he’s living his life as an engineer, inventor, skier, runner. He has over a dozen patents in his name, including one for a titanium road bike pedal.

Lou Kasischke :

After surviving the disaster, Kasischke wrote his own book about his experience which was titled “After the wind: The 1996 Everest Tragedy, One Survivor’s story.” In the Movie “Everest” which was based on the 1996 disaster, he served as a script advisor.

Beck Weathers:

Perhaps the most surprising survivor of the disaster. Weathers was badly injured during the descent and left for dead a couple of times yet, he managed to survive with his willpower. A lot of body parts were damaged by the frostbite so, he had several amputations and reconstructive surgeries. He now has resumed normal life as a speaker, family man, and writer.

Sandy Hill Pittman:

After the survival, now known as Sandy Hill, she has worked as a fashion editor, and a lifestyle and travel author.

Stuart Hutchison

Being one of the survivors, Dr. Hutchison is a clinical professor of Cardiac Sciences at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta. He gives lectures specifically regarding safety and medical care in adventure situations after his own near death experience.

LeneGammelgaard:

After the horrific experience of the disaster, Gammelgaard chose to embark on a life of public speaking and she is the head of her own consulting company. She focuses on helping companies “establish leaders” and one of the tenants of her method is called “The Everest Way”.  She’s also published her writing about her survival on Everest and her take on the business world.

Michael Groom:

Michael Groom was the surviving guide for the Adventure Consultants 1996 expedition team. He has then since started out as a motivational speaker and consultant.  He has lost some portions of both his feet due to frost bite but still has that enthusiasm he had when he climbed Everest.

Several reasons have been given about how the disaster happened. Most people assume that the sudden arrival of a severe blizzard caught the mountaineers off guard. Most of the time was lost during the Hillary step and on the start of the climb from Camp IV as the guides hadn’t fixed the ropes on time. The bottleneck time at the Hillary step proved to be costly as 34 climbers had attempted to reach the summit at a time. The team leaders were blamed for ignoring the last safe time of 14:00 for reaching the summit. Many hadn’t reached the summit till 14:30 but it was considered that the feeling of competition made the expedition leaders want to reach the summit no matter how late it got. The delay and the severe blizzard caused the oxygen to run out and guides had to carry bottles up to the stranded climbers during the storm. All these reasons were given for the disaster and people still argue how it could’ve been averted.

According to Jon Krakauer, the use of bottled oxygen and commercial guides allowed unqualified climbers to take on the challenge of climbing Everest, which lead to more deaths. He also said that the competition between Hall and Fischer may have been the major reason for the disaster which might have led to Hall’s decision not to turn back on after the pre-decided time for summiting of 14:00.  He also acknowledged that him being a journalist for an important magazine may have added more pressure to guide the clients to the summit. He proposed banning bottled oxygen except for emergency cases, arguing that this would both decrease the growing litter on Everest—many discarded bottles have accumulated on its slopes—and keep marginally qualified climbers off the mountain. He does point out, however, that climbing Everest has always been a highly dangerous endeavor even before the guided tours, with one fatality for every four climbers who reach the summit. Furthermore, he notes that many of the poor decisions made on 10 May were after two or more days of inadequate oxygen, nourishment, and rest (due to the effects of entering the death zone above 8,000 m/26,000 ft.). He concludes that decisions made in such circumstances should not be strongly criticized by the general population, who have not experienced such conditions.