The Climb : tragic ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt
New York : St. Martin's Griffin, 1999 ISBN 0312206372
If the 1996 Everest disaster is the most famous mountaineering tragedy in history behind the death of Mallory and Irvine, it is so probably due to the efforts of one man - Jon Krakauer, with his article and book about the tragedy, Into thin air. In that book, Krakauer describes the tragedy that befell the climbers on May 10 1996 from his viewpoint as a climber in the Adventure Consultants team. During the book he has some not-so-kind things to say about Anatoli Boukreev, who was a guide for Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness expedition. The controversy that Krakauer's book sparked continues on to this day, more than 15 years after the events themselves.
The Climb is Boukreev's version of events - given his lack of command of English, the book is really written by DeWalt, with liberal dosings of Boukreev's quotes framing the story - and in many ways, gives a more complete picture of the tragedy than does Krakauer's work.
Both Scott Fischer and Anatoli Boukreev were mountain junkies - their whole life was predicated around climbing the great peaks of the World, and trying to finance their next adventure. Fischer, a charismatic American and great climber, looked to Rob Hall's successful business model with Adventure Consultants and thought that he could replicate that success himself, by creating a business guiding people up major climbs. 1996 was the first time he had tried to do it on Everest, and when he ran into Boukreev in Kathmandu, he jumped at the chance to hire him. Boukreev, who was down to his last few dollars, readily agreed. At the time it seemed like a win-win situation for both of them - Boukreev climbed and got paid for doing so, and Fischer could advertise his climb as having a head guide who was a true veteran of 8000 metre peaks.
What rapidly becomes clear as the pages of The Climb roll on, is that while Fischer may have been a great climber, he was not a great leader. It seems that at no stage did he sit down with Boukreev or his other guides and go into any real detail on how they would tackle the peak - and he ignored Boukreev's advice on acclimatization to altitude for the clients. It also seems that he disliked confrontation, and hated to say no, so that several of the climbers who were at the South Col on May 9 shouldn't have really been there, owing to their lack of fitness.
The logisitcs of the expedition were also far from optimal - they only had barely enough oxygen for all the people on the mountain, and the plan to fix lines to the summit was never acted upon. From the armchair point-of-view, the whole Mountain Madness setup seems to have been a disaster waiting to happen. Boukreev was worried about the fitness of the clients from the start, and having never guided before, was unsure of what was actually required of him, something that Fischer never seemed to explain.
Fischer himself was not in peak form for the climb, he was exhausted, a fact that he covered up as much as he could. On the day of the summit attempt, he sent Boukreev and his other guide Neal Beidleman up the Mountain at the head of their team, while Fischer himself would sweep at the rear. The idea was, apparently, that anyone Fischer passed on his sweep would be turned around and sent back down, as if he passed them it meant it would take them too long to keep going and get back safely (before their oxygen ran out). This was a good idea in theory - in practice it was a disaster, as Fischer was so weak and slow that he didn't catch up to even the slowest Mountain Madness climbers. The other massive oversight was that neither Boukreev or Beidleman had radios, so Fischer could not communicate with them at all. The result was that most climbers summited far too late for safety. Boukreev was first to summit, but even he didn't reach the top until about 1.30pm, as he had been delayed because the ropes to the top weren't fixed beforehand as organised, so he and Beidleman had to do most of it.
In 1996 the generally accepted idea was that the latest time for summiting was 2pm. Most Mountain Madness clients summited well after that, and Fischer didn't leave the summit until after 4. By that time Boukreev was on the way down. He'd spoken to Fischer when they finally crossed paths, and they agreed that Boukreev should head down to Camp IV, as many climbers would run out of oxygen before they got down, and he might need to bring up some cylinders and generally help out.
Then the storm hit. Very soon whiteout conditions hit the top of the mountain, with clients and guides spread from the South Summit to the Balcony, and to the South Col itself. There were many heroic actions that night, with Boukreev's continued sorties from Camp IV to bring back climbers not the least of them. In fact his actions won him (along with Pete Athans and Todd Burleson) the David A. Sowles Memorial Award for valour. In all Boukreev personally rescued 3 people that night. The next day he climbed to the South Summit to try to rescue Scott Fischer, who had spent the night there, but found him beyond help. Tragically Boukreev himself was killed on Annapurna in 1997.
With all the controversy that has surrounded the 1996 Everest season, a few things are made clear by Boukreev's book. Scott Fischer did not give good leadership to either his clients or his guides. Boukreev did not understand how he fitted in to the expedition - how much initiative he could take on behalf of Fischer or the clients, and whether he could order clients or Sherpas to do as he asked - which is perhaps a criticism of both Boukreev and Fischer. The logistics of the Mountain Madness activities above Camp IV were not well organised.
All Mountain Madness expedition members, with the exception of Fischer, survived and got down the mountain without serious injury.
The edition I read (see above) has over 100 pages of extra material, mostly rebuttals of Krakauer, and a transcript of the taped "debriefing" of the Mountain Madness team which took place at Base Camp on 15 May 1996. This is fascinating reading, and gives quite an insight into the inner characters of some of the team.
If you have read Krakauer, you must read this book.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell