I woke up at home in Dubai this morning very happy that I managed to summit Everest on the 19th, but having had a few days to reflect on the conditions of the day, the number of people and other aspects, I’m even more happy to return alive with all my fingers and toes.
It turns out that the 19th of May, became the deadliest day on Mount Everest since 1996, when eight people died during summit attempts and the mountain claimed a total of 15 lives during the season – the worst day in the history of Everest.
I wanted to remind everyone of the events of 1996, not dig up the gory details, but to give a realistic example of what it can be like on summit day on Mount Everest and how small the margin of error can sometimes be.
Back on the 11th of May 1996, three expeditions were preparing for their summit push: Adventure Consultants’ expedition led by Rob Hall, a Mountain Madness expedition led by Scott Fischer and an expedition sponsored by the Taiwanese government and led by Makalu Gau.
Shortly after midnight on May 10th, Adventure Consultants (AC) expedition, consisting of six clients and three guides, began their summit push. They were joined by another six clients and three guides from Mountain Madness (MM).
However, upon reaching the Balcony, at 8350m, the teams discovered that no fixed lines had been put in place and the clients were forced to wait for an hour while the guides installed the safety ropes. This was repeated again at the Hillary Step, at 8760m, where another hour of valuable time was lost.
Anatoli Boukreev, a guide with MM, was the first to reach the summit at 1307. However, due to the delays with the fixed ropes, most of the climbers didn’t reach the summit by 1400, the last generally accepted safe turnaround time to reach Camp 4 before nightfall.
By 1500 several of Hall’s clients, including Doug Hansen, a 46-year old member of the AC expedition who had already ran out of supplementary oxygen, were still on their way up rather than down.
At 1700, a severe snowstorm struck the Southwest Face of Everest, reducing visibility and obliterating the trail back to Camp 4. Shortly afterwards, Hall radioed Camp 4 for help, stating that Hansen had fallen unconscious but was still alive. Moments later, Andy Harris, Hall’s fellow guide began climbing to the Hillary Step with supplementary oxygen and water.
Meanwhile, Mountain Madness expedition has also been caught in the snowstorm. Scott Fischer had reached the summit at 1545, way past the normally agreed cut off time. He was climbing with a sherpa, Lopsang Jangbu, but had convinced Lopsang to descend alone once it became clear that Fischer was not able to descend the Balcony. Fischer was left with Makalu Gau, the leader of the Taiwanese expedition.
The weather continued to deteriorate into a full-scale blizzard. As a result, several climbers got lost on the South Col. Six members of MM along with three members of AC wandered in the blizzard until midnight, when they caught a glimpse of Camp 4 – just 200m away.
A few hours later, Hall radioed that he was on the South Summit. He also reported that Harris had reached him and Hansen, but that Hansen had died during the night due to hypothermia and that now Harris was also missing.
Hall also noted that he was not breathing oxygen, because his regulator was too choked with ice. He also highlighted that his frostbitten hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes.
Meanwhile, Fischer’s fellow guide, Anatoli Boukreev made several attempts to reach the stricken Mountain Madness expedition leader, but was forced to turn around due to the weather, although he succeeded in rescuing several clients in the process.
In the early evening, Adventure Consultants’ Hall radioed to Base Camp, asking them to call his wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During their last communication, Hall reassured his wife that he was reasonably comfortable and told her “Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.” He died shortly thereafter.
When Boukreev finally reached Fischer’s location the following day, it was too late. It’s speculated that Fischer had been suffering from severe altitude sickness, either High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).
While it’s natural to focus on the sad parts of this story, it also includes amazing stories of survival, like that of Beck Weathers, an American pathologist, climbing as part of the Adventure Consultant’s expedition.
During the summit push, Weathers became blinded due to effects of high altitude as well as overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. He needed to be guided off the mountain by Hall, but before Hall could get to Weathers’ aid, Weathers became stranded in the blizzard.
Weathers spent the night exposed to the elements on the South Col, suffering from hypothermia and frostbite to his face and hands. However, miraculously, he recovered enough to walk unsupported to Camp 4.
At Camp 4, his teammates were certain Weathers would not survive the night and simply tried to make him as comfortable as possible. However, against all odds, Weathers survived another night despite not being able to eat, drink or keep himself covered by the sleeping bags provided to him.
Once found alive, Weathers was helped to walk on frozen feet to a lower camp, where he was a subject of the highest altitude medical evacuations ever performed by helicopter. Following his evacuation, he had his right arm amputated halfway between the elbow and the wrist. All four fingers and the thumb of his left hand were were removed, as well as parts of both feet. His nose was amputated and reconstructed with tissue from his ear and forehead. Weathers’ story had been captured in a book called “Left for Dead”.
One of the people involved on the treacherous summit day was John Krakauer, a journalist on an assignment for the Outside magazine, who captured the story of the day into a well known book “Into Thin Air”.