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Responses and Comments
1996 Tragedy

May 29, 1997



Question:

I was just reading David Breashears interview in regard to the recent tragedy from the Northern route. David made the comment that Everest is this huge magnet that draws people to it so that in their quest to fulfill a dream and accomplish it some give up their lives and that this a natural consequence of high altitude mountaineering. I understand that even under the best of situations, and with the most experienced there can be mishaps...but are these large numbers of deaths on Everest in the last two years a lack of preparation and experience and due to the sheer number of expeditions? Or the ambitions and motivations of these expeditions to blame? I am sure David and his NOVA team are patient and prudent. But don't these other teams endanger those that are experienced? And where is that line drawn? When will one team not come to the aid of another due to either ambition of its own...or lack of resources...or possible danger to themselves? Or is life in the death zone one of every man for himself? I suppose one cannot protect someone from himself, that one will reap the consequences of one's actions. But can those actions endanger others? Good luck to David and the rest of the NOVA team. God speed and safe climbing.

Thomas Auyong
Diamond Bar, CA

Response from David Breashears:
With the dramatic increase in the number of people on Everest along with the commensurate increase of people trying for the summit in a short weather window, it follows that there would be an increase in fatalities. It is as much due to bad weather as poor decision making in climbing. It's worth noting that inexperienced and experienced climbers alike have been dying over the last years. It is up to each team to decide who aids those who need assistance. When in the death zone, there is an extraordinary level of self preservation. This is often much stronger than the urge to help others, when this could endanger oneself. But there are also very heroic acts of selflessness seen at high altitude and we've also seen similar acts of deep selfishness. It is an interesting question as to how climbers in a hypoxic, sleep deprived, dehydrated extremely exhausted state should be held accountable for the decisions they make at high altitudes. You can also read my essay written several years ago for the American Alpine Journal, titled "Every Man for Himself" which addresses this issue.


Question:

Have the local authorities or organization of climbers developed new high altitude rescue techniques since last season? Are the number of "climbers" who pay to get to the top of the world down? Best wishes from the children of the Boys and Girls Clubs of West Virginia.

Response from Pete Athans:
There are probably no "new" rescue techniques, but after last year's helicopter rescue success from Camp I, perhaps local authorities are more confident about flying rescues. There does not seem to be any dimunition of guided or outfitted expeditions.


Question:

Here is a difficult question: In Jon Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air," he tells of the massive efforts made by many expeditions to keep Everest clean by removing spent oxygen bottles and so forth. Yet in the book he recounts his sighting of two frozen corpses on the mountain as his team approached Camp II in 1996, one of which had been there for over a decade according to his guide. Why are bodies left on the mountain? That seems odd.

Danny Evans
Irvine, CA

Response from David Breashears:
Bodies are much heavier and much more difficult to remove than garbage. For instance, a Sherpa can easily carry 4-6 empty oxygen bottles down from the South Col. But it would require 6-8 Sherpas to carry down one body. To further complicate the issue, the Sherpas, who always provide the man-power for the removal of bodies, are extremely superstitious and wary of dead bodies and often refuse to go near them, even if the deceased are familiar to them. We feel that it would be improper to demand that the Sherpas move the bodies of the deceased when they are often so opposed to it. Also, although it is rare, the relatives of the deceased sometimes request that the bodies be left on the mountain. But, it is the difficult logistics and enormous effort required to bring a body down that often precludes us from removing bodies from Everest. It is important to note that bringing bodies down Everest is also a time consuming and dangerous activity and one has to ask if it is worth risking lives to bring down someone who is dead.


Question:

After the tragedy of last year's expeditions on the part of Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, do you plan to summit Everest in a different fashion than previous years? Will it just be a matter of keeping an eye on the weather? Also, David is there any plans in the future to summit Everest vis-a-vis the West Ridge Route such as the Hornbein Expedition did several years ago?

Jason Jordan
St. Louis, MI

Response:
Our climbers will be climbing the south col route which is the same one as Rob Hall and Scott Fischer climbed last year. At this time, David has no plans to attempt the West Ridge route.


Question:

I have been quite interested in last year's tragedy, given Beck Wethers is a local. He's been through much and that just highlights the unfortunate ones like Rob, Scott and the others. If it is too difficult to help injured climbers down, what do you do with those who have died? As someone said last year, you don't want them to be just another slide in some climber's slide show. On the other hand, you have certainly described the terrible ordeal one has to go through just to get himself up and down. Please tell us what has been done and how you feel about the results ... i.e., whether or not they have been removed, buried in rocks, etc.

Mark Enoch
Dallas, TX

Response from Ed Viesturs and Pete Athans
Given the logistical problems of evacuating bodies, it is very problematic to remove dead climbers from high on the mountain. However, we do try to remove them and put them in a respectful place, if possible.


Question:

What is the difference between climbing the north side and the south side of Everest. Also I watched Turning Point last night, it was about the climbers who were trapped on Everest last year but it did not say if the bodies of the climbers who died were recovered or will they be. Good luck on your quest and stay safe. (AND WARM)

O.G. Bizeau
Gladstone, MI

Response from Ed Viesturs and Pete Athans
The North Side of Everest is windier and more technical the higher up you go. There are no plans to evacuate any of the bodies from last year as it is extremely difficult to move them due to the high altitude and technical terrain. We will try to cover them or move them somewhere out of the way in a respectful fashion.


Question:

David, How are you. My name is Matt. I am 13 years of age, I recently saw a show on my TV talking about the May 10th, 1996 tragedy on Mt. Everest. I would like to know, were you on the mountain at that time?? And if you were I would like to know about what happened and what it was like. I think it was very sad. Also, have you ever been climbing and passed like a skeleton on the mountain? I also wanted to know, how many times have you climbed the mountain?? Well if you could please E-mail me back I would really appreciate it. Well, thanks a lot. Bye

Matt Vogt
Vancouver, WA

Response:
David was on the mountain during last year's tragedy, but he was not up at Camp IV where most of the tragic events transpired. It was a very difficult time to be on the mountain. Now as the climbers head back up the mountain they all feel a great sense of sadness for their friends that they have lost.


Question:

I have just read Jon Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air", about the 1996 tragedies on Mt Everest. Is Krakauer's account reasonably accurate? What is the general feeling among experienced climbers about Krakauer's role in the 1996 expedition? How hard has it been to assure that the hired guides don't focus on their own goals vice those of their clients? Specifically I have in mind the multiple accounts of Anatoli Boukreev (sic) on Scott Fischers 1996 expedition where he comes off as both hero and villain. He seemed to place his need to achieve the summit (without oxygen) and to get back down above that of the clients; while later he did venture out multiple times and save clients, we are left to wonder if his role wasn't pivotal in precipitating at least a part of the disaster.

Thanks
Neal Vinson
Vurke, VA

Response from Base Camp:
None of us has had a chance yet to read Jon Krakauer's account of last year's events as we have been at Base Camp for over a month.


Question:

It's been less than one year since circumstances took the lives of several of your friends and fellow climbers. Do you sense a difference in attitudes among the various expeditions compared to other years that you've been on Everest? I would also suspect that there are more journalists and reporters at Base Camp than in prior years. Do you have any thoughts about their presence? Thank you and best wishes.

Larry Buttrey
Long Beach, CA

Response from Ed Viesturs
We definitely as guides are taking a very conservative approach as far as letting clients go high on the mountain. They need to display strength, endurance, and skills lower down on the mountain before we will allow them to go higher. Just because they have paid us to come here does not guarantee they get a chance at the summit. They need to first prove to us that they are capable by displaying their climbing abilities. This has always been my philosophy even before last year's tragedies.

I don't think that there are any more journalists here than last year but I do think that the whole world is watching us. The presence of journalists really does not affect me. I think that I would be guiding in the same way regardless of their scrutiny.


Question:

1. The task of route setting through the ice fall and on up is dangerous, extremely critical and consumes precious energy. Who (generally) is selected for this and how are they selected?

2. There have been many articles on the large increase of inexperienced climbers buying their way onto Everest and creating very dangerous conditions. One article said that after the deaths a few years ago, the quantity of people allowed was reduced from 300 that year to 240 the following year (last year I think). Your newsflash has said you have 400 this year. What is the experience levels in general? How does this relate to safety on the mountain this year? And how is the team vs team hierarchy (climbing order, decision making, etc.) managed?

Thanks and good luck!
Eric Stiverson
San Diego, CA

Response from David Breashears:
In this day and age of 10 expeditions on Everest and 3-4 expeditions on Lhotse that share the same route, there's a designated team that fixes the route. This year we have 50 8-foot sections of ladders for crossing crevasses. We all contribute toward the cost of fixing and maintaining the Icefall.

The team vs team climbing hierarchy is mostly survival of the fittest and who is ready to go at certain times. We have already addressed the issue of inexperienced climbers in a previous email response. The overcrowding issue is definitely a problem. I would say that 10% of the climbers on the mountain are of expert ability, not including the Sherpas, 30% have some previous Himalayan experience, and 60% are relatively inexperienced and unlikely to be able to take care of themselves in a severe storm or an emergency.
Response from Pete Athans:
At least 50% of the people climbing this mountain are not on commercial expeditions, meaning they're outfitted, and are supposed to be looking after themselves.


Question:

Has the tragedy that occurred on Everest last year changed your climbing tactics in any significant way?

Michael Hergert
Coronado, CA

Response from Base Camp:
No, it hasn't but it has reaffirmed why we have always taken a very conservative tact in our summit attempts in regards to the timing, amount of oxygen, number of Sherpas, and weather conditions.


Question:

Our 7th and 8th grade reading class at Jim Hill Middle School will be following your climb up Mt. Everest. Do you know anybody from last year who died during the climb and is this making the climb any harder emotionally? Katie and my 7th and 8th grade class.

Katie Thiel
Jim Hill Middle School

Response from Base Camp:
Yes, we did know some of the climbers from last year who died on the mountain, in particular, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Their deaths will always weigh heavily on our minds as we climb Everest.


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