Storm Over Everest

How the Media Covered It

Photo on left: Pumori looms behind climbers ascending Everest (photo courtesy: David Breashears), Photo on right: A memorial for Rob Hall erected along the path to Everest. (photo courtesy: Callie Taintor Wiser)

Sandy Hill
During the 1996 expedition, Hill filed reports for NBC. Her successful Everest summit on May 10 made her the second American woman to summit the seven continents' highest peaks.

photo of Sandy Hill

The storm that greeted us when we returned from Everest, the media storm, was far more powerful than that night we spent out on the [South] Col. All of a sudden, people who had never even been to Mount Everest -- probably couldn't have placed it on a map -- they were writing in an authoritative voice about it. And not only were they talking about a place they'd never been, they were talking about me, a person they'd never met.

I think I got hit so hard because I was an easy target. I had had a degree of visibility with my climbing, I was published in several magazines, and in 1994, I had been on television and in the newspapers from my reporting from the Kangshung Face of Mount Everest. So I was probably the most visible person in my expedition that year. I got pigeonholed as a rich New Yorker, and those three words, "rich New Yorker," just painted such an easy picture of a villain right there.

I went to the mountain in 1996 optimistic that at the very least, it would give me some distance between me and the circumstances of my life. At the time, I was separated from a very prominent individual. So my personal life was out there dangling like a kite in the wind that had been wrapped around the telephone wire. And best case, if I reached the summit, it seemed to me that it would be a metaphor for some triumph over my personal circumstances. And I think I left the mountain -- in spite of the tragedy of Scott's death and the heavy heart that that left me with -- optimistic that still, what I set out to achieve would be mine.

It was stunning to me when I quickly saw that the story and the history that came off the mountain in 1996 would no longer be my own. The story was written before we got home. And the way that picture was portrayed has made it impossible for me ever since to feel the slightest bit of satisfaction over the achievement of having reached the summit, because somehow if I seize the littlest bit of triumph, I feel like I run the risk of being insensitive, uncaring and all the things that were written about me. So I never allow myself to go there. ...

It hurt terribly to read -- it was mostly through innuendo -- that I had no experience, to read that I didn't know what I was doing there. This was my third attempt on Everest, and my previous attempt had been via the hardest route. So to read that I didn't belong there, or that my values weren't in the right place, it's all so arbitrary, this criticism.

But the fact that I failed to speak to anybody about that, that I wouldn't give interviews -- I wouldn't talk about it because at the time, to me it seemed like it was capitalizing on someone's death, particularly Scott Fischer's death. I was mourning Scott's death. Grief, like gratitude, is a very, very personal and deep thing to me. ... In retrospect, I came to realize that my silence was feeding my detractors, because the less they knew about me, the more they could make up.

Lou Kasischke
He had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks. But on the 1996 Everest expedition, Kasischke (along with John Taske and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of Lou Kasischke

I don't know Sandy [Hill] Pittman, but I don't think she deserved what she got. I think it's unfortunate that anybody had to come out of this with that kind of condemnation. Her actions didn't cause anybody to die.

The part that I didn't like were the generalizations that OK, there are some people who are inexperienced and they shouldn't be there. That wasn't the problem; that wasn't why people died. Everybody died from their own decisions on Mount Everest. It had nothing to do with anybody's level of experience. But that was the spin that was created in the media, and that generalization gets applied to everybody who was there, regardless of your level of experience. ...

I think the media did try to foster a number of myths here, like the storm was responsible. I think most people looked at it and said: "No, a storm wasn't responsible. The storm set the price. Mistakes were made, and then the storm set the price that was going to be paid." The media also tried to condemn, or create some heroes, and I don't think they really succeeded in that. And even tried to create some villains, and I don't at the end of the day think they succeeded at that. And the public as a whole, I don't think, dug into the details that much.

In my own case, the general media never really had a negative impact on me because I wasn't a target. I wasn't rescued, I wasn't dead, I didn't do anything reckless, so not a target. But for the most part, I thought the media that I experienced was respectful and was respectful of some people having made responsible decisions and had acted responsibly.

Charlotte Fox
A professional ski patroller and EMT, Fox was the first American woman to climb three 8,000-meter peaks. She summited Everest in 1996 on her 39th birthday.

photo of Charlotte Fox

The press turned it into a circus beyond belief, and Hollywood couldn't have ruined it any more. Even some of the made-for-TV movies, the people were much uglier than we were, and the situations were ridiculous. I think only the people who really know, which is our peer group in climbing, realize what really happened on that mountain. ...

In climbing circles, being respected by your peers is more important than what other people think about climbing, because only climbers understand what you go through in those moments high on a mountain, under duress and high winds, or being cold, and being challenged. And what I think was taken away from me by the press was my respect, or the respect of others for me. And I was afraid the climbing world would think I was that ninny that just signed on the dotted line and paid all that money to be there. And I wanted the climbing world to know that I had worked my way up the scale to go climb Everest, and I did have a resume. And I might have had some weak moments up there, but I did climb the mountain.

And what I'd like to do from now on is speak for everyone instead of hide, and let the story get straight out there. Yet the press takes what I say and gets an angle going, and they use my words out of context, and it becomes even more embarrassing. So what did I say? Nobody can really tell. Who was I? Nobody can really tell. And until I guess I have my own version told, then nobody will really know what my story is, and it's certainly not as exciting as what the press is trying to publish. ...

John Taske
A 56-year-old doctor and former Australian army officer, he had begun climbing a few years earlier. On the 1996 Everest ascent, Taske (along with Lou Kasischke and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of John Taske

As soon as there's a tragedy, people start to get in and nitpick. And one of the things they focused on was the client climbing, the rich climber who couldn't put his crampons on properly. That's a load of rubbish. If you look at the climbing pedigrees of the people on our team, they were as good as, if not better, than any other team on the mountain. Yasuko, six out of seven summits; Beck Weathers on the last of his seven summits; Lou Kasischke with a pedigree as long as your arm. All of these people had significant climbing experience, and to call them client climbers and lump them [in as] some rich fella being toted up the mountain was very unfair. ...

They need to grab a headline; they need to enlarge something so that people will sit up and listen. So they select things and blow them out of proportion if it suits them to tell a story.

Neal Beidleman
A guide for the Mountain Madness team, the '96 expedition was Beidleman's first Everest summit attempt. Two years before he had summited Makalu, just a few miles from Everest.

photo of Neal Beidleman

I think there was good media, and there was bad media. And for lack of understanding what mountaineering was about or access to people -- many of the people who were on the mountain are now dead and can't speak to any of these issues -- for lack of people being forthright about how they acted or what they saw on the mountain or ... what really happened up there, it was a very difficult thing for the media to try to get its hands around. And to try to condense a story that really spans several months there, but people's lives and intentions, which are much bigger than that, and then condense it down to, you know, 30 minutes or 40 minutes after commercials, it's really hard to portray everybody correctly and accurately. ...

If there is one thing that's been lacking in the media, it's the ability for the media to really portray this experience of what climbing's all about. And until you understand that, at whatever level you climb at, it's very hard to understand a person's motivations. It's hard to understand why they would subject themselves to this, why they would leave their families for months to go ahead and do what they do. And when you can get your arms around that, then you stop thinking in terms of people getting what they deserved or whatever. People then take on personalities and they have lives and they have reasons for doing things. And all of a sudden, they start resembling ourselves.

I think that's maybe why the story's so compelling. It's a slice of life that's been compressed down and can be talked about in an hour-long TV show or even a book. And all of the actions of the people who were there, their decisions both good and bad, get amplified immediately. And the result isn't something that's benign or a slap on the wrist. The result sometimes is death. And so [the story] is a way of looking at ourselves and our society and, to make a broader sweep, even, it's a slice of humanity in a little crucible.

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posted may 13, 2008

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