Storm Over Everest

Memories of the Storm

Photo on left: A memorial in the shadow of Nuptse and Everest.  (photo courtesy: Stephen McCarthy), Photo on right: Recreating the storm.  (photo courtesy: Arcturus Motion Pictures)

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 beginning of the end, for me, was when we sat down and huddled. Everybody knew to go on was sheer madness, and possibly suicide. So there we were, and we're trying to keep each other warm and keep our spirits up and talk to each other and beat on each others' backs and remain warm any way we could. But it was just so viciously cold, and the wind was blowing so hard. It must have been probably 70 below or something, just from the wind chill factor.

And you just started succumbing to the fatigue -- I know I did -- and just huddling down closer and closer, turning in and not responding to people as much, because it just took too much energy. And that was the point where I just said, "You know what, I don't know if I'm going to make it through the night. Maybe it's just easier to just go under that sleep before hypothermia takes you and just go on and get it over with, because this is too much." ...

Physiologically, as long as you're shivering, you're generating heat. When you start to not shiver, your core temperature starts to drop. And I think that's when I had started to give up, that I wasn't shivering anymore. I certainly wasn't moving my limbs and my body and trying to generate my own heat, and so I was getting that drop in the core.

The cold starts to first affect your appendages -- your fingers, your toes -- and then it works up your extremities, and they become colder and colder and more wooden-like. And then finally you're starting to feel your core go, and by then, mentally, you're just not as sharp. You're becoming ataxic, which means you can't walk, and sleepy. And it's very difficult to try and pull yourself out of that drugged feeling, that state of detachment, almost. And it's a very dangerous state to be in, because there was no external heat to bring me back. ...

In my mind's eye, I'd had enough training ski patrolling and enough experience in the mountains that I could almost objectively watch what was happening to me. And that was fairly eerie; not so much an out-of-body experience, but monitoring myself for my downfall, and not really being able to do anything about it, because I was just getting too far gone.

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

It was very hard to stand up against the wind, and even though at times we knew we had to move into the wind, our tendencies were to turn our backs to the wind and let it assist us in our walking. It was like being sandblasted from the little ice particles of the spindrift that came with the wind.

And extremely cold: My eyes froze together many times, eyelashes together from my own breath, humidity in my breath. It was extremely dangerous to expose any bare skin into the wind, and hence we all tried to avoid that. So we're walking with ... our arms sheltering our eyes or actually looking away from the direction that we're walking and being buffeted around.

I've been in some strong winds, but these were real winds. It wasn't just because we were at 26,000 feet. This was a wind that, in our down suits, I felt like I was in a sail sometimes. It would almost just lift me up and drop me down. ...

To take a hand out of a glove to wipe your face and to expose the gauntlet of the glove to the wind and the spindrift is -- you might as well cut your hand off right there, because you're going to get frostbite and it's never going to get warm again. So you had to be very careful. And these are things that I remember thinking about -- lucid, but very short thoughts in the middle of our situation. ...

Beck Weathers
A pathologist from Dallas, Weathers had been a serious climber for close to 10 years; prior to the 1996 Everest expedition, he had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks.

photo of Beck Weathers

My right hand ceased to function, and I couldn't make it move. I thought, well, I know how to solve this problem; I've been cold like this, so that your body parts cease to work. And so I was just going to take off the gloves for a little bit, and take my arm and stick it up underneath my coat, up against my chest, and then hang onto it until I could feel my hand move again. ...

And I pulled the gloves off, but I'd never had that kind of force of wind and cold coming at me. And you can feel when it hit that little bit of my arm now, which doesn't have all that extra glove stuff on it. I mean, you could just feel it crawling up your arm. ... And I wasn't smart enough to take that glove and clip it on, and I lost the grip, and it went instantly out of space. [It] went, pow! It's gone.

And I've got another set of gloves, exactly like those full mitts that I'd just lost, but I can't get the pack off and get through it, in part because my hands aren't working. And so now I think, I've got to stay awake, because I've got to now hold my arm underneath this coat, because otherwise it's going to go ahead and fully freeze. And that works OK if you can stay awake; it doesn't work so well when you start to lose it and you pass out and your arms come back out. ...

You're just enveloped by that sound. And when you make the mistake of looking into it, the snow and the drift just come flying at you, and it sandpapers your face. And you're trying to get your pack turned around so that you can get it between you and the force of the wind. And the thing is just rolling around you, so that the white moves, and just encompasses and flows away from you.

Your whole clothes fill up with the driven snow and the ice that's coming at you. And you don't even realize it so much at the time, because everything is just nonstop cold and misery, but it's driving inside through the seams of your zippers that are not all the way down and closed, and it's coming in, and it's refreezing and holding there. Even the stuff right up against your chest is frozen.

And so my clothes got to the point where they were just a carapace of ice on the outside. And when I came into camp and I looked like I was this frozen mummy, it wasn't my body that was frozen in this position, it was my clothes that had had the snow driven into it, and I was encased in a suit of ice armor. And it just envelops you and restricts your movements.

And the water, you think it would be wet against your body, but it's not. It just hits you and turns to ice, and it builds up on your face, and your eyes freeze together, so your lids freeze shut. And you take your hands, and you can shove them up against the top of your eyes so you can pop your eyes open again so you can see. ... But there is nothing on you that isn't exposed. ...

And the person next to you -- you know they're there, and you can reach out and grab them, but you can't really see them. And you're in this little, tiny world of incredible noise and cold. And you're going past just shivering and shaking uncontrollably, where you have no ability to stop your body from trying to generate enough heat. You can't get it to stop.

They always talk about that freezing to death is not a bad death. Well, maybe the last couple of minutes are not so bad, but the part between when you start getting cold, and for the next few hours, up to the point that you're becoming comatose, it's just painful. ...

It doesn't stop hurting quickly. It's that point at which you detach from yourself, and all of a sudden when you do, you just [focus on] the inside and thinking that this is really calm, this is really pleasant, it's warm. And you lose any sense of anxiety, that there's any reason that you needed to struggle anymore. You forgot why you were struggling, and you just sit there in kind of a pleasant little daze. It's like being put to sleep for an operation: There's that little last moment right before it starts to close down on you that you know you're going under, but you're not at all frightened. ...

Michael Groom
An experienced climber who had summited Everest in 1993 without oxygen, Groom was brought on as a guide for the 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition.

photo of Michael Groom

I've been caught out high on mountains before, and had I been alone this time I probably wouldn't have been as concerned as I was. But the fact that I had responsibilities to Beck and to Yasuko made the situation extremely, how should I say, difficult. As the night went on, the conditions became worse. I remember the noise being deafening; the ice and sometimes even the small rocks being blown off the South Col, stinging and hitting your face or your climbing suit; the Velcro from your hood whipping you in the side of the face, and that hurts like hell every time that hits you; and just the hopelessness of the situation. ...

And someone said to me -- and I don't know who it was, but it was certainly an American voice; it could have been Beck or one of the other three -- "You're the strongest; go and get someone and bring them back to get us." And I thought, "No, that's a stupid idea, because I might never find Camp Four, and if I did, they might not find you." But then, after a bit of calculation or thinking about it, I thought, "Really, it's the only choice. If we're going to survive, I need to go and try and find Camp Four and send back help." ...

And it's from this point onwards that I'm sort of a little bit vague on what happened, because I now start to feel extremely, if it's the right word, comfortable about the situation. I don't feel cold anymore; I actually feel almost comfortably warm. And I'm walking straight into this storm-driven cloud and ice and snow, and after some time -- again, I don't know how long it was -- but I start to feel the presence of someone right next to me. And I thought it was one of the people that I'd left behind, had caught up to me and was now following me towards Camp Four. But there was no one there.

And this presence felt like -- it wasn't a hallucination. It's a bit like when you sense someone staring at you, and you turn off to the side and there is someone staring. ... And this person that was following me into Camp Four turned out to be my old climbing friend Lobsang [Tshering Bhutia], who was on Everest with me in 1993. And we summited Everest on May 10, 1993, but on the descent he fell and died in this same area that I was now wandering around. We located his body just 200 meters above Camp Four three years to the night earlier.

And I have this vague memory of actually almost -- I think I had a conversation with Lobsang. I can't remember what I said, but I think he said to me, "Our Camp Four's over there." It's almost like he's pushing me off slightly to the left, and I walk straight into Camp Four and into the tent of Stuart [Hutchison] and Jon Krakauer. And Jon Krakauer could confirm this -- I'm hoping I gave him clear instructions as to where Beck and Yasuko were and could they get some help.

And I was intending to go out, go back to Beck and Yasuko. And then I remember myself at another tent, picking up an oxygen cylinder as if to go out and get Beck and Yasuko. And then the door opens and John Taske is on the other side of the door. And I don't know whether he pulls me into the tent or whether I get into the tent. And I remember him breaking chunks of ice off my face and putting me into two sleeping bags, and that's probably the extent of my memory on that particular night.

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

It's widely documented that people have had near-death experiences, have fantasies and hallucinations when they're very close to death. And I myself had one of those experiences when we were out after Lene [Gammelgaard], Klev [Schoening], and Neal [Beidleman] had staggered back to camp, and in fact after Anatoli [Boukreev] had taken Charlotte [Fox] and I was with Tim [Madsen]. I actually did not anymore imagine myself to be in the extremely dire circumstances that I was in. And I think that maybe it's a survival mechanism that helps you to live, that you can fantasize about not an insurmountable problem like, how do I deal with 65-mile-an-hour wind when I can barely walk? Instead, you deal with a problem that seems more manageable.

I fantasized that all I really was [was] thirsty. ... So I created for myself in my delusion a simple solution with a not-so-insurmountable problem. I imagined that there was a little tea house just a short distance away -- this is as I'm laying in Tim Madsen's lap in 65-mile-an-hour winds -- I imagined that my big problem was that I couldn't get the attention of the waiter, who was in that little tea house just beyond my shouting distance, to bring me a cup of tea.

Rather than imagining that I was close to death, I imagined that there was a much smaller hurdle. I think that hope and optimism -- that's really all it was, delusional optimism, admittedly -- but that hope was what kept me alive.

Makalu Gau
In 1996, Gau was making his second attempt on Everest, leading the Taiwanese National Expedition. In his youth he joined the Taiwan Mountaineering Association, learning snow, ice and rock climbing in Asia and the Alps.

photo of Makalu Gau

I kept shaking and thinking what to do, and got sleepy. But I was still conscious, and from my experience, I know if I sleep now, I would lose my temperature and die. So I told myself not to sleep and keep shaking, but it's hard to do. So I shouted to myself, "Makalu, don't sleep! Makalu, don't sleep!" And when I was shouting, my body would vibrate and move like this; then I got better.

So I kept struggling like that. After 10 to 20 minutes, I would shout to myself automatically, "Makalu, don't sleep! Makalu, don't sleep!" But finally my voice was getting weak, and I realized that I didn't have enough energy left. And the snow was getting bigger, and I felt weaker. Then slowly I got sleepy.

But when I almost fell asleep, there was a black-and-white TV coming into my mind -- a very old TV; there were electrical waves and images in it. And then my kids' images came out from that TV, and they were speaking, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. But I felt like they were saying, "Father is climbing and hasn't come back yet." Then suddenly their images disappeared, and then all the climbers' images came out. Someone was saying, "Hey, Makalu, you made it! You succeeded to reach the top. Come down quickly and let's celebrate." Then all my relatives' images came out together. At that time my mind was very complicated. I felt like my brain was exploding. ...

I kept doing two things there -- one is taking deep breath, one is keeping myself moving -- but I don't know how long I kept doing them, and I was almost out of breath. When I rolled to my left, it was dark. I saw a little light, and the light was weird; it looked like blue and white and red, and just a little. I panicked and turned back, I thought it was that kind of light that people will see when they are going to hell. ... I thought this was the end of my life, but I also told myself not to panic and be calm. After a few seconds I rolled back, and then I found that it looked like the sun was rising, but not very bright. ...

I heard a sound from inside my heart: "Makalu, keep moving, keep it up. This is a very important moment. Keep moving until the sun comes out; then you won't die." ...

I was hoping the sunshine was coming to me soon because I was so cold. So I was waiting and waiting, but slowly I fell asleep because I was so tired. It seemed like I felt warm at that time because I thought the sun was out. And I felt warm in mind, but actually it was still cold outside. And then I passed out.

Later, I heard someone was calling me: "Makalu, sir. Makalu, sir." I heard it, but my eyes couldn't open. It was just like a dream; I could hear but couldn't open my eyes. Then I tried to move a little bit. At that time someone put an oxygen mask on my face. I took a deep breath, and felt a cold air coming into my body, and then I started to become conscious. Then someone put hot juice into my mouth, and I drank and felt better. Then my eyes opened slowly.

home . introduction . interactive map . the survivors' stories . join the discussion . a talk with filmmaker david breashears
blog: everest summit attempt . producer's notebook . readings & links . live chat with producer david breashears . roundtable: the ethics of climbing
site map . dvd & transcript . press reaction . credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted may 13, 2008

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
top photograph © kynan bazley / hedgehog house
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation