Storm Over Everest

Life After Everest...

Photo on left: Wind whips the summit of Mount Everest, on left. (photo courtesy: GNU), Photo on right:  Candles lit to bless a trek. (photo courtesy: Callie Taintor Wiser)

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

When I first woke up [on the South Col the morning after the storm], and I'm trying to get focused, I saw my wife and children just directly in front of me. That's what drove me, got me up and moving. I realized at a gut level just how important they were. And I'd let them down before I got to the mountain. I regretted the stuff that I didn't do -- all the moments that you weren't there, because you were out climbing or training or doing whatever. But I came back thinking, if I got a second chance at this I wasn't going to screw it up again.

And I've thought about what I inflicted upon people around me. It's just, you get possessed by the things you seek and the demons that drive you. And you lose perspective, and that caused a lot of pain.

One of the things that surprised me when I first got back, somebody would say, "Hey, would you do it again?" And I'm a train wreck. And I think to myself, "What a stupid question," you know? But Everest, because of what happened, turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I know that if I hadn't been hit across the face with a 2x4 to slow me down, I would have kept going. It wouldn't have been Everest, it would have been something else the next year and the next year after that, and it was going to continue until I got just too old to do it. Things had fallen apart, and I would have lost my marriage, my family. At the end, I would have been a very lonely old guy.

And I've been given a second chance, not just at rebuilding a life but to live each day. And I still have my wife; I still have my kids; I still have my parents and my brothers. And I'm a happy person. I don't have that monkey on my back.

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

The first 12 months afterward, I beat myself up a bit. Why was I the only surviving guide when the other two died? Probably more distressful for me was leaving Beck behind at Camp Four.

But these days, I'm truly over it. I've dealt with it. I realized I did the best I could under the circumstances. At the time, I thought I made all the right decisions along the way. In my opinion, no one was to blame. No heroes and no villains. It was just climbing.

I didn't have a problem going back soon after -- I think it was six months later. It was a bit unnerving when we first arrived in Kathmandu, and walking down the streets and seeing the same places we had our last meal in as a group before we went off to Mount Everest. ... That was a bit uncomfortable, but I got over it. ...

I think I went back to Makalu in 1999 to put a more positive ending on what had been a great career as a high-altitude mountaineer. I also wanted to climb the five highest mountains in the world; Makalu was the last of the five to climb. And I realized at the age of 40, in 1999, and the responsibilities as a husband and father, that if I kept playing the game at that level, it would get me in the end. So I really knew that Makalu was my last big climb. If I got to the summit, or if I didn't, it was going to be my last big climb.

I can remember my climbing partner, David Bridges, with whom I climbed Makalu on May 16, 1999, walking out after we did the climb. He said, "Look, if I died tomorrow, climbing Makalu's been so rewarding that I have no regrets." I think that sort of sums up the way I feel. I feel extremely content and satisfied with what I've done, and there's no regrets. It's been a great life.

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

My motivation to go to Mount Everest in 1996 was the hope that I would triumph, I would make the summit. My own circumstances at that point in my life were at an all-time low. I was in the middle of a separation that would lead to a divorce, and so I had hit rock bottom personally. I went to Everest thinking that it would make me feel better and it would change my life for the better.

With the passage of time, I can honestly say that it did change my life for the better, but not in any way that remotely resembled what I had in my mind's eye at the time. When I came back from Everest, my whole world changed because I was painted as a pariah. I had a book deal from having climbed the seven summits. I was unable to complete that book deal because I couldn't speak publicly, even in book form, after the events that greeted me on my return from Mount Everest.

People that I thought were friends were no longer friends because they'd turned against me because of what they had read. There were days when I didn't change out of my pajamas, where I would go turn on my computer and look at the star-field simulation for hours on end -- the screen saver. So I thought that the experience of climbing Everest was going to lift me out of the doldrums of my circumstances. Instead, it multiplied the tough times in my life tenfold. It was hell.

It was a very helpless feeling I had when people thought that they knew me, and yet all they knew was what other people had told them about me. Because where do you start explaining who you are when they come to a conversation with all that ... baggage that they are already confident has been vetted, cleared and [is] the bona fide truth? You're in a defensive position from the get-go. That's not a conversation. … I simply didn't speak to anybody following that trip. I didn't speak to the press; this is the first time I've said anything publicly at all, and it's 10 years later. ...

But I had help surviving. My son Beau, who was with me on Everest two years before, to Base Camp, and knew a lot about climbing and my interest in the mountains, was a tremendous source of comfort to me. I couldn't have gotten through that period without him and without some very, very dear, supportive friends. And the kind of heartache that it caused him -- he suffered humiliation at school from the children of people who had read the accounts of what happened on Everest.

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

Everest was the worst thing that's ever happened to me, but at the same time, I've grown from the experience. I have deepened my faith in God, my love for my wife Sandy and my family, and at the end of the day, I think I'm a better person because of it. ... It's a humbling, humanizing experience, and an image that I carry with me today: I was in a position where I almost died. And it helps me today to visualize and remember that as a guidance for my own future, harnessing of my ambitions, making sure that I keep my life in perspective.

I say the Lou that went into Mount Everest was the person in large part gripped in the jaws of always wanting more, higher, harder. Every day was a contest of some kind to achieve something, to gain something, to prove something either to yourself or sell yourself or something else. I discovered as a result of Everest that wasn't the kind of person that I wanted to be. Everest made me look at myself and I saw what I didn't want to see, and I wanted to be something different. I wanted a new life, a new me. ... I didn't want more; I wanted something different.

I was able to learn from Everest. The first thing I learned about myself and what was important to me, what my needs really were -- was Sandy's love. And that became a priority. I wanted to deepen that relationship. I also was able to see the power and the presence of people.

I was proud of the fact, I guess, that I was able to get down the mountain on my own without being rescued, but I was also shameful of the fact that I was reckless and irresponsible for being there in the first place. And it caused me a measure of actually lack of self-confidence in some respects, that I was capable of coming so close to making a dreadfully wrong decision in my life that would have had such enormously severe consequences, and not just [for] my wife and family but a lot of people who were depending on me. ... I feel a certain measure of shame even today for being that reckless. And it's almost astonishing to me that I have to think of myself as having done that. It's not a good feeling. …

Have I forgiven myself? Well, yes. But on the other hand, I don't forget.

Everest gave me several gifts. It gave me a sense of who I should be in life. It gave me the gift of self-examination, the self-exploring, the gift of wanting to be a better person. And that's one of the reasons one of my goals now is to climb some of the spiritual, sacred mountains of the world, mountains that are for one reason or another considered sacred. And one of the reasons I want to do that is just want to stand there and I want to give thanks, not just to Everest, but to all the mountains of the world for giving me a lifetime of enrichment, for my personal and spiritual growth.

Guy Cotter
A climbing partner of Rob Hall's, Cotter was guiding an Adventure Consultants team on neighboring Pumori, from where on the night of May 10 he was in radio contact with Hall, who was still high up on Everest. The next day Cotter moved to Everest Base Camp.

photo of Guy Cotter

A lot of lessons that were learned through the whole of the '96 tragedy still apply today; it's still very much a folklore that we all abide by. I think it's quite ironic that [Rob Hall] -- the guy who was seen as the best in the industry, the one that everybody else looked up to for the organization, the way the expeditions were run and the fact that the expeditions had been so successful up to that point -- that it was that person who was involved in the tragic events of '96. And I think part of the response that happened on the mountain at that time, the incredible groundswell support that came from everybody who was there to try and help out, was partly because of the respect that was there for Rob and what he had done and what he achieved. People didn't think, "Oh, this is a fly-by-nighter who this deserved to happen to." I think everybody was genuinely surprised that this occurred to Rob and his team.

And as a result of that, all of us who were involved in high-altitude mountaineering, especially the commercial operators that were regularly doing it, communicate a lot better than what we did prior to '96. We work together a lot better up high; we are supporting each other. We realize that we're on the mountain, that we're all there to help each other. And even though the '96 events were incredibly tragic, there has been some good come of it all, and I think the big part of the benefit of it all has just been that people are a lot more open to helping each other and supporting each other to avoid that sort of thing happening again.

Lene Gammelgaard
Lene Gammelgaard first began climbing in 1985. Her successful 1996 summit of Everest marked the first time this had been done by a Danish woman.

photo of Lene Gammelgaard

What I lost on the mountain was -- I think truly losing Scott [Fischer]. Not only Scott, because the year after Anatoli [Boukreev] died. And Lopsang [Jangbu] died. And my friend, a Danish climber ... died. And over those three years, where so many great, fun, crazy climbers died, I lost, I think, the innocent desire for adventure with those people, because the desire to go out and do those things, to me, is also connected to who I do it with. I lost the access to doing or living the life that I really dreamt of living and then having fun and all the hardship with those personalities. So over the years, I've really come to face that's a huge loss. It really is a big loss. ...

The feeling that I had in every cell of my body in the death zone -- this knowledge throughout my whole being of there being 100 percent objective risk -- I never, ever want to consciously put myself into an environment where I, with my full common sense, put myself in a place where the objective risk is so huge.

I think that with Everest and the years after, being older, less risk-willing, hopefully maturing, learning from Scott dying … [I] adapted to a different kind of lifestyle, found some value and happiness in a different way of being. Learning, what does it take, what must I abstain from, and what can I choose actively. So that I turned 40, many of my friends didn't, and a few of them died when they were 40. That this objective risk -- I will not place myself in an environment where the objective risk is that high, because I didn't like that feeling. ...

It's very hard to find anything in a so-called normal world to really replace the fulfillment that you can get up there if you are with the right people. ... It's a hard thing to juggle, trying to survive by not keeping going out there [climbing], looking for something similar. ... We never get down from the mountain; maybe that's it. It's hard to find something that just fulfills so much on so many levels, and I don't think you will.

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

If today I know that I will have to cut [off] my fingers, nose and feet for climbing on the mountain, I wouldn't go, because it's not necessary. But if I prepared for everything sufficiently, like techniques, physical conditions, everything is OK -- I tried my best to get ready for climbing, and encountered something unexpected when I'm climbing -- I would accept the facts. ...

I think we human[s] shouldn't be arrogant. Nobody in the world could say that he can conquer one certain mountain, even the small mountain in the back of my house. My feeling is I should get along with the mountains … not thinking of conquering them as my motivation to climb them. ... My thought is, no matter what mountain it is -- for example, Everest -- it is there forever. … The mountains treat everybody equally, and I also respect the mountains, get along with them, and learned from them to be [forgiving], generous and nice, and treat people equally.

I learned to be tolerant from climbing, because you have to have tolerance to climb. When you get tired, you have to be tolerant and keep going; maybe after that moment you will feel better. So from climbing, I got more tolerance, more stamina. Whenever I encounter something difficult, I will encourage myself to be tolerant, to keep going, to keep it up. So I think the climbers have to train themselves from real climbing, not only physically, but also mentally. ...

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posted may 13, 2008

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