America's preeminent high-altitude mountaineer dissects the decisions made during 1996—then the deadliest season in Everest's history.
Adapted from No Shortcuts to the Top, by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts; published in October 2006 by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. This article was originally published in the September 2006 edition of National Geographic Adventure.
That spring there were more climbers on the south side of Mount Everest than ever before. There was a Taiwanese team of 13; a South African team of 21; a nine-man assemblage of British, Danish, and Finnish climbers; an American team of six; and a maverick Swede named Göran Kropp, who hoped to make history by bicycling to and from Everest all the way from Sweden and climbing the mountain solo. Rounding out the crowd was our 12-person IMAX expedition and two large teams of guided clients led by my good friends and erstwhile Himalaya climbing partners Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. Scott's Mountain Madness team numbered 23; Rob's Adventure Consultants entourage, 25.
It was great to hang out with Scott and Rob again. I had fond memories of guiding Everest with Rob in '94 and '95 and of our climbs together on Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Makalu, and Gasherbrum II. And Scott and I had forged a lasting bond during our shared epic on K2 in 1992—the closest I've ever come to getting killed in the mountains. It was as though all my best mountaineering buddies had gathered for a reunion.
At the same time, all of us who were working on filmmaker David Breashears's IMAX team were seriously concerned about the mob of Everest aspirants that had gathered at Base Camp. Aesthetically it posed a problem for the making of our film—we didn't want viewers to see footage of dozens of climbers straggling along in the background and wonder, Who the hell are those folks? But it also posed a real safety dilemma. The most exposed and dangerous part of the whole South Col route comes up high, on the final ridge, at tricky spots such as the Hillary Step, only 250 feet (76 meters) below the summit. Too many climbers strung out along that ridge can create a bottleneck, with the slowest moving clients dictating the pace for everybody else.
Rob had fixed May 10 in his mind as the day to go to the summit. That date had been lucky for him in the past. There's a window each spring, a stretch of calm, mostly clear days that occurs as the annual monsoon, moving up from India, dislodges the air ahead of it and pushes the jet stream away from Everest. Some years that window comes in early May, other years not until late May. In Rob's experience May 10 was right around the middle of that window. But in retrospect, maybe he fixed his sights a little too rigidly on an arbitrary calendar date.
Rob and Scott were friends, but they were also rivals. So once Rob decided on May 10, Scott opted for the same date. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to either of them, the Taiwanese team chose to tag along too. This meant that on May 10, there would be a massive throng—40 or more climbers—going for the summit from the South Col. During one meeting of the team leaders at Base Camp, it was agreed that our IMAX team would try to get out a single day ahead of the mob. If all went well, we'd go to the summit on May 9—that day we'd have the upper mountain to ourselves, which would be ideal for David's filming.
By the evening of May 7, we were ensconced in Camp III on the Lhotse Face, at 24,000 feet (7,315 meters). The plan was to go up to Camp IV on the South Col the next day, then to the summit on May 9. The horde of other climbers—mainly Scott's and Rob's teams—would follow us only a day later, so we had no wriggle room in our schedule. While we were at Camp III, they were digging in at Camp II, in the Western Cwm, only 2,800 feet (853 meters) below us. That evening, we were very excited. A year of planning and hard work would be coming to fruition in the next two days. Yet during the previous week I'd been keeping a close eye on the weather. Every afternoon the clouds would roll in up high. And it was far too windy along the summit ridge. That magical window of calm, clear days wasn't yet upon us.
On May 8, as we roused ourselves at Camp III, it just didn't feel right to me. I discussed it with David and assistant filmmaker Robert Schauer (himself a great climber). All three of us were of the same mind. The conditions were OK, but not great. If we were going not only to make the summit but also to get good footage with an unwieldy IMAX camera, we needed the best possible weather we could get. We'd have only one shot. David and I agreed: We had plenty of gear and food cached back at Camp II. There were still at least two weeks, maybe three, before the monsoon would roll in. We'd be idiots to force it and go now, in unsettled weather. The decision was unanimous. We'd go back down to Camp II and wait there.
So on May 8, instead of pushing up to the South Col, we descended the fixed ropes. Before long we ran into Rob's and Scott's teams heading up. Both trip leaders asked me, "What are you guys doing?" I answered, "Going down. It just doesn't feel right." Of course, their surprised reactions made us start to question ourselves. Were we missing our one good shot for the top? Yet I'd seen summit fever before. If eight climbers head up, they pull ten more with them. The mood is "So-and-so's going today? Well, we should be going too." But on Everest you've got to make your own decisions.
There on the Lhotse Face, as we crossed paths on the fixed ropes, I shook hands with Rob and Scott, gave them each a big hug, and said something like "Have a great trip. Be safe." After hugging me back, Rob said, "I'll see you on the bottom, mate." I answered, "I'll buy you a beer when we both get down."
The next morning, May 10, we knew that Rob's and Scott's teams would have set out from the South Col around midnight to go to the summit. That day dawned perfect, so there was no reason for them not to go. We had a telescope in camp with us to monitor the climbers' progress. Though we weren't in direct radio contact with the teams up high, we could talk to my wife, Paula, who was serving as our Base Camp manager, and get their reports secondhand.
Around 2 p.m. (the standard turnaround time on summit day on Everest)—we could make out climbers scattered along the high ridge through the telescope—they appeared just as little specks of red and yellow, lined up, waiting their turns to climb the Hillary Step. It was alarming how much of the time those specks were standing still, not moving. The traffic jam had indeed started to work its mischief.
A few folks had reached the summit by then, but the vast majority was still heading up. Staring through the telescope, I muttered aloud, as if those anonymous specks could hear me, "Guys, you left at midnight. It's two o'clock! It's going to be three or four before you get to the summit." Then, as I watched the all but immobile procession, my mood darkened. "Dudes, what are you doing? Wake up! Guys, turn around, turn around," I urged.
Then the big storm rolled in. The summit disappeared, the clouds lowered, swallowing up more and more of the upper mountain until finally our visibility was cut off even below the South Col. All the while, things were falling apart up high. Radio batteries started to die. There was little word as to just what was going on. At Camp II we just sat in our tents, waiting and waiting, all of us growing more somber by the minute. It wasn't until 10 p.m. that we got any news. Paula radioed up to us and said, "Only half the people who left the South Col this morning have made it back." We cursed out loud. I tried to imagine the nightmare that must be unfolding up there. It's windy, it's dark, it's freezing cold, and we knew that everybody must be out of bottled oxygen by now.
At Camp II, Rob's team had set up a command station with a radio in a tent. Veikka Gustafsson, the Finnish climber who'd been my partner on Makalu the year before, was camped near us. Now he moved into Rob's tent, to sleep beside his radio. We lay in our own tents, with our little handheld radios on, waiting for further news, but none of us slept a wink that night.
We got up and made coffee around three or four in the morning, still hoping for the best. And then, around 5 a.m., we heard the first transmission from up high. It was from Rob. By now we'd all crowded into the radio tent with Veikka, so we could hear the play-by-play. And what Rob said was both deeply troubling and utterly puzzling. In a tired, weak voice, he said, "I'm all f---ed up. I'm on the South Summit. I sat out all night. Doug is gone. "
Doug Hansen was a postal worker from Renton, Washington, whom Rob and I had guided the year before on Everest. We both had taken an immediate liking to him. So when Doug had needed to turn around at the South Summit in 1995, Rob's disappointment had been as keen as his client's. Doug had pushed himself so close to the limit that it was all I could do to get him down to the South Col, shouting at him with my laryngitic voice to keep him moving. But after that expedition, Rob had offered Doug a big discount on the client fee if he came back in '96 and had all but guaranteed him the summit on his second try.
We later pieced things together from broadcasts Rob had made to his Base Camp manager, Helen Wilton. On May 10 Rob had gone up the mountain near the tail end of his own Adventure Consultants team. He reached the summit himself well after 3 p.m., where he waited for Doug, who was once again giving it all he had and leaving no reserves of energy for the descent. As Doug came into sight, Rob descended to him, then helped him the last bit of the way to the top. But it was not until 4 p.m. that the exhausted Doug topped out. That was at least two hours beyond the turnaround time Rob had otherwise so firmly insisted on. His passion to get Doug to the top, sadly, may have clouded his usually impeccable judgment.
Rob had broadcast to Base Camp from the summit to report his and Doug's success. Then, only half an hour later, he had come on the radio again to say that the two were in trouble and needed oxygen. Mike Groom, an Adventure Consultants guide, overheard Rob's broadcast from lower on the ridge as he shepherded another fast-failing client down toward the South Col. Mike knew that there were two full oxygen bottles cached on the South Summit. But he was having transmission problems of his own, and it took a while before he could get through to Rob with that news.
Meanwhile Doug Hansen had collapsed at the top of the Hillary Step. Unable to lower his client down the 40-foot (12-meter) cliff, Rob stayed with him, apparently willing to risk an overnight bivouac well above 28,000 feet (8,534 meters)—a feat very few climbers have ever pulled off, even in good weather.
Guy Cotter, who had been our fellow guide on the South Col route the year before, was leading an expedition on nearby 23,494-foot (7,161-meter) Pumori. At Base Camp, overhearing Rob's increasingly sketchy broadcasts, Guy got on the radio himself, pleading with his old friend to leave Doug and get down to the South Summit, if only to retrieve the oxygen bottles so he could start breathing gas and gain the strength to aid his client. Rob radioed back that he could get down to the South Summit himself, but that Doug couldn't. Forty minutes later, he had not moved a step.
At this point, just before 6 p.m. on May 10, Guy urged Rob to perform a desperate triage: to leave Doug behind so he could save himself. Yet it was not advice Rob was willing to heed. At 2:45 a.m. Guy heard a few words of broken transmission over a background of howling wind. Guy suspected that Rob wasn't even trying to broadcast, but that his clip-on mike on the shoulder strap of his pack was getting bumped and keying on in interrupted bursts. What Guy heard was Rob yelling, something like "Keep moving! Keep going!" Evidently he was trying to push Doug down to the South Summit in the middle of the night, in an all-out storm, by sheer force of will.
Through the night of May 10 and the morning of the 11th, we at Camp II were unaware of these struggles—until, at five in the morning, we heard Rob's despairing radio call, beginning with the terrible pronouncement, "I'm all f---ed up."
By that morning, Rob had gotten down some 350 vertical feet (107 meters) to a spot just short of the South Summit. Somehow he'd survived the night, without even a bivouac sack for protection. But Doug was gone. We would never learn what those three words really meant. Did Doug die on the way down, from hypothermia and exhaustion? Had he broken through a cornice and plunged down the Kangshung Face? Or had he frozen to death bivouacking there beside Rob, only to be buried by snow?
Now Rob's voice over the radio was badly slurred. "I'm stuck here," he said. "My hands are f---ed. When is somebody coming up to help me?" Listening in the tent at Camp II, Veikka was in tears.
It was then that David Breashears exhorted me, "Ed, you get on the radio. You know Rob best. Talk to him. See if you can get him to move."
By now we knew from relayed reports from the South Col that people were missing all over the South Ridge. Scott Fischer had not even made it back to the col. The plan was for whichever of the Sherpas had the strength to try to go up on the morning of May 11—all the way up to the South Summit, if possible—to try to bring down Rob, Scott, and the other missing guides and clients. But that was asking a lot of Sherpas who had gone to the top only the day before. And the storm was still raging.
This was the hope, however, that I had to hold out to Rob. We knew that he was about 20 feet (6 meters) below the South Summit, in a little saddle on the far side. He'd actually have to climb up those 20 feet (6 meters) to start down. I got on the radio. "Rob," I pleaded, "crawl if you have to. Get to the South Summit. If you can start moving part of the way down, the Sherpas will meet you somewhere below. You can shorten their day getting to you."
When there was no answer, I tried to joke with Rob, anything to rally him to action. "When this is over," I radioed, "we'll go to Thailand, and I'll get to see your skinny white legs on the beach for the first time." Rob never wore shorts, even in the hottest weather, so in fact I'd never seen his bare legs.
He actually laughed and said, "Thanks for that." I'd gotten Rob to laugh! That gave me new hope that we could rescue him. "We'll get you off the hill," I radioed. My mantra was don't say anything negative. "But Rob, you've gotta move!"
At this point, Paula radioed us. Others at Base Camp, especially Guy Cotter and Helen Wilton, had also been trying to rouse Rob. Now my wife said, "Ed, everybody's being too nice. You've got to yell at Rob. Get mad at him."
She was right. Even though it belied my true feelings to express anger, now I broadcast, "Rob, come on, man! You can't just sit there!"
We were encouraged to hear from Rob, however, that he'd found the two full oxygen bottles on the South Summit. It had taken him four hours to de-ice his mask, but by 9 a.m. he was breathing gas once more. Over the radio all of us were exhorting him to get moving down the ridge. From Base Camp, Helen commanded, "Rob, you think about that little baby of yours." In New Zealand, Rob's wife, Jan Arnold, was now seven months pregnant. "You're going to see its face in a couple of months, so keep on going." For hours I cajoled Rob myself. Sometimes I'd joke, sometimes I'd yell, sometimes I'd promise that the Sherpas were coming to help him. I told him, "Don't talk much. Just get ready, start moving." Broadcasting uses up battery power far more quickly than listening does. All this while, we assumed that Rob had started down. Sherpas Ang Dorje and Lhakpa Chhiri had started up from the South Col in a truly heroic rescue attempt. The skies had cleared somewhat, but a fierce wind still swept the upper mountain. The uncertainty was killing me. After four or five hours, I had to ask. "Rob," I pleaded over the radio, "how's it going?"
"I haven't moved," he said.
All of us listening to the radio were totally shocked and demoralized by this news. We knew now that the only hope for Rob was if the two Sherpas could get to him and help him down.
We started to mobilize ourselves. We weren't sure what we could do to help, but David Breashears, Robert Schauer, our teammate Araceli Segarra, Veikka Gustafsson, and I decided to head up the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face toward Camp III. I made one last broadcast. "Rob," I said, "I'm leaving now. I'm heading up the hill. I'll see you tomorrow. We'll talk again as soon as we can."
A couple of hours later, I was about 50 feet (15 meters) above David, moving up the fixed ropes, when I heard him yell, "Ed, stop! I've got some news, and it's not good." David was carrying our only handheld radio, and he'd just gotten word from Base Camp. "Ang Dorje and Lhakpa are back at the South Col," David reported. "They simply couldn't climb up in these conditions."
David took a deep breath, then said to me, "I think it's time to say goodbye to Rob."
That's when I lost it. I just hung on my ascenders, sobbing. David was weeping, too.
Amazingly, despite having been out for some 36 hours, most of it without bottled oxygen and above 28,000 feet (8,534 meters), Rob was still alive and coherent by nightfall on May 11. By then we were settled into Camp III, preparing to do whatever we could to help the following day.
At 6:20 p.m. Guy managed to patch through his wife, Jan, via satellite phone from New Zealand. Rob and Jan's farewell exchange has become part of Everest legend.
Before Rob could gather up the nerve to talk to his wife, he begged for a minute so he could eat some snow and moisten his mouth. Then he spoke: "Hi, my sweetheart. I hope you're tucked in a nice warm bed. How are you doing?"
"I can't tell you how much I'm thinking about you!" Jan answered. "You sound so much better than I expected. . . . Are you warm, my darling?"
"I'm reasonably comfortable."
"How are your feet?"
"I haven't taken my boots off to check, but I think I may have a bit of frostbite."
Jan knew there was no hope—she'd been on top of Everest herself. And Rob must have known too. But in their parting words, they kept up the poignant fiction of a coming reunion. "I'm looking forward to making you completely better when you come home," Jan promised. "I just know that you're going to be rescued. Don't feel that you're alone. I'm sending all my positive energy your way!"
Rob closed with "I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."
Those were the last words Rob ever spoke—or if he said anything more, there was no one there to hear it.
We'd been so focused on Rob's plight that it scarcely registered with us that we had no idea what was going on with Scott. Part of the problem was that Scott had no functioning radio, so none of us could communicate directly with him. We didn't even know whether he was alive or dead. At some point it dawned on me that Scott was probably suffering the same fate as Rob. Later, several of us were able to reconstruct Scott's movements on May 10 and 11.
Scott reached the summit at 3:40 p.m.—also well after his own prescribed turnaround time. The Mountain Madness sirdar (or head Sherpa), Lopsang Jangbu, one of the strongest climbers on the mountain, was waiting for him there. According to Lopsang (interviewed later by writer Jon Krakauer for his best-selling book Into Thin Air), Scott lingered on the summit for 15 or 20 minutes, during which he complained about his condition. In Lopsang's paraphrase, what he said was "I am too tired. I am sick, also, need medicine for stomach." Alarmed, Lopsang urged, "Scott, please, we go fast down."
As they started the descent, Rob was still on the summit, waiting for Doug Hansen. Scott was so out of it that he couldn't handle the short, normally easy rappels over the rock steps high on the ridge. To circumvent one series of steps, he glissaded, sitting on his rear end, down a snow slope parallel to them, but then he had to perform a 330-foot (101-meter) traverse through knee-deep snow to regain the route.
At 6 p.m., just above a broad shoulder called the Balcony, at 27,600 feet (8,413 meters), Lopsang, who had stayed behind to aid others in trouble, caught up with Scott. Seeing that Scott had taken off his mask, Lopsang put it back over his face and made sure he was breathing oxygen. But the words Scott uttered were further proof of his deterioration. According to Lopsang, "He says, 'I am very sick, too sick to go down. I am going to jump.' He is saying many times, acting like crazy man, so I tie him on rope, quickly, otherwise he is jumping down into Tibet."
Short-roping Scott, Lopsang got him some 300 feet (91 meters) farther down the ridge before Scott collapsed, unable to walk. In an act of extraordinary loyalty, Lopsang hunkered beside his team leader on a small, snow-covered ledge, preparing to spend the night with him. As Lopsang later reported to Jon, "He tell me, 'Lopsang, you go down, you go down.' I tell him, 'No, I stay together here with you.'"
At 8 p.m. another refugee appeared out of the darkness. It was Makalu Gau Ming-Ho, the leader of the Taiwanese expedition, accompanied by two of his team's Sherpas. Equally played out, Makalu settled onto the same ledge, freeing his Sherpas to head down to the South Col.
For another hour Lopsang shared the vigil with Makalu and Scott, even while he got so cold that he doubted his own chances of survival. But Scott once more urged him: "'You go down, send up Anatoli [Boukreev; Scott's Russian climbing guide].' So I say, 'OK, I go down, I send quick Sherpa and Anatoli up.'"
The next morning two Sherpas from Scott's team, Tashi Tshering and Ngawang Sya Kya (Lopsang's father), headed back up the ridge to try to rescue Scott. Despite the pummeling wind, they forced their way up to the bivouac ledge. There they found Scott barely breathing, his eyes fixed in a vacant stare; they tried to administer oxygen, but it seemed to do no good. Scott was just a thousand vertical feet (305 meters) above the safety of the South Col, but he might as well have been on the far side of the moon. Makalu was in almost as bad shape, but he was able to drink some tea and breathe from the bottles of oxygen the Sherpas had brought up. In another heroic rescue effort, Tashi and Ngawang put Makalu on a short rope and got him down to the South Col.
Having failed to rouse Scott and get him moving downward, the Sherpas had, in effect, given him up for dead. But Anatoli could not bear to accept that verdict. Though near exhaustion himself, he set out at 5 p.m.—only a little more than an hour before dark—to make one last effort to save Scott. It was not till 7:30 or 8 p.m. that he reached the bivouac ledge. There, in the beam of his headlamp, he saw that it was too late. As Anatoli later told Jon, "His oxygen mask is around face, but bottle is empty. He is not wearing mittens; hands completely bare. Down suit is unzipped, pulled off his shoulder, one arm is outside clothing. There is nothing I can do. Scott is dead." Anatoli covered Scott's face with his backpack, then descended to the South Col.
What most of us believe today is that Scott was in the grips of cerebral edema—fluid buildup in the brain, causing extreme confusion and loss of coordination. The hallucination that he could jump back to camp is a typical manifestation of that ailment. Yet because he was the expedition leader, there was no one else in a position to recognize Scott's condition and send him down. The very edema probably prevented Scott from recognizing what a predicament he was in. He simply thought he was tired, feeling ill, just having a bad day. There was no reason for him to go to the summit, but it would have been unthinkable for him to let the clients go up without him. In a sense, too, Scott had probably come to underestimate Everest. He was known to joke about how easy the South Col route was, referring to it as the Yellow Brick Road to the summit. In the same way, after our successful '94 expedition, Rob had advertised a "100 percent success rate" for Adventure Consultants' clients on Everest.
Yet timing was everything. Without the onset of that sudden and violent storm late on May 10, both Rob and Scott might have gotten away with it—even with their late arrival times on the summit.
By May 12 five climbers from the two teams were dead: not only both leaders, but Rob's fellow guide Andy Harris, 31, his client Yasuko Namba, 47, and, of course, his client and friend Doug Hansen, 46. By the end of the deadly spring season of 1996, Everest would take the lives of 12 of its aspirants.
On May 23 our IMAX team climbed to the top on a perfect day. David got footage all the way to the summit, and the film he made, called simply Everest, became the highest grossing IMAX movie of all time. After having spent eight solid months on the project, both the film and the climb were important to us. But we also wanted to send a message that you can climb Everest and still live to talk about it.
I reached the summit at 10 a.m. Without bottled oxygen, I was too cold to linger and wait for the others, so I started the descent alone.
On the way down, just short of the South Summit, I stopped to spend some time with Rob. Before that day, May 23, nobody had been by the spot where Rob had died on May 12. Now he was lying on his side. His upper body was drifted over with snow, covering his head. One arm and a leg were visible. His glove was off, and his hand looked like a big blue swollen claw. There were oxygen bottles piled around him, as if he'd tried to improvise some kind of wind shelter.
Strangely enough, there were three or four ice axes planted in the snow near Rob. I took a photo of them, and later we determined that one of them had belonged to Andy Harris. What happened to him remains as much of a mystery as what happened to Doug Hansen. Neither man's body has been found. Perhaps they both simply stepped off the ridge and fell down the gigantic Kangshung Face. But then why were the axes there? You don't let go of your ax, no matter what.
During the ten days since the disaster, word had trickled up the mountain that Rob's wife, Jan, in New Zealand, and Scott's wife, Jean, in Seattle, wanted us to try to retrieve a single keepsake from each of the bodies. Jan wanted Rob's old Rolex watch, which he wore everywhere. And Jean knew that Scott always wore his wedding ring on a leather cord around his neck, tucked inside his shirt.
But when I got to Rob's body, I couldn't do it. I couldn't make myself roll him over, dig for the watch, and take it off his wrist. I just didn't want to disturb him.
Instead, I simply sat next to Rob, taking in the scene, trying to figure out how things had played out during the storm. This wasn't just a dead body next to me—it was someone I had known really well, with whom I had shared many expeditions. Those moments sitting there were like a funeral, with me the sole mourner. I told myself, OK, this is the last time I'll ever see Rob. This was not a place where I could hang out very long—I needed to keep moving. So I said goodbye to Rob and headed on down.
Over the previous ten days, I'd thought a lot about how composed Rob had remained throughout his ordeal. It was hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to sit stranded at the South Summit and face your last hours alive. Rob was smart enough and experienced enough to know that during his second night there, he would fall asleep and not wake up. Yet over the radio, he assured Jan that all would be well. That was not denial; it was, instead, I think, an act that sprang from a magnificent strength of character.
Two hours later, I sat down again, this time next to Scott's body. He was lying mostly on his back, with one leg flexed, the knee sticking up. His upper torso and head were covered by the backpack, encircled with rope that Anatoli had strung to fix it there.
Once again, I couldn't bring myself to disturb the body of a friend, to rummage through his clothing to retrieve the wedding ring on the cord around his neck. If it had been someone I didn't know, perhaps I could have done it. As I sat there it struck me forcibly that while Rob had been in communication till his last hours, talking to Jan and others, who could in turn talk to him, Scott had died the loneliest of deaths. His last hours had been full of nothingness.
I glanced around, then looked again at the body of my friend, frozen into the slope. I spoke aloud. "Hey, Scott," I said, "how you doing?" Only the sound of the wind answered me.
"What happened, man?"