Treachery and cruelty on world’s highest peak
A new film tells the real-life story of a tragedy which claimed eight lives on Mt Everest in 1996. Have vanity and greed ruined the once honourable pursuit of extreme adventure?
It was the early afternoon of 10 May 1996. Jon Krakauer had just been to the summit of Mount Everest but, as he stood 180 feet below it, he saw something which terrified him. There were 20 people, three of whom had already attached themselves to the rope which he needed to descend, queuing below him to reach the top of the mountain.
As Krakauer waited for them to inch past, the last of his oxygen ran out. He faced the prospect of lowering himself down an exposed 40-feet wall of rock and ice, with an oxygen-deprived brain.
For the climbers passing him, the danger was less immediate but even more severe. As they celebrated reaching the top, a bank of cloud gradually rolled into view, bringing a violent storm. By the end of the following day, eight people would be dead, including three of the most experienced mountaineering guides in the world.
Krakauer lived to write his account of the disaster in the bestselling book Into Thin Air. Tomorrow, the story will be told in another form, as the film Everest is released.
The film explores a risky, competitive environment. Everest was crowded in 1996, with only a brief period each year suitable for climbing the mountain and increasing levels of interest in reaching the top. Groups from around the world had gathered for summit attempts and many of those involved were clients of varied ages and abilities who had paid considerable sums for the opportunity. When bad weather struck, a combination of events which brought lots of barely-qualified people to the world’s highest mountain proved deadly.
Improved equipment and weather forecasting techniques have made it easier to climb Everest in recent years. Summit attempts are now far more likely to be successful, and more than 4,000 people have now reached the top. But deaths remain common and observers fear some of the cultural problems on the mountain remain in place. On just one day in 2012, 234 climbers reached the summit of Everest, setting a record, and reaching the summit is becoming cheaper.
On top of the world
Some see man’s efforts on Everest as a testament to the best in the human spirit. Without the thirst for adventure, we would never have discovered anything of value. Those who tackle the world’s highest mountains teach all of us what we are capable of and how much risk we can take.
But others despair of what Everest says about us. Our vain desire to be able to say we have been to the summit leads us to behave in a reckless and entitled fashion. To treat climbing to the highest point on the planet as a commercial enterprise cheapens the experience. The top of Everest should remain exclusively for those who have dedicated their lives to mountaineering.
- Should we be allowed to climb Mount Everest?
- Should we be proud of what we have done on Everest?
- Create an advert for the film (on paper or, if you have the means, on video).
- Write a letter to someone organising an expedition to Everest, explaining what dangers they should be aware of and how you think they should deal with them.
Some People Say...
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”T.S. Eliot
What do you think?
Q & A
- Can I take any inspiration from this disaster?
- The actions of those involved were very varied, but the urgency of the situation drew some impressive responses. Some of those who were on the mountain responded to the emergency with great courage and selflessness; Andy Harris, for example, was a guide who went up the mountain in the storm to try to deliver oxygen to two others stranded near the summit. He paid for his decision with his life.
- But why would I put myself in danger in the first place?
- Those who go to the top of Everest often do so because they are goal-oriented people. George Mallory, who died near the summit of Everest in 1924, gave a particularly famous response to a reporter who asked him why he wanted to get to the top, saying simply: ‘Because it’s there’.
- Mount Everest
- Everest lies in the Himalayas, on the border between Nepal and Tibet (an autonomous region within China). The summit of Everest is 8,848m (29,030 feet) above sea level — a similar height to that at which jumbo jets fly.
- Those who went to the summit late in the afternoon risked descending after dark. Critics say the competition between different groups on Everest caused some to continue to the summit when they should have turned around.
- Considerable sums
- Rob Hall, an expert who had successfully helped 39 people to reach the summit of Everest in 1996, charged US$65,000 per person for his guidance. Guides tended to climb the Nepalese side of the mountain, where it was easier to get permits and success rates were higher than from Tibet.
- Summit attempts
- Between 1990 and 2012, the success rate of summit attempts increased from 18% to 56%.
- Avalanches are a particular risk. Sixteen guides were killed in an avalanche in 2014 and 22 climbers were killed in an avalanche caused by the Nepalese earthquake in April 2015. But many deaths still occur for other reasons.