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The 1996 Mount Everest disaster refers to the events of 10–11 May 1996, when eight people were caught in a blizzard and died on Mount Everest during summit attempts. In the entire season, fifteen people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest year in Mount Everest's history until the 2014 avalanche. The disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.
Journalist Jon Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine, was in a party led by guide Rob Hall that lost four climbers, and afterwards published the bestseller Into Thin Air which related his experience. Anatoli Boukreev, whose party lost a guide, but no clients, felt impugned by Krakauer's book and co-authored a rebuttal book called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Beck Weathers, of Hall's expedition and Lene Gammelgaard, of Boukreev's expedition, wrote about their experiences of the disaster in their respective books, Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest  and Climbing High. The storm's impact on climbers on the mountain's other side, the North Ridge, where several climbers also died, was detailed in a first-hand account by British filmmaker and writer Matt Dickinson in his book The Death Zone (later republished as The Other Side of Everest).
The following is a list of climbers en route to the summit on 10 May 1996 via the South Col and Southeast Ridge, organized by expedition and role.
The Adventure Consultants' 1996 Everest expedition, led by Rob Hall, consisted of these individuals.
None of the clients on Hall's team had ever summitted an 8000 m peak, and only Fischbeck, Hansen and Hutchison had previous high-altitude Himalayan experience.
Hall had brokered a deal with Outside magazine for advertising space in exchange for a story about the growing popularity of commercial expeditions to Everest. Krakauer was originally slated to climb with Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team, but Hall landed him, at least in part, by agreeing to reduce Outside's fee for Krakauer's spot on the expedition to "less than cost". As a result, Hall was paying out-of-pocket to have Krakauer on his team.
Pete Schoening had decided not to make the final push to the summit while still at Everest Base Camp (5,380 m/17,700 ft). The team began the assault on the summit on 6 May, bypassing Camp I (5,944 m/19,500 ft) and stopping at Camp II (6,500 m/21,300 ft) for two nights. However, Kruse suffered from altitude sickness and possible HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and stopped at Camp I. Fischer climbed down from Camp II and escorted Kruse back to Base Camp for treatment.
"Makalu" Gau Ming-Ho led a 13-member team to Everest and was climbing with Kami Dorje Sherpa (sirdar), Ngima Gombu Sherpa, and Mingma Tshering Sherpa that day.
The previous day (9 May), Taiwanese team member Chen Yu-Nan had died following a fall on the Lhotse Face.
Shortly after midnight on 10 May 1996, the Adventure Consultants expedition began a summit attempt from Camp IV, atop the South Col (7,900 m/25,900 ft). They were joined by six client climbers, three guides and Sherpas from Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness company, as well as an expedition sponsored by the government of Taiwan.
The expeditions quickly encountered delays. The climbing Sherpas and guides had not set the fixed ropes by the time the team reached the Balcony (8,350 m/27,395 ft), and this cost the team almost an hour. There is some question as to the cause of this failure, which cannot now be resolved as the expedition leaders perished.
Upon reaching the Hillary Step (8,760 m/28,740 ft), the climbers again discovered that no fixed line had been placed, and they were forced to wait for an hour while the guides installed the ropes. Because some 33 climbers were attempting the summit on the same day, and Hall and Fischer had asked their climbers to stay within 150 m of each other, there were bottlenecks at the single fixed line at the Hillary Step.
Climbing without supplemental oxygen, guide Boukreev from the Mountain Madness team reached the summit (8,848 m/29,029 ft) first at 1:07 pm. Many of the climbers had not yet reached the summit by 2:00 pm, the last safe time to turn around to reach Camp IV before nightfall.
Boukreev began his descent to Camp IV at 2:30 pm, having spent nearly 1.5 hours at or near the summit helping others complete their climb. By that time, Hall, Krakauer, Harris, Beidleman and Mountain Madness clients Martin Adams and Klev Schoening had reached the summit, and the remaining four Mountain Madness clients had arrived. After this time, Jon Krakauer noted that the weather did not look so benign, and at 3:00 pm snow started to fall and the light was diminishing. Gau summitted about 3:00 pm and noticed incoming bad weather at 3:10.
Hall's Sirdar, Ang Dorje Sherpa, and other climbing Sherpas waited at the summit for the clients. Near 3:00 pm, they began their descent. On the way down, Ang Dorje encountered client Doug Hansen above the Hillary Step, and ordered him to descend. Hansen did not respond. When Hall arrived at the scene, he sent the Sherpas down to assist the other clients, and stated that he would remain to help Hansen, who had run out of supplementary oxygen.
Scott Fischer did not summit until 3:45 pm. He was exhausted from the ascent and becoming increasingly ill, possibly suffering from HAPE or HACE, or a combination of both. Gau, his Sherpas, and Doug Hansen reached the summit even later.
Boukreev recorded that he reached Camp IV by 5:00 pm. The reasons for Boukreev's decision to descend ahead of his clients are disputed. Boukreev maintained that he wanted to be ready to assist struggling clients farther down the slope, and to retrieve hot tea and extra oxygen if necessary. Boukreev's decision not to use bottled oxygen was sharply criticized by Jon Krakauer. Boukreev's supporters (who include G. Weston DeWalt, who co-wrote The Climb) state that using bottled oxygen gives a false sense of security. Krakauer and his supporters point out that, without bottled oxygen, Boukreev was unable to directly help his clients descend. They state that Boukreev said that he was going down with client Martin Adams, but Boukreev later descended faster and left Adams behind.
The worsening weather began causing difficulties for the descending team members. By now, the blizzard on the Southwest Face of Everest was diminishing visibility, burying the fixed ropes and obliterating the trail back to Camp IV that the teams had broken on the ascent.
Fischer, helped by Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, was unable to descend below the Balcony (8,350 m/27,395 ft) in the storm. Sherpas left Makalu Gau (at 8,230 m/27,000 ft by Gau's account) with Fischer and Lopsang when he too became unable to proceed. Eventually, Lopsang was persuaded by Fischer to descend and leave him and Gau.
Hall radioed for help, saying that Hansen had fallen unconscious, but was still alive. At 5:30 pm Adventure Consultants guide Andy Harris, carrying supplementary oxygen and water, began climbing alone from the South Summit (8,749 m/28,700 ft) to Hansen and Hall at the top of Hillary Step.
Krakauer's account notes that by this time, the weather had deteriorated into a full-scale blizzard. "Snow pellets borne on 70-mph winds stung my face." Boukreev gives 6:00 pm as "the onset of a blizzard".
Several climbers became lost on the South Col. Mountain Madness members Beidleman, Klev Schoening, Fox, Madsen, Pittman, and Gammelgaard, along with Adventure Consultants' Mike Groom, Beck Weathers, and Yasuko Namba, wandered in the blizzard until midnight. When they could no longer walk, they huddled some 20 m from a dropoff of the Kangshung Face.
Near midnight, the blizzard cleared enough for the team to see Camp IV, some 200 m away. Beidleman, Groom, Schoening, and Gammelgaard set off to find help. Madsen and Fox remained with the group to shout for the rescuers. Boukreev located the climbers and brought Pittman, Fox, and Madsen to safety. Boukreev had prioritized Pittman, Fox and Madsen over Namba, who seemed close to death. Boukreev did not see Beck Weathers. Having made two forays to rescue these three climbers, Boukreev, in common with all other climbers then at Camp IV, was exhausted. Neither Boukreev nor any of the other climbers at Camp IV felt able to make another attempt to reach Namba and Weathers.
On 11 May, at 4:43 am Hall radioed down and said that he was on the South Summit (8,749 m/28,700 ft). He reported that Harris had reached the two men, but that Hansen, who had been with him since the previous afternoon, was now 'gone'. In addition, he said that Harris was missing as well. Hall was not breathing bottled oxygen because his regulator was too choked with ice.
By 9:00 am, Hall had fixed his oxygen mask, but indicated that his frostbitten hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes. Later in the afternoon, he radioed to Base Camp, asking them to call his wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During this last communication, he reassured her that he was reasonably comfortable and told her, "Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much." Shortly thereafter, he died, and his body was found on 23 May by mountaineers from the IMAX expedition. The bodies of Doug Hansen and Andy Harris have not been found to date.
Meanwhile, Stuart Hutchison, a client on Hall's team who turned around before the summit on 10 May, launched a second search for Weathers and Namba. He found both alive but barely responsive and severely frostbitten, and in no condition to move. Making a difficult decision that they could not be saved by the hypoxic survivors at Camp IV nor evacuated in time, he left them for nature to take its course, which the other survivors soon agreed was the only choice.
However, Weathers later in the day regained consciousness and walked alone by his own power to the camp, surprising everyone there, though he was still suffering severe hypothermia and frostbite. Despite oxygen and attempts to rewarm him, Weathers was almost abandoned again the next morning, 12 May, after a storm had collapsed his tent overnight and the survivors once again thought he had died; Krakauer discovered he was still conscious as the survivors in Camp IV prepared to evacuate. Despite his worsening condition, Weathers found he could still move mostly under his own power and a rescue team was mobilizing, hopeful of getting Weathers down the mountain alive. Over the next two days, Weathers was ushered down to Camp II with the assistance of eight healthy climbers from various expeditions, and would be evacuated by a daunting helicopter rescue. He would eventually recover but lose his nose, right hand, and all the fingers on his left hand due to frostbite.
The climbing Sherpas located Fischer and Gau on 11 May, but Fischer's condition had deteriorated so much that they were only able to give palliative care before rescuing Gau. Boukreev made a subsequent rescue attempt, but found Fischer's frozen body at around 7 pm. Like Weathers, Gau was also evacuated by helicopter.
Less well known are the other three fatalities of the day, who were the climbers from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police North Col expedition from India. The expedition was led by Commandant (equiv to Lieutenant Colonel) Mohinder Singh, and is credited as being the first Indian ascent of Everest from the North side.
On 10 May 1996, Subedar (eqv. to Sergeant) Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik (equivalent to Lance Corporal) Dorje Morup and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor were part of a six-man summit attempt from the North Side. The summit team did not have any Sherpas to guide them. They were the first team of the season to go up the North Face. It would be their responsibility to fix the ropes during ascent and break the trail to the top, a task that has its own share of difficulties. The team was caught in the blizzard above Camp IV. While three of the six members turned down, Samanla, Paljor and Morup decided to go for the summit. Samanla was an accomplished mountaineer who had summitted Everest in 1984 and Kanchenjunga in 1991.
At around 6:00 pm (3:45 pm Nepal Time), the three climbers radioed to their expedition leader that they had arrived at the summit. While the Indian camp was jubilant in their celebrations, some of the other mountaineers at base camp had already expressed their reservations about the timing, which was quite late in the day to be on the summit. There is also a dispute whether the three had actually reached the summit. Krakauer claims that the climbers were at 8,700 m (28,550 ft), roughly 150 m (500 ft) short of the topmost point. This is based on the interview given by a later Japanese team to Richard Cowpens of the London Financial Express. Due to bad visibility and thick clouds which obscured the summit, the climbers believed they had reached the top. This also explains why the climbers did not run into the teams that summitted from the South Side.
The three climbers left an offering of prayer flags, katas and pitons. Samanla, the summit team leader, decided to spend extra time for religious ceremonies and instructed the other two climbers to begin their descent. There was no radio contact after that. Back at the camps below, anxious team members saw two headlamps moving just above the second step (8,570 m/28,120 ft). None of the three managed to come back to high camp at 8,320 m (27,300 ft).
On 11 May 1996, on the morning after Samanla, Paljor and Morup had made their push for the summit and encountered the blizzard, a Japanese team from the Fukuoka expedition started its final ascent from the North side. The Fukuoka climbers would report seeing other climbers during their summit push – not unexpected given the number of climbers camped or climbing on the final 550 m (1,800 ft) of the mountain that day.
(All Times Beijing Time)
In Krakauer's account, the lone climber, (whom Krakauer believes to be Paljor) was still moaning and frostbitten from exposure over the night. The Japanese climbers ignored him and set out for the summit. After ascending the second step, they ran into the other two climbers, probably Samanla and Morup. Krakauer notes "No words were passed, No water, food or oxygen exchanged hands. The Japanese moved on ...".
Initially, the apparent indifference of the Japanese climbers was dumbfounding, as the Indian expedition leader told later, "The Japanese had initially pledged to help the search for the missing Indians. But hours later, they pressed on with their attempt to reach the summit, despite bad weather." The Japanese team reached the summit at 11:45 am (Nepal Time). By the time the Japanese climbers descended, one of the two Indians was already dead and the other near death. They could not find any trace of the third climber further down.
The Japanese team denied that they had ever encountered the dying climbers on the way up.
Captain Kohli, an official of the Indian Mountaineering Federation, who earlier had denounced the Japanese, later retracted his claim that the Japanese had reported meeting the Indians on 10 May.
"The ITBP accepted the Fukuoka party statements that they neither abandoned nor refused to help the Indians." The ITBP's director general "commented that a misunderstanding arose from communication difficulties between Indian attack party members and their Base Camp."
Paljor's body, nicknamed "Green Boots," has served as a marker for subsequent climbers alongside the limestone alcove where the body lies.
The disaster was partially caused by the sheer number of climbers (34 on that day) attempting to ascend. The congestion of the crowd, combined with delays in securing ropes, caused bottlenecks at the Hillary Step. This delayed the ascent of many climbers, and therefore, many summitted after the safe 2:00 pm turnaround time.
Jon Krakauer has suggested that the use of bottled oxygen and commercial guides, who would personally accompany and take care of all pathmaking, equipment, and important decisions, allowed otherwise unqualified climbers to attempt to summit, leading to dangerous situations and more deaths. In addition, he wrote that the competition between Hall and Fischer's guiding companies may have led to Hall's decision not to turn back on 10 May after the pre-decided time for summiting of 2:00 pm; Krakauer also acknowledges that his own presence as a journalist for an important magazine for mountaineers may have added pressure to guide clients to the summit despite growing dangers. He proposed banning bottled oxygen except for emergency cases, arguing that this would both decrease the growing pollution on Everest—many bottles have accumulated on its slopes—and keep marginally qualified climbers off the mountain. He does point out, however, that climbing Everest has always been a highly dangerous expedition even before guided tours, with one fatality per four climbers attaining the summit. Further, he notes that many of the poor decisions made on 10 May were after two or more days of inadequate oxygen, nourishment, rest (due to the effects of entering the death zone above 8,000 m/26,000 ft). He concludes that decisions made in such conditions should not be easily judged by the general population, who have no such experience.
Krakauer also elaborated on the statistical curiosities of fatality rates on Everest and how 1996 was "business as usual". The record number of 12 fatalities in the spring climbing season that year was 3 percent of the 398 climbers who had ascended above Base Camp—slightly below the historical average of 3.3 percent at that time. Additionally, 12 climbers had died that season and 84 had reached the summit. This is a ratio of 1 in 7—significantly less than the historical average prior to 1996 of 1 in 4. While since then the fatality rates on Everest have dropped considerably, accounting for the volume of climbers in 1996 compared to prior years, 1996 was statistically a safer-than-average year.
In May 2004, Kent Moore, a physicist, and John L. Semple, a surgeon, both researchers from the University of Toronto, told New Scientist magazine that an analysis of weather conditions on 11 May suggested that freak weather caused oxygen levels to plunge by around 14%.
|Name||Nationality||Expedition||Location of death||Cause of Death|
|Andrew Harris (Guide)||New Zealand||Adventure Consultants||Southeast Ridge, 8700 m||Unknown; hypothesized as falling during descent near summit|
|Doug Hansen (Client)||United States||South Summit|
|Rob Hall (Guide)||New Zealand||Exposure|
|Yasuko Namba (Client)||Japan||South Col|
|Scott Fischer (Guide)||United States||Mountain Madness||Southeast Ridge, 8300 m|
|Subedar Tsewang Samanla||India||Indo-Tibetan Border Police||Northeast Ridge, 8600 m|
|Lance Naik Dorje Morup||India|
|Head Constable Tsewang Paljor||India|
The following is a list of the other fatalities during the spring 1996 climbing season on Everest. These deaths were not directly related to the storm or the events of the 10–11 May 1996 Everest disaster.
The 1996 tragedy is subject of a documentary by director David Breashears, released in 2007 under the name Remnants of Everest: The 1996 Tragedy. It was released in the U.S.A. under the name Storm over Everest. The soundtrack of the documentary was composed by Jocelyn Pook.
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