Tragic Ambitions on Everest
By Anatoli Boukreev, G. Weston DeWalt
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt
All rights reserved.
A star, one that didn't belong, appeared in the night sky over the Himalaya in March 1996. For several consecutive days the star had been moving over the mountains, its trailing tail fanning into the darkness. The "star" was the comet Hyakutake. It was the beginning of the spring season on Mount Everest (8,848 m), that interval of time between the decline of winter and the coming of the summer monsoons when, historically, expeditions to Everest have been most successful, and Hyakutake's stellar trespass was considered an ominous sign by the Sherpas in whose villages the cosmic smear was a matter of concern and conversation.
The Sherpas, an ethnic group indigenous to Tibet, many of whom now live primarily in the highland valleys of Nepal, derive a substantial part of their family incomes from the mountaineering expeditions that come to the Himalaya. Some work as porters, cooks, and yak drivers; others take on the more dangerous and more lucrative roles as high-altitude support personnel, joining foreign expeditions in their ultimate wager: skill and endurance pitted against a physical environment that precludes prolonged human existence.
By 1996, in the seventy-five years that had passed since the first attempt was made on its summit in 1921, more than 140 climbers had died on Mount Everest. Almost 40 percent of those fatalities had been Sherpas. So, when the natural orders were disturbed, the Sherpas took notice.
Kami Noru Sherpa is in his midthirties, married, and the father of three children. He is one of the new generation of Sherpas who have, since the 1950s, exchanged their traditional dress for Gore-Tex parkas and embraced the cash economy of mountaineering. In 1996, as he had been for the past several years, Kami Noru Sherpa was hired by Himalayan Guides, a commercial adventure company based in Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve as a sirdar (manager) for an Everest expedition.
Headed by the bearded and burly Englishman Henry Todd, a fifty-one-year-old former rugby player turned expedition packager, Himalayan Guides had the distinction of never having lost a client. Todd's practicality and good luck in the mountains and his cooperative relationship with Kami Noru Sherpa had brought them both a measure of success in the Himalaya.
In the spring of 1995, Todd had offered a commercial expedition to Mount Everest, taking his client climbers to the mountain from the north side, from Tibet. The expedition had been an unqualified success. Eight climbers from his expedition had made it to the top. After such success, Todd and Kami Noru Sherpa were riding high, but not to the point of overconfidence. In fact, in March 1996, they were both anxious about the season ahead.
Kami Noru Sherpa had pointed out the errant "star" to Todd, and Todd recalls that Kami was disturbed by its presence. When Todd asked Kami Noru Sherpa what it meant to him and the other Sherpas, Kami said simply, "We don't know. We're not liking it."
"It [the comet] had been there for some time," said Todd, "and for the Sherpas it presaged things not going terribly well." A superstition, yes, thought Todd, but a matter of serious concern, because the people who knew the mountain best said it mattered.
To the uncertain meaning of the stellar disruption Todd could add his own problem. As of late March the winter snows had yet to melt to the point where his yak caravan could safely travel the trekking trail that led to the Mount Everest Base Camp (5,300 m). Some Sherpa porters were getting through on a narrow snow-packed trail, but hardly anyone else. Since the quantity of supplies required by expeditions requires the carrying power and capacity of yak teams, the pace of his supply effort had been slowed considerably. It was a headache, not yet a nightmare, but a problem that could grow to that proportion if the trails remained impassable for much longer. The weather window for attempts on the Everest summit stays open only for a brief period and closes abruptly with the coming of the monsoon season. If expeditions are not adequately provisioned when the time for their summit bid arrives, they might as well have never traveled to the mountain.
As almost everyone does in the face of an uncertainty, Todd and Kami Noru Sherpa took actions that might forestall or minimize the problems that each of them faced. In Kathmandu, Nepal (1,400 m), where he was addressing an accumulation of logistical problems and waiting for snows north of him to further melt, Todd took delivery of several cases of J & B Scotch, a gift from one of his climbers who had been sponsored, in part, by the distillery. Giving careful packing instructions to his Sherpas who would be freighting the spirits to his Base Camp, Todd more than half-anticipated some nights when the libation might serve to take off the edge. Kami Noru Sherpa, not a Scotch drinker, prepared for what was ahead in his own way.
On March 29, in his slate-roofed stone house in Pangboche (4,000 m), a village niched into a series of terraces overlooking the trekking trail that winds to the base of Mount Everest, Kami Noru Sherpa held a puja, a ritual thanks to the mountains and a prayer of blessing. At sunrise, in a large, second-floor room above a grain storage area, five Buddhist monks in maroon and saffron robes seated themselves in a circle. Encircling them were Kami Noru Sherpa and several other of the Sherpas from Pangboche who had been hired to work on Everest. A wavering, pale yellow glow from yak-butter lamps and a few stray beams of morning sun offered the only light, nicking here and there the weave of reds and blues in the Tibetan rugs on the hand-sawn plank floors. Spirals of smoke drifted from a cooking fire, and the rich, sweet smell of juniper branches escaped as they were burnt in offering.
The chants of the monks played off the walls and echoed back into their repetition, and with every redoubling came a calm and peace, an assurance that, if the Sherpas honored it, the mountain would protect them and deliver them home. As the puja ended, the monks gave each of the Sherpas a protective amulet, a knotted loop of red string. With quiet reverence and a bow of thanks, each of them accepted the gift and placed the string around their necks.
Over the next few days, as the snows continued to melt, Kami Noru Sherpa and the Sherpas would leave their homes and trek to the Everest Base Camp, where they would join the expeditions that had hired them. Working for anywhere from $2.50 to $50 a day, they would help establish camps, carry loads up the mountain, and cook for and serve the climbers who were coming to Everest in ever greater numbers.
In the early 1980s the number of climbers and expedition support personnel who would gather in the Everest Base Camp during the spring season could have fit into one Paris metro car. In 1996, more than four hundred people would eventually come up the trail and pitch their tents, giving the camp the appearance of a rock concert encampment. One climber described the 1996 Everest Base Camp as having all the appearances of "a circus, except there were more clowns in our tents." By many accounts, there were some real "punters" on the mountain in 1996.
A Taiwanese expedition headed by Makalu Gau was the source of endless jokes, which thinly veiled serious concerns about his team's qualifications and their ability to get off the mountain alive. One climber said, "I'd as soon have been on the mountain with the Jamaican bobsled team." And then there was the Johannesburg Sunday Times Expedition, which had publicly been embraced by Nelson Mandela. Stories about the relative inexperience of many of their climbers and questions about the veracity of their wiry and short-tempered leader, Ian Woodall, were roundly exchanged over Henry Todd's Scotch.
American climber and Everest veteran Ed Viesturs was heard to say, "A lot of people are up here who shouldn't be." Viesturs, thirty-seven, was working as a guide and doubling as an on-camera talent for the MacGillivray Freeman IMAX/IWERKS Expedition, headed by the American climber and filmmaker David Breashears. The film production, with one of the largest budgets ever committed to a documentary about Everest, was to result in a large-format film to be released in 1998. Designed to be projected in theaters outfitted with wraparound screens and state-of-the-art sound systems, the film would offer virtual, armchair Everest.
Breashears, in his early forties, was something of a legend in the Himalaya. More than any other climber, except for perhaps Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest for the first time in 1953, Breashears had been successful in making Everest a cash cow, deriving over the years a substantial portion of his income from his activities on the mountain. In 1985, he had the distinction of having guided Texas businessman and millionaire Dick Bass to the summit. Bass, at fifty-five, became the oldest climber to date to make the top. This accomplishment is seen by many as the pivotal point in the history of attempts to climb Everest. The adventuresome and the well-to-do took notice. If a fifty-five-year-old with motivation and discretionary income could do it, anybody could! Commercial expedition companies were spawned to address the demand that was stimulated and to service customers who could pay big dollars for big mountains.
As Breashears and his IMAX/IWERKS expeditionary force trekked toward the Everest Base Camp, they made an impression. Not far from Kami Nora Sherpa's house in Pangboche, several members of the expedition had stopped at a teahouse and occupied some of its tables. They ordered tea, but refused the offer of local food, preferring instead home-bought goodies pulled from expedition bags. One veteran at the Everest Base Camp who found the team a little too coiffed and cool referred to them as the "Gucci guys."
Tenting nearby the IMAX/IWERKS Expedition at the Everest Base Camp were Henry Todd's Himalayan Guides expedition and several other commercial expeditions that, like Todd's, had brought paying clients to the mountain. Among the "dollar dogs," as one Everest chronicler has privately labeled commercial expedition members, was the Adventure Consultants Guided Expedition, headed by New Zealander Rob Hall.
Hall, black bearded and imposing with a "Lincolnesque" appearance, had an intensity and quiet reserve that made many think he was much older than his thirty-five years. Since 1990, when his company began taking expeditions to Everest, Hall had taken a record thirty-nine climbers (clients and expedition personnel combined) to the top of Everest. His company's "adverts" that ran in international climbing magazines were large, alluring, and not immodest. One that appeared in early 1995 read: "100% Success! Send for Our Free Color Brochure." One hundred percent that is until May 1995, when he turned all of his clients back from their bid to the summit as deep snows at higher elevations had slowed their progress. No clients had made the summit.
In 1996, Rob Hall was back, ready to go again, determined, if he could, to get back into the win column. The pressure was on. Success, not turnarounds, brought in new business, and there was an additional challenge in 1996: a new competitor in the game.
Scott Fischer from West Seattle, Washington, was coming to the mountain. Six foot four with a chiseled, symmetrical face and long, flowing blond hair, he ran his West Seattle, Washington-based adventure company, Mountain Madness, as an extension of his personal ambition: to climb mountains around the world and to have a hell of a time doing it.*
With his talent, good looks, and charm, he was a prime candidate for mountaineering's poster boy. He had a charismatic personality with the drawing power of an industrial magnet. He could attract clients, motivate them, get them to commit, to write their checks and pack their rucksacks. He was a contender, but new to the business of guiding a commercial expedition to Mount Everest.
His motivation for becoming an Everest "dollar dog," one of his business associates has said, was fairly simple: "I think that he looked at Rob Hall's success and thought ... 'If he can do it, I can do it.' And not in a competitive macho way, but just saying, 'Hey, I'm a really great climber. Why can't I do it, too? ... I'll get clients and I'll go, too.' " Go, too, and make the money, too.
Mountain Madness's former general manager, Karen Dickinson, described the company's decision to package expeditions to Everest as "kind of the ultimate in high-altitude mountaineering. There was a demand from our clients that we wanted to service or else lose them to the competition. If it goes well, it could be very lucrative, so there was a financial motivation. Of course, I can't stress enough that you're equally as likely to lose your shirt.... It's just a high-stakes game financially."
Fischer was focused on the potential of the big rewards that could come from running a successful expedition. He had been thinking about changing his life. Karen Dickinson said, "He had turned forty the year before; his business had finally gotten to where he wanted.... He'd climbed K2 [8,611 m]; he'd climbed Everest; he was established as a successful guide.... He was talking about maybe he wouldn't go back to the summit of Everest again, that he would hire people to do that."
The plan had been loosely sketched, little more than casual conversations between Fischer and Dickinson, but those who knew him best said Fischer was giving more consideration to shaking things up. His personal life, his role in the company, his public persona, everything was up for midlife review.
Fischer had worked at developing the Mountain Madness business since the early 1980s, but it had never consistently provided him a good, steady income. Climbing had been his thing; the business had enabled that, but he'd never been a headliner, had never played in the big tent. A commercial success on Everest, he knew, could considerably alter the picture. If he could draw enough clients at $65,000 apiece (Hall's asking price), and if he could build a successful big-mountain expedition schedule, he could solve a lot of problems, finance a lot of change.
Part of the challenge in his birthing a new direction was his lack of international visibility. He didn't have the reputation of many of the other players in high-altitude mountaineering who graced the covers and pages of climbing magazines and equipment catalogs. As his efforts as an expedition leader had progressed, his personal climbing career had taken a back seat. He had come to feel, as one friend put it, "that he wasn't getting his due in the media ... the press didn't treat him fairly, that he wasn't respected; his name wasn't really brought up much; he wanted to be recognized."
His difficulty, as some of those around him saw it, was his image: accomplished climber, instructor, guide, and photographer, yes, but also swashbuckling, devil-may-care, good-time guy. These characterizations made for a certain kind of notoriety, but it wasn't the kind of image that made the big-dollar clients comfortable or drew the lucrative Fortune 500 sponsorships. He was, for that league, perhaps too "dicey." A successful Everest expedition, one with a lot of visibility, could "skew the do."
Working the phones from their West Seattle office, Dickinson, Fischer, and their staff massaged the client list to promote their expedition, and they mailed out hundreds of promotional brochures, two-color productions that had the graphic allure of a lawn-mower operator's manual. They didn't have the luster or panache of Rob Hall's advertising, but they were on the street with the word: "Climbers on the 1996 team will get a crack at the highest mountain in the world.... We'll build a pyramid of camps, each stocked from the one below. The guides and high-altitude Sherpa staff will fix rope, establish and stock camps, and provide leadership for all summit attempts. Climbers will carry light loads, saving their strength for the summit."
For Fischer's competitors in the Everest game, it was not good news to hear that he'd decided to move into the market. Fischer's easygoing style and his efforts in packaging expeditions to the remotest destinations in Africa, South America, and Asia had attracted a lot of customers from around the world, and his success, if it came, would be especially problematic for Rob Hall, who had been incredibly successful in recruiting American clients for his Everest expeditions. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, G. Weston DeWalt. Copyright © 1997 Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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