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Praise for Jon Krakauer’s INTO THIN AIR

“A book that offers readers the emotional immediacy of a survivor’s testament as well as the precision, detail, and quest for accuracy of a great piece of journalism.… It is impossible to read this book unmoved.”


“Brilliant, haunting.… This is an angry book, made even more so by the fact that hardly anyone seems to have learned a thing from the tragedy.”


“Every bit as absorbing and unnerving as his bestseller, Into the Wild.”


“A searing book.” —OUTSIDE

“Krakauer is an extremely gifted storyteller as well as a relentlessly honest and even-handed journalist, the story is riveting and wonderfully complex in its own right, and Krakauer makes one excellent decision after another about how to tell it.… To call the book an adventure saga seems not to recognize that it is also a deeply thoughtful and finely wrought philosophical examination of the self.”


“Krakauer introduces the many players until they feel familiar, then leads the reader with them up the mountain and into the so- called ‘Death Zone’ above 25,000 feet.”



“Time collapses as, minute-by-minute, Krakauer rivetingly and movingly chronicles what ensued, much of which is near agony to read.… A brilliantly told story.”


“[Krakauer] proves as sure-footed in prose as he was on the mountain … quietly building the suspense as we follow the ill- fated expedition through its preparation and shakedown forays, and then delivering a lucid, blow-by-blow account of the cataclysmic storm and the death and agony following in its wake.”


“Into Thin Air reads like a fine novel—the main characters breathe their way through a plot so commanding, the book is hard to put down.”


“Make room on your shelf for mountaineering classics.… Krakauer’s grip on your emotions will leave you gasping for breath.”


“[A] riveting account of events leading to the death of guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, assistant Andy Harris and two clients.”


“[A] gripping analysis of the tragedy.” —THE TENNESSEAN

“Into Thin Air is the … intense, taut, driving account of what happened. It is an engrossing book, difficult for the reader to put down … superbly reported.”


“Astounding … honest … eloquent.… Through objective and thorough research and in sparkling prose, Krakauer tells a story that arouses fury, disgust, admiration and tears.”



“Meticulously researched and exceptionally well-written, Into Thin Air avoids the hype and easy condemnation that have infested other accounts. The book offers instead vivid details told matter- of-factly, almost quietly. The result is a deeply moving narrative that honors the courage of the people on the mountain while raising profound and possibly unanswerable questions about human behavior in a crisis.”


“Jon Krakauer offers fresh insights into the tragedy in his superb Into Thin Air, in which he adroitly sifts through the misunderstandings, miscalculations and misguided zeal that led his fellow climbers to their doom. His new book is, on every level, a worthy successor to his outstanding Into the Wild.”


“A taut, harrowing narrative of the most lethal season in Everest’s history … Krakauer offers a disturbing look at how technology, publicity, and commercialism have changed mountaineering.”


“Just as he did in his previous book, the acclaimed Into the Wild, Krakauer employs exhaustive reporting, attention to detail, and a crisp, unpretentious writing style to shape the story.”


“The intensity of the tragedy is haunting, and Krakauer’s graphic writing drives it home.”


“[Krakauer] has produced a narrative that is both meticulously researched and deftly constructed.… His story rushes irresistibly forward.”


“Though it comes from the genre named for what it isn’t (nonfiction), this has the feel of literature: Krakauer is Ishmael, the narrator who lives to tell the story but is forever trapped within it.… Krakauer’s reporting is steady but ferocious. The clink


of ice in a glass, a poem of winter snow, will never sound the same.”


“Every once in a while a work of nonfiction comes along that’s as good as anything a novelist could make up … Into Thin Air fits the bill.”


“Deeply upsetting, genuinely nightmarish.… Krakauer writes indelibly.… He’s brilliant.… His story contains what must be one of the essences of hell: the unceasing potential for things to become worse than you fear.”


“Into Thin Air is a remarkable work of reportage and self- examination.… And no book on the 1996 disaster is likely to consider so honestly the mistakes that killed his colleagues.”


“Jon Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer. His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general reevaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport, while his account of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, who died of starvation after challenging the Alaskan wilderness, delves even more deeply and disturbingly into the fascination of nature and the devastating effects of its lure on a young and curious mind.”




Iceland Eiger Dreams Into the Wild

Under the Banner of Heaven



Jon Krakauer is the author of Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory, and is the editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.



Anchor Books Mass-Market Edition, August 2009

Copyright © 1997 by Jon Krakauer Map copyright © 1997 by Anita Karl

Postscript copyright © 1999 by Jon Krakauer

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada

by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Villard Books in 1997. The Anchor Books

edition is published by arrangement with Villard Books.

Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Portions of this work were originally published in Outside.

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Krakauer, Jon.

Into thin air: a personal account of the Mount Everest Disaster/Jon Krakauer.—1st Anchor Books ed.

p. cm. Originally published: New York: Villard, c1997.

1. Mountaineering accidents—Everest, Mount (China and Nepal). 2. Mount Everest Expedition (1996). 3. Krakauer, Jon. I. Title.

[GV199.44.E85K725 1998] 796.52′2′092—dc21 97-42880

eISBN: 978-0-679-46271-2




For Linda;

and in memory of Andy Harris, Doug Hansen, Rob Hall, Yasuko Namba, Scott Fischer, Ngawang

Topche Sherpa, Chen Yu-Nan, Bruce Herrod, Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, and Anatoli Boukreev



Cover Other Books by This Author About the Author Title Page Copyright Dedication Epigraph Map Introduction

Chapter One - Everest Summit: May 10, 1996 • 29,028 Feet Chapter Two - Dehra Dun, India: 1852 • 2,234 Feet Chapter Three - Over Northern India: March 29, 1996 • 30,000 Feet Chapter Four - Phakding: March 31, 1996 • 9,186 Feet Chapter Five - Lobuje: April 8, 1996 • 16,200 Feet Chapter Six - Everest Base Camp: April 12, 1996 • 17,600 Feet Chapter Seven - Camp One: April 13, 1996 • 19,500 Feet Chapter Eight - Camp One: April 16, 1996 • 19,500 Feet Chapter Nine - Camp Two: April 28, 1996 • 21,300 Feet Chapter Ten - Lhotse Face: April 29, 1996 • 23,400 Feet Chapter Eleven - Base Camp: May 6, 1996 • 17,600 Feet Chapter Twelve - Camp Three: May 9, 1996 • 24,000 Feet Chapter Thirteen - Southeast Ridge: May 10, 1996 • 27,600 Feet Chapter Fourteen - Summit: 1:12 P.M., May 10, 1996 • 29,028 Feet Chapter Fifteen - Summit: 1:25 P.M., May 10, 1996 • 29,028 Feet Chapter Sixteen - South Col: 6:00 A.M., May 11, 1996 • 26,000 Feet Chapter Seventeen - Summit: 3:40 P.M., May 10, 1996 • 29,028 Feet


Chapter Eighteen - Northeast Ridge: May 10, 1996 • 28,550 Feet Chapter Nineteen - South Col: 7:30 A.M., May 11, 1996 • 26,000 Feet Chapter Twenty - The Geneva Spür: 9:45 A.M., May 12, 1996 • 25,900 Feet Chapter Twenty-One - Everest Base Camp: May 13, 1996 • 17,600 Feet

Epilogue - Seattle: November 29, 1996 • 270 Feet Author’s Note Postscript Selected Bibliography Acknowledgments


Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being

staged in the civilised world.

—José Ortega y Gasset




In March 1996, Outside magazine sent me to Nepal to participate in, and write about, a guided ascent of Mount Everest. I went as one of eight clients on an expedition led by a well-known guide from New Zealand named Rob Hall. On May 10 I arrived on top of the mountain, but the summit came at a terrible cost.

Among my five teammates who reached the top, four, including Hall, perished in a rogue storm that blew in without warning while we were still high on the peak. By the time I’d descended to Base Camp nine climbers from four expeditions were dead, and three more lives would be lost before the month was out.

The expedition left me badly shaken, and the article was difficult to write. Nevertheless, five weeks after I returned from Nepal I delivered a manuscript to Outside, and it was published in the September issue of the magazine. Upon its completion I attempted to put Everest out of my mind and get on with my life, but that turned out to be impossible. Through a fog of messy emotions, I continued trying to make sense of what had happened up there, and I obsessively mulled the circumstances of my companions’ deaths.

The Outside piece was as accurate as I could make it under the circumstances, but my deadline had been unforgiving, the sequence of events had been frustratingly complex, and the memories of the survivors had been badly distorted by exhaustion, oxygen depletion, and shock. At one point during my research I asked three other people to recount an incident all four of us had witnessed high on the mountain, and none of us could agree on such crucial facts as the time, what had been said, or even who had been present. Within days after the Outside article went to press, I discovered that a few of the details I’d reported were in error. Most were minor inaccuracies of the sort that inevitably creep into works of deadline journalism, but one of my blunders was in no sense


minor, and it had a devastating impact on the friends and family of one of the victims.

Only slightly less disconcerting than the article’s factual errors was the material that necessarily had to be omitted for lack of space. Mark Bryant, the editor of Outside, and Larry Burke, the publisher, had given me an extraordinary amount of room to tell the story: they ran the piece at 17,000 words—four or five times as long as a typical magazine feature. Even so, I felt that it was much too abbreviated to do justice to the tragedy. The Everest climb had rocked my life to its core, and it became desperately important for me to record the events in complete detail, unconstrained by a limited number of column inches. This book is the fruit of that compulsion.

The staggering unreliability of the human mind at high altitude made the research problematic. To avoid relying excessively on my own perceptions, I interviewed most of the protagonists at great length and on multiple occasions. When possible I also corroborated details with radio logs maintained by people at Base Camp, where clear thought wasn’t in such short supply. Readers familiar with the Outside article may notice discrepancies between certain details (primarily matters of time) reported in the magazine and those reported in the book; the revisions reflect new information that has come to light since publication of the magazine piece.

Several authors and editors I respect counseled me not to write the book as quickly as I did; they urged me to wait two or three years and put some distance between me and the expedition in order to gain some crucial perspective. Their advice was sounds, but in the end I ignored it—mostly because what happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out. I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life.

It hasn’t, of course. Moreover, I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment. I wanted my account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty that seemed in danger of leaching away with the passage of time and the dissipation of anguish.


Some of the same people who warned me against writing hastily had also cautioned me against going to Everest in the first place. There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.

The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.

Jon Krakauer Seattle November 1996


DRAMATIS PERSONAE Mount Everest Spring 1996*

Adventure Consultants Guided Expedition

Rob Hall New Zealand, leader and head guide Mike Groom Australia, guide Andy “Harold” Harris New Zealand, guide Helen Wilton New Zealand, Base Camp manager Dr. Caroline Mackenzie New Zealand, Base Camp doctor Ang Tshering Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp sirdar Ang Dorje Sherpa Nepal, climbing sirdar Lhakpa Chhiri Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Kami Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Tenzing Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Arita Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ngawang Norbu Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Chuldum Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Chhongba Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp cook Pemba Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp Sherpa Tendi Sherpa Nepal, cook boy Doug Hansen USA, client Dr. Seaborn Beck Weathers USA, client Yasuko Namba Japan, client Dr. Stuart Hutchison Canada, client


Frank Fischbeck Hong Kong, client Lou Kasischke USA, client Dr. John Taske Australia, client Jon Krakauer USA, client and journalist Susan Allen Australia, trekker Nancy Hutchison Canada, trekker

Mountain Madness Guided Expedition

Scott Fischer USA, leader and head guide Anatoli Boukreev Russia, guide Neal Beidleman USA, guide Dr. Ingrid Hunt USA, Base Camp manager, team doctor Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa Nepal, climbing sirdar Ngima Kale Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp sirdar Ngawang Topche Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Tashi Tshering Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ngawang Dorje Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ngawang Sya Kya Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ngawang Tendi Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Tendi Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa “Big” Pemba Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Jeta Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp Sherpa Pemba Sherpa Nepal, Base Camp cook boy Sandy Hill Pittman USA, client and journalist Charlotte Fox USA, client Tim Madsen USA, client


Pete Schoening USA, client Klev Schoening USA, client Lene Gammelgaard Denmark, client Martin Adams USA, client Dr. Dale Kruse USA, client Jane Bromet USA, journalist

MacGillivray Freeman IMAX/IWERKS Expedition

David Breashears USA, leader and film director Jamling Norgay Sherpa India, deputy leader and film talent Ed Viesturs USA, climber and film talent Araceli Segarra Spain, climber and film talent Sumiyo Tsuzuki Japan, climber and film talent Robert Schauer Austria, climber and cinematographer Paula Barton Viesturs USA, Base Camp manager Audrey Salkeld U.K., journalist Liz Cohen USA, film production manager Liesl Clark USA, film producer and writer Wongchu Sherpa Nepal, sirdar Jangbu Sherpa Nepal, lead camera Sherpa

Taiwanese National Expedition

“Makalu” Gau Ming-Ho Taiwan, leader Chen Yu-Nan Taiwan, climber Kao Tien Tzu Taiwan, climber Chang Jung Chang Taiwan, climber


Hsieh Tzu Sheng Taiwan, climber Chhiring Sherpa Nepal, sirdar Kami Dorje Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ngima Gombu Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Mingma Tshering Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Tenzing Nuri Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Dorje Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Pasang Tamang Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ki Kami Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa

Johannesburg Sunday Times Expedition

Ian Woodall U.K., leader Bruce Herrod U.K., deputy leader and photographer Cathy O’Dowd South Africa, climber Deshun Deysel South Africa, climber Edmund February South Africa, climber Andy de Klerk South Africa, climber Andy Hackland South Africa, climber Ken Woodall South Africa, climber Tierry Renard France, climber Ken Owen South Africa, journalist and trekker Philip Woodall U.K., Base Camp manager Alexandrine Gaudin France, administrative assistant Dr. Charlotte Noble South Africa, team doctor Ken Vernon Australia, journalist Richard Shorey South Africa, photographer


Patrick Conroy South Africa, radio journalist Ang Dorje Sherpa Nepal, climbing sirdar Pemba Tendi Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Jangbu Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Ang Babu Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Dawa Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa

Alpine Ascents International Guided Expedition

Todd Burleson USA, leader and guide Pete Athans USA, guide Jim Williams USA, guide Dr. Ken Kamler USA, client and team doctor Charles Corfield USA, client Becky Johnston USA, trekker and screenwriter

International Commercial Expedition

Mal Duff U.K., leader Mike Trueman Hong Kong, deputy leader Michael Burns U.K., Base Camp manager Dr. Henrik Jessen Hansen Denmark, expedition doctor Veikka Gustafsson Finland, climber Kim Sejberg Denmark, climber Ginge Fullen U.K., climber Jaakko Kurvinen Finland, climber Euan Duncan U.K., climber


Himalayan Guides Commercial Expedition

Henry Todd U.K., leader Mark Pfetzer USA, climber Ray Door USA, climber Michael Jorgensen Denmark, climber Brigitte Muir Australia, climber Paul Deegan U.K., climber Neil Laughton U.K., climber Graham Ratcliffe U.K., climber Thomas Sjögren Sweden, climber Tina Sjögren Sweden, climber Kami Nuru Sherpa Nepal, sirdar

Swedish Solo Expedition

Göran Kropp Sweden, climber Frederic Bloomquist Sweden, filmmaker

Ang Rita Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa and film crew member

Norwegian Solo Expedition

Petter Neby Norway, climber

New Zealand-Malaysian Guided Pumori Expedition

Guy Cotter New Zealand, leader and guide Dave Hiddleston New Zealand, guide Chris Jillet New Zealand, guide


American Commercial Pumori/Lhotse Expedition

Dan Mazur USA, leader Scott Darsney USA, climber and photographer Chantal Mauduit France, climber Stephen Koch USA, climber and snowboarder Brent Bishop USA, climber Jonathan Pratt U.K., climber Diane Taliaferro USA, climber Dave Sharman U.K., climber Tim Horvath USA, climber Dana Lynge USA, climber Martha Johnson USA, climber

Nepali Everest Cleaning Expedition

Sonam Gyalchhen Sherpa Nepal, leader

Himalayan Rescue Association Clinic (in Pheriche Village)

Dr. Jim Litch USA, staff doctor Dr. Larry Silver USA, staff doctor Dr. Cecile Bouvray France, staff doctor Laura Ziemer USA, assistant

Indo-Tibetan Border Police Everest Expedition (climbing from the Tibetan side of the mountain)

Mohindor Singh India, leader


Harbhajan Singh India, deputy leader and climber Tsewang Smanla India, climber Tsewang Paljor India, climber Dorje Morup India, climber Hira Ram India, climber Tashi Ram India, climber Sange Sherpa India, climbing Sherpa Nadra Sherpa India, climbing Sherpa Koshing Sherpa India, climbing Sherpa

Japanese-Fukuoka Everest Expedition (climbing from the Tibetan side of the mountain)

Koji Yada Japan, leader Hiroshi Hanada Japan, climber Eisuke Shigekawa Japan, climber Pasang Tshering Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Pasang Kami Sherpa Nepal, climbing Sherpa Any Gyalzen Nepal, climbing Sherpa

* Not everyone present on Mt. Everest in the spring of 1996 is listed.




EVEREST SUMMIT MAY 10, 1996 • 29,028 FEET

It would seem almost as though there were a cordon drawn round the upper part of these great peaks beyond which no man may go. The truth of course lies in the fact that, at altitudes of 25,000 feet and beyond, the effects of low atmospheric pressure upon the human body are so severe that really difficult mountaineering is impossible and the consequences even of a mild storm may be deadly, that nothing but the most perfect conditions of weather and snow offers the slightest chance of success, and that on the last lap of the climb no party is in a position to choose its day.…

No, it is not remarkable that Everest did not yield to the first few attempts; indeed, it would have been very surprising and not a little sad if it had, for that is not the way of great mountains. Perhaps we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique of ice-claw and rubber slipper, our age of easy mechanical conquest. We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?

Eric Shipton, in 1938 Upon That Mountain

traddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.

It was early in the afternoon of May 10, 1996. I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of ramen soup and a handful


of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial. At 29,028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.

I’d arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climbing guide working for an American commercial expedition, and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide on the New Zealand–based team to which I belonged. Although I was only slightly acquainted with Boukreev, I’d come to know and like Harris well during the preceding six weeks. I snapped four quick photos of Harris and Boukreev striking summit poses, then turned and headed down. My watch read 1:17 P.M. All told, I’d spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.

A moment later, I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the Southeast Ridge, the route we had ascended. Training my lens on a pair of climbers approaching the summit, I noticed something that until that moment had escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.

Later—after six bodies had been located, after a search for two others had been abandoned, after surgeons had amputated the gangrenous right hand of my teammate Beck Weathers—people would ask why, if the weather had begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, ushering a gaggle of relatively inexperienced amateurs—each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be taken safely up Everest—into an apparent death trap?

Nobody can speak for the leaders of the two guided groups involved, because both men are dead. But I can attest that nothing I saw early on the afternoon of May 10 suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down. To my oxygen-depleted mind, the clouds drifting up the grand valley of ice known as the Western Cwm* looked innocuous, wispy, insubstantial. Gleaming in the brilliant midday sun, they appeared no different from the harmless puffs of


convection condensation that rose from the valley almost every afternoon.

As I began my descent I was extremely anxious, but my concern had little to do with the weather: a check of the gauge on my oxygen tank had revealed that it was almost empty. I needed to get down, fast.

The uppermost shank of Everest’s Southeast Ridge is a slender, heavily corniced fin of rock and wind-scoured snow that snakes for a quarter mile between the summit and a subordinate pinnacle known as the South Summit. Negotiating the serrated ridge presents no great technical hurdles, but the route is dreadfully exposed. After leaving the summit, fifteen minutes of cautious shuffling over a 7,000-foot abyss brought me to the notorious Hillary Step, a pronounced notch in the ridge that demands some technical maneuvering. As I clipped into a fixed rope and prepared to rappel over the lip, I was greeted with an alarming sight.

Thirty feet below, more than a dozen people were queued up at the base of the Step. Three climbers were already in the process of hauling themselves up the rope that I was preparing to descend. Exercising my only option, I unclipped from the communal safety line and stepped aside.

The traffic jam was comprised of climbers from three expeditions: the team I belonged to, a group of paying clients under the leadership of the celebrated New Zealand guide Rob Hall; another guided party headed by the American Scott Fischer; and a noncommercial Taiwanese team. Moving at the snail’s pace that is the norm above 26,000 feet, the throng labored up the Hillary Step one by one, while I nervously bided my time.

Harris, who’d left the summit shortly after I did, soon pulled up behind me. Wanting to conserve whatever oxygen remained in my tank, I asked him to reach inside my backpack and turn off the valve on my regulator, which he did. For the next ten minutes I felt surprisingly good. My head cleared. I actually seemed less tired than I had with the gas turned on. Then, abruptly, I sensed that I was suffocating. My vision dimmed and my head began to spin. I was on the brink of losing consciousness.

Instead of turning my oxygen off, Harris, in his hypoxically


impaired state, had mistakenly cranked the valve open to full flow, draining the tank. I’d just squandered the last of my gas going nowhere. There was another tank waiting for me at the South Summit, 250 feet below, but to get there I would have to descend the most exposed terrain on the entire route without the benefit of supplemental oxygen.

And first I had to wait for the mob to disperse. I removed my now useless mask, planted my ice ax into the mountain’s frozen hide, and hunkered on the ridge. As I exchanged banal congratulations with the climbers filing past, inwardly I was frantic: “Hurry it up, hurry it up!” I silently pleaded. “While you guys are fucking around here, I’m losing brain cells by the millions!”

Most of the passing crowd belonged to Fischer’s group, but near the back of the parade two of my teammates eventually appeared, Rob Hall and Yasuko Namba. Demure and reserved, the forty- seven-year-old Namba was forty minutes away from becoming the oldest woman to climb Everest and the second Japanese woman to reach the highest point on each continent, the so-called Seven Summits. Although she weighed just ninety-one pounds, her sparrowlike proportions disguised a formidable resolve; to an astounding degree, Yasuko had been propelled up the mountain by the unwavering intensity of her desire.

Later still, Doug Hansen arrived atop the Step. Another member of our expedition, Doug was a postal worker from a Seattle suburb who’d become my closest friend on the mountain. “It’s in the bag!” I yelled over the wind, trying to sound more upbeat than I felt. Exhausted, Doug mumbled something from behind his oxygen mask that I didn’t catch, shook my hand weakly, then continued plodding upward.

At the very end of the line was Scott Fischer, whom I knew casually from Seattle, where we both lived. Fischer’s strength and drive were legendary—in 1994 he’d climbed Everest without using bottled oxygen—so I was surprised at how slowly he was moving and how hammered he looked when he pulled his mask aside to say hello. “Bruuuuuuce!” he wheezed with forced cheer, employing his trademark frat-boyish greeting. When I asked how he was doing, Fischer insisted that he was feeling fine: “Just dragging ass a


little today for some reason. No big deal.” With the Hillary Step finally clear, I clipped into the strand of orange rope, swung quickly around Fischer as he slumped over his ice ax, and rappelled over the edge.

It was after three o’clock when I made it down to the South Summit. By now tendrils of mist were streaming over the 27,923- foot top of Lhotse and lapping at Everest’s summit pyramid. No longer did the weather look so benign. I grabbed a fresh oxygen cylinder, jammed it onto my regulator, and hurried down into the gathering cloud. Moments after I dropped below the South Summit, it began to snow lightly and visibility went to hell.

Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was still washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres dallied to memorialize their arrival at the apex of the planet, unfurling flags and snapping photos, using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter.

* The Western Cwm, pronounced koom, was named by George Leigh Mallory, who first saw it during the initial Everest expedition of 1921 from the Lho La, a high pass on the border between Nepal and Tibet. Cwm is a Welsh term for valley or cirque.




DEHRA DUN, INDIA 1852 • 2,234 FEET

Far from the mountains in winter, I discovered the blurred photo of Everest in Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. It was a miserable reproduction in which the jagged peaks rose white against a grotesquely blackened and scratched sky. Everest itself, sitting back from the front ones, didn’t even appear highest, but it didn’t matter. It was; the legend said so. Dreams were the key to the picture, permitting a boy to enter it, to stand at the crest of the windswept ridge, to climb toward the summit, now no longer far above. …

This was one of those uninhibited dreams that come free with growing up. I was sure that mine about Everest was not mine alone; the highest point on earth, unattainable, foreign to all experience, was there for many boys and grown men to aspire toward.

Thomas F. Hornbein Everest: The West Ridge

he actual particulars of the event are unclear, obscured by the accretion of myth. But the year was 1852, and the setting was the offices of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in the northern hill station of Dehra Dun. According to the most plausible version of what transpired, a clerk rushed into the chambers of Sir Andrew Waugh, India’s surveyor general, and exclaimed that a Bengali computer named Radhanath Sikhdar, working out of the Survey’s Calcutta bureau, had “discovered the highest mountain in the world.” (In Waugh’s day a computer was a job description rather than a machine.) Designated Peak XV by surveyors in the field who’d first measured the angle of its rise with a twenty-four-inch theodolite three years earlier, the mountain in question jutted from the spine of the Himalaya in the forbidden kingdom of Nepal.

Until Sikhdar compiled the survey data and did the math, nobody had suspected that there was anything noteworthy about


Peak XV. The six survey sites from which the summit had been triangulated were in northern India, more than a hundred miles from the mountain. To the surveyors who shot it, all but the summit nub of Peak XV was obscured by various high escarpments in the foreground, several of which gave the illusion of being much greater in stature. But according to Sikhdar’s meticulous trigonometric reckoning (which took into account such factors as curvature of the earth, atmospheric refraction, and plumb-line deflection), Peak XV stood 29,002* feet above sea level, the planet’s loftiest point.

In 1865, nine years after Sikhdar’s computations had been confirmed, Waugh bestowed the name Mount Everest on Peak XV, in honor of Sir George Everest, his predecessor as surveyor general. As it happened, Tibetans who lived to the north of the great mountain already had a more mellifluous name for it, Jomolungma, which translates to “goddess, mother of the world,” and Nepalis who resided to the south reportedly called the peak Deva-dhunga, “Seat of God.”† But Waugh pointedly chose to ignore these native appellations (as well as official policy encouraging the retention of local or ancient names), and Everest was the name that stuck.

Once Everest was determined to be the highest summit on earth, it was only a matter of time before people decided that Everest needed to be climbed. After the American explorer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen led a Norwegian party to the South Pole in 1911, Everest—the so-called Third Pole—became the most coveted object in the realm of terrestrial exploration. Getting to the top, proclaimed Gunther O. Dyrenfurth, an influential alpinist and chronicler of early Himalayan mountaineering, was “a matter of universal human endeavor, a cause from which there is no withdrawal, whatever losses it may demand.”

Those losses, as it turned out, would not be insignificant. Following Sikhdar’s discovery in 1852, it would require the lives of twenty-four men, the efforts of fifteen expeditions, and the passage of 101 years before the summit of Everest would finally be attained.


Among mountaineers and other connoisseurs of geologic form, Everest is not regarded as a particularly comely peak. Its proportions are too chunky, too broad of beam, too crudely hewn. But what Everest lacks in architectural grace, it makes up for with sheer, overwhelming mass.

Demarcating the Nepal-Tibet border, towering more than 12,000 feet above the valleys at its base, Everest looms as a three-sided pyramid of gleaming ice and dark, striated rock. The first eight expeditions to Everest were British, all of which attempted the mountain from the northern, Tibetan, side—not so much because it presented the most obvious weakness in the peak’s formidable defenses but rather because in 1921 the Tibetan government opened its long-closed borders to foreigners, while Nepal remained resolutely off limits.

The first Everesters were obliged to trek 400 arduous miles from Darjeeling across the Tibetan plateau simply to reach the foot of the mountain. Their knowledge of the deadly effects of extreme altitude was scant, and their equipment was pathetically inadequate by modern standards. Yet in 1924 a member of the third British expedition, Edward Felix Norton, reached an elevation of 28,126 feet—just 900 feet below the summit—before being defeated by exhaustion and snow blindness. It was an astounding achievement that was probably not surpassed for twenty-eight years.

I say “probably” because of what transpired four days after Norton’s summit assault. At first light on June 8, two other members of the 1924 British team, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine, departed the highest camp for the top.

Mallory, whose name is inextricably linked to Everest, was the driving force behind the first three expeditions to the peak. While on a lantern-slide lecture tour of the United States, it was he who so notoriously quipped “Because it is there” when an irritating newspaperman demanded to know why he wanted to climb Everest. In 1924 Mallory was thirty-eight, a married schoolmaster with three young children. A product of upper-tier English society, he was also an aesthete and idealist with decidedly romantic sensibilities. His athletic grace, social charm, and striking physical beauty had made him a favorite of Lytton Strachey and the


Bloomsbury crowd. While tentbound high on Everest, Mallory and his companions would read aloud to one another from Hamlet and King Lear.

As Mallory and Irvine struggled slowly toward the summit of Everest on June 8, 1924, mist billowed across the upper pyramid, preventing companions lower on the mountain from monitoring the two climbers’ progress. At 12:50 P.M., the clouds parted momentarily, and teammate Noel Odell caught a brief but clear glimpse of Mallory and Irvine high on the peak, approximately five hours behind schedule but “moving deliberately and expeditiously” toward the top.

The two climbers failed to return to their tent that night, however, and neither Mallory nor Irvine was ever seen again. Whether one or both of them reached the summit before being swallowed by the mountain and into legend has been fiercely debated ever since. In 1999, the well-known American climber Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s body on a sloping ledge at 27,000 feet, where it had come to rest after an apparent fall seventy-five years earlier. Several intriguing artifacts were found with Mallory’s remains, but Anker’s astonishing discovery raised more questions than it answered. The balance of the evidence strongly suggested that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the top before they perished.

In 1949, after centuries of inaccessibility, Nepal opened its borders to the outside world, and a year later the new Communist regime in China closed Tibet to foreigners. Those who would climb Everest therefore shifted their attention to the south side of the peak. In the spring of 1953 a large British team, organized with the righteous zeal and overpowering resources of a military campaign, became the third expedition to attempt Everest from Nepal. On May 28, following two and a half months of prodigious effort, a high camp was dug tenuously into the Southeast Ridge at 27,900 feet. Early the following morning Edmund Hillary, a rangy New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a highly skilled Sherpa mountaineer, set out for the top breathing bottled oxygen.

By 9:00 A.M. they were at the South Summit, gazing across the dizzyingly narrow ridge that led to the summit proper. Another hour brought them to the foot of what Hillary described as “the


most formidable-looking problem on the ridge—a rock step some forty feet high.… The rock itself, smooth and almost holdless, might have been an interesting Sunday afternoon problem to a group of expert climbers in the Lake District, but here it was a barrier beyond our feeble strength to overcome.”

With Tenzing nervously paying out rope from below, Hillary wedged himself into a cleft between the rock buttress and a fin of vertical snow at its edge, then began to inch his way up what would thereafter be known as the Hillary Step. The climbing was strenuous and sketchy, but Hillary persisted until, as he would later write,

I could finally reach over the top of the rock and drag myself out of the crack on to a wide ledge. For a few moments I lay regaining my breath and for the first time really felt the fierce determination that nothing now could stop us reaching the top. I took a firm stance on the ledge and signaled to Tenzing to come on up. As I heaved hard on the rope Tenzing wriggled his way up the crack and finally collapsed exhausted at the top like a giant fish when it has just been hauled from the sea after a terrible struggle.

Fighting exhaustion, the two climbers continued up the undulating ridge above. Hillary wondered,

rather dully, whether we would have enough strength left to get through. I cut around the back of another hump and saw that the ridge ahead dropped away and we could see far into Tibet. I looked up and there above us was a rounded snow cone. A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps, and Tensing [sic] and I were on top.

And thus, shortly before noon on May 29, 1953, did Hillary and Tenzing become the first men to stand atop Mount Everest.

Three days later, word of the ascent reached Queen Elizabeth on the eve of her coronation, and the Times of London broke the news on the morning of June 2 in its early edition. The dispatch had been filed from Everest via a coded radio message (to prevent competitors from scooping the Times) by a young correspondent named James Morris who, twenty years later, having earned considerable esteem as a writer, would famously change his gender


to female and his Christian name to Jan. As Morris wrote four decades after the momentous climb in Coronation Everest: The First Ascent and the Scoop That Crowned the Queen,

It is hard to imagine now the almost mystical delight with which the coincidence of the two happenings [the coronation and the Everest ascent] was greeted in Britain. Emerging at last from the austerity which had plagued them since the second world war, but at the same time facing the loss of their great empire and the inevitable decline of their power in the world, the British had half-convinced themselves that the accession of the young Queen was a token of a fresh start—a new Elizabethan age, as the newspapers like to call it. Coronation Day, June 2, 1953, was to be a day of symbolical hope and rejoicing, in which all the British patriotic loyalties would find a supreme moment of expression: and marvel of marvels, on that very day there arrived the news from distant places—from the frontiers of the old Empire, in fact—that a British team of mountaineers … had reached the supreme remaining earthly objective of exploration and adventure, the top of the world.…

The moment aroused a whole orchestra of rich emotions among the British—pride, patriotism, nostalgia for the lost past of the war and derring do, hope for a rejuvenated future.… People of a certain age remember vividly to this day the moment when, as they waited on a drizzly June morning for the Coronation procession to pass by in London, they heard the magical news that the summit of the world was, so to speak, theirs.

Tenzing became a national hero throughout India, Nepal, and Tibet, each of which claimed him as one of their own. Knighted by the queen, Sir Edmund Hillary saw his image reproduced on postage stamps, comic strips, books, movies, magazine covers— over night, the hatchet-faced beekeeper from Auckland had been transformed into one of the most famous men on earth.

Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest a month before I was conceived, so I didn’t share in the collective sense of pride and wonder that swept the world—an event that an older friend says was comparable, in its visceral impact, to the first manned landing on the moon. A decade later, however, a subsequent ascent of the


mountain helped establish the trajectory of my life. On May 22, 1963, Tom Hornbein, a thirty-two-year-old doctor

from Missouri, and Willi Unsoeld, thirty-six, a professor of theology from Oregon, reached the summit of Everest via the peak’s daunting West Ridge, previously unclimbed. By then the summit had already been achieved on four occasions, by eleven men, but the West Ridge was considerably more difficult than either of the two previously established routes: the South Col and Southeast Ridge or the North Col and Northeast Ridge. Hornbein’s and Unsoeld’s ascent was—and continues to be—deservedly hailed as one of the great feats in the annals of mountaineering.

Late in the day on their summit push, the two Americans climbed a stratum of steep, crumbly rock—the infamous Yellow Band. Surmounting this cliff demanded tremendous strength and skill; nothing so technically challenging had ever been climbed at such extreme altitude. Once on top of the Yellow Band, Hornbein and Unsoeld doubted they could safely descend it. Their best hope for getting off the mountain alive, they concluded, was to go over the top and down the well-established Southeast Ridge route, an extremely audacious plan, given the late hour, the unknown terrain, and their rapidly diminishing supply of bottled oxygen.

Hornbein and Unsoeld arrived on the summit at 6:15 P.M., just as the sun was setting, and were forced to spend the night in the open above 28,000 feet—at the time, the highest bivouac in history. It was a cold night, but mercifully without wind. Although Unsoeld’s toes froze and would later be amputated, both men survived to tell their tale.

I was nine years old at the time and living in Corvallis, Oregon, where Unsoeld also made his home. He was a close friend of my father’s, and I sometimes played with the oldest Unsoeld children— Regon, who was a year older than me, and Devi, a year younger. A few months before Willi Unsoeld departed for Nepal, I reached the summit of my first mountain—an unspectacular 9,000-foot volcano in the Cascade Range that now sports a chair-lift to the top—in the company of my dad, Willi, and Regon. Not surprisingly, accounts of the 1963 epic on Everest resonated loud and long in my preadolescent imagination. While my friends idolized John Glenn, Sandy Koufax, and Johnny Unitas, my own heroes were Hornbein


and Unsoeld. Secretly, I dreamed of ascending Everest myself one day; for

more than a decade it remained a burning ambition. By the time I was in my early twenties climbing had become the focus of my existence to the exclusion of almost everything else. Achieving the summit of a mountain was tangible, immutable, concrete. The incumbent hazards lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life. I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end.

And climbing provided a sense of community as well. To become a climber was to join a self-contained, rabidly idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large. The culture of ascent was characterized by intense competition and undiluted machismo, but for the most part, its constituents were concerned with impressing only one another. Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobody was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware.

In those years I lived to climb, existing on five or six thousand dollars a year, working as a carpenter and a commercial salmon fisherman just long enough to fund the next trip to the Bugaboos or Tetons or Alaska Range. But at some point in my midtwenties I abandoned my boyhood fantasy of climbing Everest. By then it had become fashionable among alpine cognoscenti to denigrate Everest as a “slag heap”—a peak lacking sufficient technical challenges or aesthetic appeal to be a worthy objective for a “serious” climber, which I desperately aspired to be. I began to look down my nose at the world’s highest mountain.

Such snobbery was rooted in the fact that by the early 1980s, Everest’s easiest line—via South Col and the Southeast Ridge—had been climbed more than a hundred times. My cohorts and I referred to the Southeast Ridge as the “Yak Route.” Our contempt was only reinforced in 1985, when Dick Bass—a wealthy fifty-five- year-old Texan with limited climbing experience—was ushered to


the top of Everest by an extraordinary young climber named David Breashears, an event that was accompanied by a blizzard of uncritical media attention.

Previously, Everest had by and large been the province of elite mountaineers. In the words of Michael Kennedy, the editor of Climbing magazine, “To be invited on an Everest expedition was an honor earned only after you served a long apprenticeship on lower peaks, and to actually reach the summit elevated a climber to the upper firmament of mountaineering stardom.” Bass’s ascent changed all that. In bagging Everest, he became the first person to climb all of the Seven Summits,* a feat that brought him worldwide renown, spurred a swarm of other weekend climbers to follow in his guided boot-prints, and rudely pulled Everest into the postmodern era.

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