Lifeline To More Tomorrow’s tells of the sudden storm which blew across Mount Everest in 1996.
I looked around the room at the Nepalese Tea House where our Island Peak team were staying. Our home for the night was a cosy tea house in the small Khumbu village of Dingboche. On the various busy tables I counted 3 copies of the book ‘Into Thin Air‘ by Jon Krakauer. One of them was on our table. It had been brought to Nepal by team member James. It is usually the same. Whenever I bring a team here there’s almost always someone with a copy of the book. This undoubtedly goes some way to explaining why it has sold over 3 million copies.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the book? Just in case you haven’t, Krakauer’s book tells the harrowing story of the 1996 Everest disaster. So many climbers lost their lives when what is often described as a ‘sudden killer storm’ blew in while teams were high on the mountain. Krakauer is an excellent writer and his book weaves the threads of the story together brilliantly. However, he did receive a fair amount of criticism for what some saw as considerable character assassination of various team members and detail inaccuracies.
‘I grew up with an ambition and determination without which I would have been a great deal happier. I thought a lot and developed the far-away look of a dreamer, for it was always the distant heights which fascinated me and drew me to them in spirit.’ (Earl Denman – a Canadian who’s book ‘Alone to Everest’ documents his attempt to climb Everest alone in 1947)
When James had read his copy I borrowed it. I’ve read it countless times before but was soon hooked again. The Khumbu region is the ideal place to read it and yesterday’s route had conveniently taken us to the classic Everest viewpoint at Kala Patthar. I had sat again looking at famous features like the Icefall, the South Col and the summit ridge. I find myself pondering on the fateful events of that day on every visit.
The story of that tragedy involves many interlinking threads. One or two factors alone and there would have been no story to tell. But when added together the climbers high on the mountain had left too fine a safety margin. Ropes that weren’t fixed and some clients lacking sufficient experience. Physical over exertion and oxygen supply problems. Character conflicts and, of course, that ‘sudden killer storm’. It was a cocktail that led to a terrible tragedy.
‘I looked down. Descent was totally unappetising. Too much labour, many sleepless nights and too many dreams had been invested to bring us this far. We couldn’t come back for another try next weekend. To go down now, even if we could have, would be descending to a future marked by one huge question: what might have been?’ (Thomas Hornbein – Hornbein’s book ‘Everest: The West Ridge’ is an excellent read describing his 1963 ascent of the west ridge)
I’m sure all guides have analysed the details of that fateful event seeking to find ways to ensure it couldn’t happen again. There have certainly been changes to guiding on Everest. Many companies now utilise a 1:1 client to Sherpa ratio for the upper section of the mountain and more detailed weather forecasts offer a better insight into ascent windows. It is just like every development in safety. Humans usually end up learn most from something that went wrong.
As we had walked to Dingboche we passed a small flat area at the side of the trail. This is the Thukla Pass where a garden of elegant memorials stand overlooking Ama Dablam. It is a tranquil and stunningly beautiful place and I also discussed in my blog post Memorial to Eve Girawong. From a distance the memorial to Scott Fischer stands out. As well as a brass plaque someone has painted his name in huge black and white letters on the boulder beneath.
Scott Fischer was the owner of guiding company Mountain Madness and he was one of the climbers that perished on that fateful day. Scott is always described as a gregarious, fun loving person with a larger than life persona and this vibrant memorial fits the man. He was guiding on Everest for the first time and his style, as described by Krakauer, was to allow his clients to make decisions about their movements on the mountains for themselves. This allowed them to move up and down at their own pace but also meant Scott could end up being called up or down the mountain to attend to problems. There is a suggestion this tired him out leaving him short on reserves for summit day. Reserves he ended up needing in abundance when things got difficult.
“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.” (Greg Child)
Another key player in 96 was Kiwi guide Rob Hall. Rob owned rival guiding company Adventure Consultants which. At the time Rob was probably the leading player in Everest guiding. He also died in tragic circumstances that night after becoming trapped near the summit with an ailing client. Apparently Rob was also an extrovert and confident character. He was also described as a very calculating leader. Rob kept a tight reign on his team and was in control of their movements at all times.
Two contrasting leadership styles whose lifeline to more tomorrow’s became intertwined that fateful night. As I looked across from Kala Pattar it was hard to imagine that such suffering could occur in this haven of mountain calm. Everest’s storms were sleeping. I’ve been in poor weather often enough to know how it must of been for all those desperately trying to find safety. To be forced, through an hypoxic haze and appalling weather, to try and find the tents that were their lifeline to more tomorrow’s. In the circumstances I’m actually amazed there weren’t more deaths.
There have been more recent events on Everest and within the Nepalese Himalayas to learn from. In 2014 a huge serac collapse funnelled thousands of tons of ice onto Sherpas carrying loads through the fearsome icefall. The loss of these 16 lives this made it the deadliest season in the mountains history.
“The mountains, the forest, and the sea, render men savage; they develop the fierce, but yet do not destroy the human.” (Victor Hugo)
But what of the lessons to be learned? What ways to offer a lifeline to more tomorrow’s? New approaches to acclimatisation were introduced which helped protect western climbers. Time is now often spent acclimatising on other peaks before they travel to Everest). Hopefully strategies can be found to help protect Sherpas too.
Similarly, how to protect the trekkers? The Nepalese government are suggesting compulsory local guides for trekking groups and trekkers will be required to hire tracking devices from Spring next year. It will be interesting to see if that actually becomes reality and what steps are put in place to ensure guides are suitably trained. Are there even enough guides?
‘We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last.’ (Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final message before his death on 29th March, 1912)
What time in Nepal always highlights is how the web of lives in these mountain regions are so intertwined. One of our Sherpa team was in the icefall on that fateful day in 2014 and watched as 3 close friends were buried by the ice avalanche. He was waiting no more than 25 metres away. Similarly, one of our trekking guides told me emotionally of being involved in the rescue of several trekkers when a storm swept the Annapurna range in 2014. 43 trekkers and locals lost their lives.
These mountains give so much to so many. They change lives for the better in a million ways. They have a sinister side too. The best we can hope for is that we learn and adapt when knowledge is gleaned. We change our practice when a new example of best practice comes along. Try to protect those from local communities who we work with. We seek ways to challenge ourselves while still having a safety net to catch us. Our focus is on providing that lifeline to more tomorrow’s. But perhaps most of all, we keep visiting the mountains.