Alpinism has always been the occupation of the bravest. It is difficult to find more difficult conditions on Earth; of course, there are deserts, arctic wastelands, and jungles, but still, extreme heights can only fairly be compared to ocean depths. Why? Even the not-so-high mountains are difficult to climb: rocks, abysses, and extreme weather conditions are just some of the dangers alpinists overcome in order to climb yet another summit. In case of mountains higher than 6000 meters, the human body undergoes severe stress, such as the lack of oxygen, sub-zero temperatures up to -50 C or even lower, and lung and brain edema. Moreover, at such heights, the human body completely loses its regenerative abilities, so the survival of alpinists depends on their inner resources, thorough preparations, and sheer luck. All this, along with other dangers, awaits brave (or reckless) people who aim at climbing the summit of the highest mountain in the world: Everest.
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Since it was first climbed by Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgey (sherpa are the people inhabiting Nepal’s highlands, and often work as guides and hired workers for alpinists and tourists arriving to this country) in 1953, Everest, or Chomolungma as the Nepalese people call it (the name means “The mountain that no bird can fly over”), has become the dream destination of all alpinists worldwide. There were numerous attempts to climb the summit before Hillary and Tenzing, but only after these two heroes climbed it did Everest become open to other alpinists. Although, it is probably incorrect to say “open:” climbing the mountain is not a Sunday walk in a park, and hundreds of people (more than 220, in fact) died on its hills, desperately trying to reach the roof of the Earth—even nowadays, with all the modern equipment and security measures. The bodies of those who died there remain lying in the snow for decades—because of the extreme conditions, no one attempts to bury or take them off the mountain. The bodies of the fallen now serve as height marks for those who are still alive. Sometimes, whole groups of alpinists die on Everest, as it happened in 1996 with the commercial expedition led by experienced instructors. The tragedy of Rob Hall’s and Scott Fischer’s groups of alpinists became one of the biggest disasters in the history of 20th century alpinism, and inspired numerous documentaries, movies, books, and investigations.
In 1996, Rob Hall (“Adventure Consultants”) and Scott Fischer (“Mountain Madness”) organized an alpinistic tour for rich people wishing to climb the summit of Everest. They hired sherpas, delivered all the necessary equipment to the base camp, from which all the expeditions started, and promised to take the tourists to the top and back. The “Adventure Consultants” group included Rob Hall (leader and instructor), Mike Groom (guide), Andy Harris (guide), Frank Fischbeck, Doug Hansen, Stuart Hutchison, Lou Kasischke, Jon Krakauer (a journalist, whose diary about the expedition later became a bestseller in the U.S.), Yasuko Namba, John Taske, and Beck Weathers (an extremely lucky alpinist who stood on the brink of death three times and survived). Besides tourists, “Adventure Consultants” used the services of sherpas: Sardar Ang Dorje, Arita, Chuldum, Kami, Lhakpa Chhiri, Ngawang Norbu, Tenzing, Lopsang. “Mountain Madness” included Scott Fischer (leader and instructor), Neal Beidleman (guide), Anatoli Bukreev (guide), Martin Adams, Charlotte Fox, Lene Gammelgaard, Dale Kruse, Tim Madsen, Sandy Hill Pittman, Pitt Schoening, and Klev Schoening. The sherpas whose services “Mountain Madness” used were Sardar Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, Pemba, Ngawang Dorje, Ngawang Sya Kya, Ngawang Tendi, Ngawang Topche, Tashi Tshering, and Tendi (Wikipedia). All of the members of both teams were experienced alpinists, who had climbed numerous summits before. Still, for many of them, Everest was the most extreme and the highest mountain in their careers, so—as some researchers argue—they might have lacked appropriate experience and skills needed to ascend Chomolungma.
The two expeditions started the acclimatization process in the middle of April; acclimatization is needed to adjust the human body to the hellish conditions of higher altitudes, and usually includes increasingly longer expeditions to higher altitudes, with subsequent returns to base camp. This way, the body can gradually increase resistance to HAPE and HACE symptoms, frost, low pressure, and other risks. The whole way since the beginning of the expedition and up to the tragic days took about four weeks: the teams passed the Khumbu Icefall, arriving at Camp 1 (around 6000 meters), then made their way to Camp 2 approximately 700 meters higher (and at higher altitudes, it is more intense to go the distance; sometimes alpinists climbing the altitudes above 8000 meters may need hours to pass 200-300 meters). The expedition successfully passed Camp 3 at the altitude of 8000 meters, and on May 9th, scheduled the ascent to Camp 4, at the enormous height of around 8600 meters. Beyond 8000 meters above sea level, the “death zone” begins—the area in which oxygen levels are three times lower than normal, and weather conditions are harsher than any other place on Earth (ThoughtCo). In addition, other dangers alpinists face at such altitudes are HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, or lung edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, or brain edema)—not to mention slippery slopes ending with deadly abysses several kilometers deep.
It is also important to mention that besides the groups “Adventure Consultants” and “Mountain Madness,” there were two other expeditions trying to reach the summit at that time, and this became, as it is believed, one of the reasons that led to further tragedy. The path to the top of Everest is not broad, so if there are too many people trying to climb the mountain at once, there may be “bottlenecks” in the narrow zones. In its turn, the reason why there were four expeditions rushing to the summit on the same day is that the weather on Everest is extremely unstable, and usually there are only a few days in spring (mostly in May) when climate conditions are more or less normal, allowing climbing attempts.
On the 10th of May, all four teams attempted to ascend to the summit. Anatoli Bukreev, one of the guides, managed to take his team to the top earlier than Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, and descended earlier, alone. The latter two, however—as well as their teams—did not manage to keep up with the schedule, and spent too much time reaching the top (which can be explained by severe fatigue and the aforementioned “bottlenecks” earlier on the way). The Himalayan Mountains, and Everest in particular, are infamous for their sudden weather changes; no one noticed or paid enough attention to the slight signs of the upcoming disaster. A horrible blizzard struck out of the blue, leaving expedition members, exhausted with the ascendance, disorganized and disoriented. Even such experienced climbers as Hall and Fischer, who already climbed Everest before, could not make it back to the camp. Bukreev, who descended earlier that day, single-handedly attempted to rescue those of the alpinists who got lost in the blizzard, and managed to save three of them. Jon Krakauer, a journalist and one of the expedition members, heavily criticized Bukreev later—not for his actions during the storm, but rather for his guiding decisions prior to the disaster, assuming that the lack of oxygen might have had affected Bukreev’s ability to make better choices. Bukreev countered Krakauer’s accusations in the book “The Climb,” published in 1997. One way or another, eight members of the expedition, including both Hall and Fischer, died that day. Hall managed to contact his wife in New Zealand via satellite phone, moments before he froze to death (History.com). This episode, as well as the whole story of the tragic climb, are well-depicted in numerous documentaries and movies that followed the tragedy.
Everest is the highest mountain on our planet, and one of the mountains garnering annual death tolls for more than half a century. Sherpas believe there are gods inhabiting the summit of Chomolungma; for many alpinists who died there, it turned out to be a realm of demons. In the case of the groups “Adventure Consultants” and “Mountain Madness,” the reasons were the lack of organization, an unexpected blizzard, and a dire set of unfortunate circumstances. But, whatever the reasons, 1996 became one of the most tragic years in the history of Chomolungma climbings.
Daniels, Patricia. “A Terrible Disaster on Top of Mount Everest Killed 8 People.” ThoughtCo. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
“Death on Mount Everest.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
“1996 Mount Everest Disaster.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
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