Disaster On High
In the spring of 1996, guided climbing teams from around the world gathered at base camp, preparing their attempts to summit Mt. Everest. Among them were Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall, and Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer, two of the most well-respected and experienced guides in Himalayan mountaineering.
After months of preparation and acclimatization, Hall and Fischer’s teams were making their summit push the second week of May. After staying a couple of nights lower on the mountain, they departed their final camp, Camp IV, just after midnight on May 10 and headed toward the highest point on Earth.
As a safety precaution, teams summiting Everest set a turnaround time to make sure they have enough daylight and resources to get back down the mountain safely. For Hall and Fischer’s teams, that time was 2 p.m. If clients hadn’t summited by then, they’d have to turn around, thousands of dollars and months of preparation squandered—but at least they’d make it home.
On May 10, however, multiple delays caused many of the climbers to miss this window, and for reasons nobody will ever be sure of—maybe client dedication, maybe high-altitude brain fog, maybe a combination of both, or maybe something different entirely —neither guide turned his clients around at the agreed-on time. Instead, climbers were struggling up the mountain through the afternoon, even as snow started to fall around 3 p.m. Fischer himself didn’t summit until 3:45.
Although the forecast had shown clear weather, by 5 p.m., the top 3,000 feet of the mountain were engulfed in an unpredicted, unforgiving blizzard.
About 2,500 feet below the storm at Camp III was the Alpine Ascents team, which included guide Pete Athans, a long-time mountaineer who earned the nickname “Mr. Everest” after becoming the first Westerner to summit seven times. Athans had been climbing alongside both Hall and Fischer for years, as all were part of the close-knit Himalayan guiding community.
The Alpine Ascents team was planning to make its summit push two days after Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants, but as they watched the high-altitude storm blow in above them, they soon realized they’d have to make it a rescue mission instead.
“Around 10:30 or 11 p.m., we were still hearing [via radio contact] that there were more than 18 people that had not made it down [to camp],” Athans said. Two of those stranded climbers were Hall and Fischer. “At that point, we realized likely something was wrong there.”
Athans and co-guide Todd Burleson, while hoping for the best, made a plan for the worst. At 3 a.m. on May 11, they woke up and began climbing.
“Our plan was to keep going up the mountain until we found Rob and Scott,” Athans said. But when they got to Camp IV, they realized how many other people needed attention after a night spent blasted by near-hurricane-force winds.
There were still people missing from camp, and by that point, they’d heard via radio that Fischer had collapsed and had likely perished at a spot called the Balcony, which lies at about 27,500 feet, and that Hall was still alive but in need of assistance to descend further than where he’d spent the night about 28,700 feet up the mountain.
A team of six Sherpa, or Himalayan support climbers, began ascending to attempt a rescue of the two stranded guides, but the still-fierce wind prevented them from being successful. Neither Rob Hall nor Scott Fischer made it down the mountain alive.
“It still brings up a wealth of sadness that I wasn’t able to do more for Rob and Scott,” said Athans, now 64 and living in Bainbridge Island, Washington. “Back in that day, I had always thought I’d continue working and climbing and being friends with those guys. They were a big part of our community; they were larger than life—great sense of humor, fun to be around, really congenial and convivial people, and good climbers.
“It’s hard to lose people like that. You know if you spend much time in mountain-climbing circles, you lose important people to you along the way. It happens, unfortunately.”
Hall and Fischer were two of eight climbers who died due to the storm that struck Mt. Everest on May 10, 1996.
Evolutions in Tourism
In the past quarter-century, there have been a number of other deadly seasons on Everest, and commercialization has played a major role in these losses.
“Base camp has a thousand people at the height of the climbing season,” said Paul Mayewski, director and professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. “The actual climbing window is during the last two weeks of May usually. In that climbing window, you’ll look for ideally two to three days during which the weather is really good for people to make the ascent.”
Unfortunately, not every year has enough good weather days to space out expeditions. This is the scenario that played out in the 2019 season, one of the deadliest on record. Poor weather allowed just a few opportunities to climb, which led to about 800 people trying to summit each day. Lines up at the summit looked like something you’d see at Disney World. That year, 11 people died trying to achieve their Everest dreams.
So, why not just restrict the number of climbers? While the Nepalese government has considered cutting the number of permits issued each year, “it’s really tough when your economy is completely reliant,” Athans said. “There are some small industries [in Nepal], but really their chief economic motor is tourism—everything from people going into the Kathmandu valley for a weekend to people going on months-long Everest expeditions.”
That isn’t to say that the government isn’t concerned about these issues, especially considering their own people, the Sherpa climbers, have the most dangerous jobs on the mountain.
“It’s not that they’ve been operating in bad faith,” he said. “They’re operating in good faith, they’re just in a really difficult place.”
One possibility that’s often discussed is that the government could issue fewer permits but charge more for them. Today, climbing Everest can cost anywhere from $40,000 per person if going at it alone to more than $100,000 for a guided trip with your own personal Sherpa and extra oxygen.
According to Athans, in the early ’90s, expedition permits jumped from $12,000 to around $50,000 per team, which the government hoped would be a significant deterrent. However, “in a couple of years, they were getting more applications than they ever had before,” he said. And costs have held pretty consistent over the past 25 years—in 1996, Adventure Consultants charged $65,000 a head to join its expedition, and the company raised its prices by just $4,000 since. Although going on a guided expedition isn’t a guarantee you’ll summit, if climbers were to make a more significant financial commitment due to higher permit fees, guides may feel increased pressure to get their clients to the top of Everest, leading to a situation in which they become unfit to lead, as happened with Hall and Fischer.
On the other hand, increasing the cost of an expedition may weed out some of the inexperienced or out-of-shape travelers that can easily get themselves into trouble high on the mountain. Both Western teams that got caught in the 1996 storm included climbers of varying experience levels, which likely contributed to the severity of the catastrophe.
“It’s unfortunate, because so many of the teams are commercial teams,” Athans said. “There are going to be people who are novice climbers, and they’re just not going to be as strong or as fast as more experienced, expert climbers.”
While there has been talk of implementing a sort of experience-based selection process—and much of that may fall on the guiding companies themselves—for now, the community is focusing on improving safety on the mountain for those that do attempt a climb.
One issue that’s been worked on over the past 25 years is marking the trail with flags and setting more fixed ropes. Due to the storm, visibility became dangerously low, and nine of Fischer and Hall’s climbers got lost on the way to camp, having to spend a night exposed to the elements. This resulted in the death of one client, Yasuko Namba, and severe frostbite that warranted extremity amputations for another, Beck Weathers.
“In general, the guiding community there, which has grown substantially since ’96, is a bit more conservative and now fixes continuous lines from the high camp at 26,000 feet to the summit,” Athans said. “Before then, only the steeper sections were actually equipped with fixed rope. This practice might well have helped those who were stranded out away from the camp in ’96 and may have guided them in successfully.”
Another major development over the past few years has been the professionalizing of the Sherpa workforce. Although his guiding days are behind him, as the director of the Khumbu Climbing Center, Athans has played a large role in shaping the future of the industry.
“We’ve been training the guides on everything from high-altitude biodiversity to ice climbing skills to medical skills to just better guiding overall,” Athans says. “We definitely see some Nepalese operators, but there are as many or more foreign operators, and those businesses should really be managed by the Sherpa or certainly by the Nepalese.”
After all, with their more efficient use of oxygen and unique metabolisms, those born in the Himalaya makes them naturals at climbing the region’s peaks, even without supplemental O2. This is why they’re contracted as support for international expeditions—carrying large loads in thin air is physiologically easier for them.
By learning the technical and physical skills exhibited by Western guides, the Sherpa can take more ownership of what is, effectively, their own mountain.
“It’s right in their backyard. It’s something they revere, and having a sustainable business practice there is part of their mythology, is part of their religion,” Athans said. “The overall improvement and the innovating of how they guide and use more technology will just be game-changing in the coming years on Everest.”
A Changing Mountain
Although expedition companies are working to make their trips safer, recent scientific analysis shows the mountain itself will pose more threats to climbers in the coming years.
In the spring of 2019, Mayewski led a scientific expedition supported by National Geographic and Rolex to take a closer look at the human impact on Everest and how the mountain has changed over time. His research team, which included Athans, spent months collecting hundreds of samples of ice, water, rock, snow, and more that’s since been analyzed in top laboratories across the world.
What they’ve found is that Everest is warming faster than most places on Earth. One of the major issues this causes is ice and snowmelt.
“We were surprised to find out how much ice was lost at very high elevations,” Mayewski said. “As you go higher up, your temperatures get lower. You would assume that the snow and ice would be preserved better, but it’s not. It actually has a significant loss of ice. You are seeing exposed, old ice at 26,000 feet. That has big implications.”
Not only does an absence of snow and ice high on the mountain mean it will become harder for climbers to access drinking water, but also, the snow is melting and flowing around existing ice sheets, which can cause them to shift and trigger avalanches.
Runoff water poses a unique risk at base camp, too. Glacial melt has caused this area to sink more than 150 feet in the past 35 years, and small lakes have formed. According to Mayewski, these will eventually become larger and connect with the underground rivers that flow beneath the camp.
“It’ll begin to look more and more like swiss cheese,” Mayewski said. “There will be times that if people aren’t careful, they’ll slide into these rivers, and if you do come out, you come out in little bits. It’ll become more dangerous.”
Additionally, scientists found that the water from melting glaciers contained a multitude of toxic chemicals, like cadmium and lead, which can pose major threats to the health of those living downstream. And this wasn’t the only pollution seen on Everest—microplastics were also found in snow samples taken less than 1,500 feet from the summit.
The amount of waste on the mountain has led to Everest being nicknamed the “world’s highest garbage dump” in recent years. Thanks to the efforts of local NGOs and the Nepalese government, climbers have started carrying extra trash down from high altitudes. Expeditions also hire Sherpa to carry their trash down, which Athans says poses its own dilemma.
“If you can’t make the mountain pristine, at least try to clean the mountain of everything that you brought,” Athans said. “For every load of trash [climbers leave behind], that’s one more Sherpa trip through the Khumbu Icefall, one of the more dangerous parts of the mountain. Morally, ethically, do you really want to risk someone’s life for a load of trash?”
The Khumbu Icefall is where the Khumbu Glacier flows over the mountain (similar to a waterfall). The glacier moves 3 to 4 feet every day, creating massive crevasses and the potential for a collapse or avalanche. Between 1953 and 2016, about 25% of the recorded deaths on the Nepalese side of the mountain occurred in the Icefall, and according to Mayewski, this area will only become more treacherous as temperatures rise.
Interestingly, scientists also found climate change is making the air near the summit thicker, which would make it easier for climbers to breathe once they do make it past the Icefall.
“As you begin to make the ascent into the highest parts of Everest, with warming, there will actually be a little bit more oxygen,” Mayewski said.
To monitor things like air pressure, temperature, and wind speed on Everest, scientists installed five weather stations on various parts of the mountain during the 2019 expedition. These will operate for a number of years and will be used both to make climate-related predictions and to forecast weather to ensure climbers have the safest conditions during their ascents.
Mayewski and Athans agree that the data from these stations, if available a quarter-century ago, could have helped Hall and Fischer avoid their fateful storm.
“Understanding what’s coming in these big storms and helping climbers to know exactly what the best window is will be a tremendous help,” Mayewski said. “That’s one of the primary reasons for putting the weather stations up there.”
A follow-up to the 2019 scientific expedition was planned for the spring of this year but has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, instead of being in Nepal for the 25th anniversary of the disaster, Athans is planning to spend some reflection time on Mount Rainier, which he calls a “little slice of the Himalaya here in the lower 48 — one of the few places in the U.S. that you can go to that’s a bit like Everest.”
When the expedition is rescheduled either in the fall or next spring, Athans plans to return to base camp, continuing research and making technological advances. Hopefully, his work will prevent future climbers from finding themselves in a disastrous situation such as that struck those in his own community all those years ago.
This article originally appeared on ecowatch.com
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that’s featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.