Into Thin Air
Everest deals with trespassers harshly: the dead vanish beneath the snows. While the living struggle to explain what happened. And why. A survivor of the mountain's worst disaster examines the business of Mount Everest and the steep price of ambition.
By Jon Krakauer
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it 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, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.
It was the afternoon of May 10. I hadn't slept in 57 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&M's. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in the troposphere, there was so little oxygen 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 guide with an American expedition, and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide with the New Zealand-based commercial team that I was a part of and someone with whom I'd grown to be friends during the last six weeks. I snapped four quick photos of Harris and Boukreev striking summit poses, and then turned and started down. My watch read 1:17 P.M. All told, I'd spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.
After a few steps, 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 saw 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.
Days later--after six bodies had been found, 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, leading a gaggle of amateurs, each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be ushered safely up Everest, into an apparent death trap?
Nobody can speak for the leaders of the two guided groups involved, for both men are now dead. But I can attest that nothing I saw early on the afternoon of May 10 suggested that a murderous storm was about to bear down on us. 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 than the harmless puffs of convection condensation that rose from the valley almost daily. As I began my descent, I was indeed 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 the Southeast Ridge is a slender, heavily corniced fin of rock and wind-scoured snow that snakes for a quarter-mile toward a secondary pinnacle known as the South Summit. Negotiating the serrated ridge presents few great technical hurdles, but the route is dreadfully exposed. After 15 minutes of cautious shuffling over a 7,000-foot abyss, I arrived at the notorious Hillary Step, a pronounced notch in the ridge named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to climb the mountain, and a spot that does require a fair amount of technical maneuvering. As I clipped into a fixed rope and prepared to rappel over the lip, I was greeted by an alarming sight.
Thirty feet below, some 20 people were queued up at the base of the Step, and three climbers were hauling themselves up the rope that I was attempting to descend. I had no choice but to unclip from the line and step aside.
The traffic jam comprised climbers from three separate 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 American Scott Fischer; and a nonguided team from Taiwan. Moving at the snail's pace that is the norm above 8,000 meters, the throng labored up the Hillary Step one by one, while I nervously bided my time.
In my article "Into Thin Air" I speculated that Andy Harris, a guide on Rob Hall's expedition, walked off the edge of the South Col and fell to his death after becoming disoriented in the rogue storm of May 10. Only minutes before Harris disappeared, I'd encountered him in the blizzard. I spoke with him briefly and then watched him walk to within 30 yards of camp, where he became enveloped in clouds.
Two weeks after the magazine went to press, I discovered compelling evidence that Harris did not walk off the Col to his death and that the person I had met in the storm just above Camp Four was in fact not Harris. In a telephone conversation, Martin Adams, a client on Scott Fischer's expedition, revealed that he, too, had encountered a climber sitting just above the South Col at about the same time I had encountered Harris. In the stormy darkness, Adams couldn't tell who the other climber was, but their conversation, he says, was very similar to the conversation I reported having with Harris. Both Adams and I are now certain that, in my own hypoxic condition, I confused him with Harris.
On July 25, in a four-hour, face-to-face discussion, Lobsang Jangbu, Fischer's head sherpa revealed something that hadn't come up in previous discussions: that he had spoken with Harris on the South Summit at 5:30 p.m. on May 10 approximately the same time I thought I saw Harris near the South Col. By this late hour Rob Hall had been repeatedly calling for help on the radio, saying that Doug Hansen had collapsed on the Hillary Step and that both Hall and Hansen desperately needed oxygen. As Lobsang began descending from the South Summit, he saw Harris, who was himself ailing, plodding slowly up the summit ridge to assist Hall and Hansen. It was an extremely heroic act for which Harris deserves to be remembered.
As I reported, when radio contact between Hall and Base Camp was reestablished the next morning, a distraught, severely debilitated Hall said that Harris "was with me last night. But he doesn't seem to be with me now. He was very weak." From this snippet, which I originally interpreted as being the incoherent babble of a severely hypoxic man, it is impossible to say exactly what became of Harris. But the awful truth that he is gone remains.
For two months after returning from Everest, I was haunted by the fact that Harris, who'd become a close friend during the expedition, appeared to have been so near the safety of Camp Four and yet never made it. Unable to let the matter rest, I obsessively mulled the circumstances of his death even after my article went to press which is how I made the belated discovery of my error.
That I confused Harris for Adams is perhaps not surprising, given the poor visibility, my profound exhaustion, and the confused, oxygen-starved state I was in. But my mistake greatly compounded the pain of Andy Harris's partner, Fiona McPherson; his parents, Ron and Mary Harris; and his many friends. For that I am inexpressibly sorry.
The discussion continues:
Response from Anatoli Boukreev with a reply from author Jon Krakauer
Response from Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa with a reply from author Jon Krakauer
Fischer's expedition reports
Join the Everest discussion