1996 – Everest and Me

An Armchair Guide to Everest and the Media – copyright Peter Marsh

I slid back into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, trying to remember how it used to be, when Everest really was the ultimate goal. “Mount Everest has been the highest mountain on earth for several million years–but it wasn’t until May 10 1996 that it became a true, media icon. It joined the Amazon rainforest and El Nino in pop culture’s pantheon of “supernatural wonders”, when an unusually-large number of people froze to death on its upper slopes during a fast-moving storm.”

I wrote that paragraph a couple of years ago for a review of the National Geographic coffee-table book Everest: Mountain Without Mercy–a definitive work that left no stone unturned. In its efforts to inform, it could have been sub-titled Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask. In it, you’ll learn more than you’ll ever need to know about everything from Nepalese religion to plate tectonics.

“Everest–800 People have Climbed it and So Can You.” Climbing Magazine Sept ’99

My own vicarious memories of Everest go back to 1953, to a primary school in SE London during the excitement of the impending coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. “Mount Everest has been climbed,” proclaimed our emotional, Welsh headmaster during assembly, with all the pomp and dignity he could muster. The next winter we were all herded to the local cinema to see the film of this Great, British achievement. I remember being fascinated by the expedition’s oxygen cylinders. That night, at the age of six, I climbed up and down our stairs, supremely confident that with a pair of balloons tied to my back, the sky was the limit.

The years went by as I happily climbed the mountains of the west coast; others had greater ambitions and deeper pockets with which to achieve them. Slowly but surely, Everest, the goddess of my youth, was reduced to a woman of easy virtue, available to anyone who could pay the price. By 1996, the mountain’s victims were members of what appeared to be high-altitude, hiking groups rather than serious expeditions.” By 1999, nothing was sacred.

Three years after May ’96, with only an “average” number of deaths in the intervening years, Everest was back on the nightly news with a story everyone could appreciate: the discovery of the body of George Mallory, frozen into the slopes for 75 years. Mallory was the first man to get near the summit but was also the originator of one of the century’s best sound bites–“Because it’s there,” to explain his obsession with Everest. It was a trivial that’s proved remarkably resilient.

Ironically, Mallory had all the attributes that would have made him a darling of the media. He was an athlete and aesthete-what we would call a Renaissance Man today; a history teacher who wrote about the mountains with an artist’s sensibility, who had modeled for a sculptor and thought it a bit of prank to pose discreetly naked for a photo while hiking toward basecamp. (“Did Nude Brit Conquer Everest” screamed the London tabloid Daily Star.) His physical beauty even caused a few hearts to pound in the Bloomsbury set. “He’s 6’5″ high, the body of an athlete by Praxiteles and a face by Botticelli,” waxed Lytton Strachey, a well-known literary figure who never married…….

Unfortunately, good looks are no use when hypoxia sets in, so there he laid, stiff and forgotten, while the 20th century marched on. Slowly but surely, the corpses began to accumulate around him, like a slow replay of the trench warfare that claimed many of his generation. At the last count, there were 17, less newsworthy bodies nearby, and a hundred more on the more popular South Side route.

“Everest–150 People Have Died There and So Can You.” Peter Marsh Sept ’99

In modern disasters, like the Turkish earthquake, news reports tastefully avoid morbid scenes, but Death on Everest, it seems, is different, more noble. And pictures of bodies attract viewers, sell books. Yet Mallory’s pathetic corpse might have rated only a minor story in the back of the climbing journals if the events of May ’96 hadn’t paved the way. Now magazines as unrelated as Vanity Fair and Climbing devote whole features to him in their September issues.

This latest burst of Everest mania began when Outside magazine, sensing a potential story, sent climbing writer Jon Krakauer to Everest to report on the latest boomer craze–guided ascents of the tallest mountain on all seven continents. One team described by Krakauer, Adventure Consultants, contained four marginally-fit men in their 50s, three doctors and a lawyer, all seeking the summit as an antidote to mid-life ennui. Veteran guides and their novice clients perished with equal disdain for the obvious dangers, in a drama that was re-played in the U.S. within hours via satellite. Krakauer walked into a tragedy and emerged with the bestseller Into Thin Air and a made-for-TV movie. Mountaineering, that lofty goal of my youth, would never be the same.

“Now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care. I spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.” John Krakauer Aug ’96.

Krakauer came through town, on tour, and encountering huge crowds wherever he went, After my local paper printed a long interview I passed on the book. I wanted to preserve that child’s view of Mount Everest, with only two sets of footprints on its summit. Little did anyone know that this was just the beginning of the “Everest Groupie” phenomenon. Books and films began to appear at an increasing rate, while hiking parties to the South Col base camp found themselves overtaken by contestants in the annual Mount Everest Marathon.

“Everest-Apex of All Vanities.” Reinhold Messner in Climbing Magazine Sep ’99

I kept my opinions to myself until I was offered the chance to interview one of these high-altitude authors, Matt Dickinson, an English film maker. He was another alumnus of the Class of ’96, a group which is continuing to mine this literary vein harder than any other peacetime subject. I doubted I could find an outlet for my story, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet a real, live, Everest summiter.

Matt Dickinson was on the opposite (north) side of Everest during the storm. His book is called, not surprisingly, The Other Side of Everest–a little less dramatic than The Death Zone, it’s English title. With all the enthusiasm of my youth returning, I read the whole book the night before our interview, but failed to notice the first symptoms of the Everest Groupie Syndrome (EGS) stirring within my psyche. The story was well written, suspenseful, with a few, frozen bodies thrown in for good measure.

In fact, it centered around the artistic challenge of making a film, called Summit Fever, which was intended to show a 60-year old, heavyweight, English actor and TV personality going for the summit (I’m not making this up). It didn’t work out that way, and Dickinson found, to his amazement, that he was one of the two who reached the summit. National Geographic was behind this attempt, and continues to pour money into risky mountain ventures–they put up the money for this year’s debacle, Everest and K2 Back to Back.

Dickinson was a total novice, only along as a low-level cameraman, but was the “last man standing” at 27,000′ and volunteered to carry on with a guide. He experienced the lack of morality at 28,000′ when he stepped over the body of an Indian he had drunk tea with a week before. In his preface, he at least acknowledges the deluge of print that followed the Great Everest Storm: “I see no sign that people are beginning to tire of the subject,” he writes. “In fact, rather the opposite–the nightmare of the storm and the brutal reality of sudden death at high altitude have gripped the public imagination to the point that Everest is once more a subject of earnest debate …. just as it was when the first ascent was made in 1953. Perhaps I have trespassed into territory in which I do not belong,” he admits. “I was well out of my depth on Everest and am the first to admit it.”

I listened to his thinly-attended lecture that night, my hero-worship in full bloom. (He even referred to me in his introduction!) A week later, David Breashears came to Portland. The man who shot the IMAX Everest film was on a high profile tour for his new book High Exposure, and the chance to see his free slide show was too good to pass up. The hall was packed to capacity and the sponsor, Powell’s Books, had thoughtfully stacked several hundred copies in the lobby for anyone who felt the urge to have a copy signed by the author.

In his talk, Breashears was modest to a fault, constantly reminding us of the Sherpas’ contribution to his films. His book covers his entire climbing career but his talk dealt exclusively with the Everest ’96 chapter. He knew that’s what we came for! Breashears, who has made eleven expeditions to Everest has also made the South Col the theme on which he has composed many variations.

Sticking to my principles, I didn’t want to buy the book, or get it signed; but hundreds of fans did. I watched the line shuffle forward like climbers waiting their turn at the Hillary Step. I realized I was already aware of six books about Everest ’96–how many more were out there? I recalled that Dickinson had offered an amusing statistic on the success of Into Thin Air: if all the copies sold were piled into a single stack it would stand taller than Everest itself.

“Seven times I have tried; I have come back and tried again; not with pride and force, not as a soldier to an enemy, but with love, as a child climbs onto the lap of its mother. Now at last I have been granted success, and I give thanks. Tuche shey.” Tenzing Norgay

Mountains of books, movie deals, endorsements–suddenly, the whole Everest cast of characters began to seem downright comical. Jon (It wasn’t my fault) Krakauer had ascended to the dizzying heights of media stardom, and David (Where’s my camera?) Breashears was doing very nicely, but what about the also-rans? There was the late Anatoly (Who needs a pack?) Boukreev, the token ex-Communist, and the debate over his speedy descent for a quick lunch at the South Col.

As for the South African team, they managed to score the last of 15 deaths that season. Their official account has been dismissed as a laughable coverup–and the unofficial version is called Ascent and Dissent. And who could forget the extraordinary lone Swede: Goran (I did it my way) Kropp, who cycled to Kathmandu towing all his gear.

Just when I Though the presses had ground to a halt, Lene (First Scandinavian Woman) Gammelgaard arrived in July with the seventh entry, Climbing High, (no prizes for the title) to reveal to an astonished world what it was like to be “A Woman on Everest During the Storm.” Here we go again, I thought: the ominous clouds racing up the Khumbu Icefall, the amateurs with more money than sense, the gritty pros flunking life-and-death decisions–I passed on her talk. I no longer cared.

So rent the TV movie and get out your handkerchiefs, all you Everest voyeurs, when Rob “100% Success!” Hall makes that poignant, last phone call to his wife–and the whole world can’t resist listening in. Then cheer up when Beck “The Iceman” Weathers staggers into the South Col camp, back from the dead. There was another life-and-death struggle happening at the same time on the Tibetan side, neatly covered by Matt “No really, I feel great” Dickinson’s book.

The controversy here centered on two Asian teams, who proved that hypoxia is no respector of ethnicity. The dead were three Indian climbers who started their summit day at the comfortable but suicidal hour of 8 AM. The villains are the ruthless Japanese, who ignored the dying Indians as they made their own bid the next day. The families of the deceased may be consoled to know they were following in the footsteps of the immortal Mallory and Irvine.

He’s been dead for 75 years but George Mallory has finally hit the big time, with a guest appearance from his young sidekick Irvine. There are at least three new books on the way and a TV special on PBS in January. He barely survived that extremely nasty business in the trenches, from 1914 to 1918, but kept going back to Everest. “Frankly, the game is not good enough, the risks of getting caught are too great . . . . . but how can I be out of the hunt?” he wrote, sounding suspiciously like Conan Doyle.

Mallory was a technophobe who disdained insulated clothing as unsporting, refused to work on the oxygen apparatus, and was terminally forgetful. But he was “A Jolly Good Chap who Gave It His Best Shot.” On the last day of his life, crouched in a cotton tent that was flapping like a machine gun, donning his military-style jacket and puttees (leggings), he was going “over the top” once again for King and Country. This was already his third expedition to Tibet, and he knew it would be his last. The spirit of the Empire drove him on, when self-preservation demanded that he turn back. We British like the right stuff in our heroes, the Charge of the Light Brigade and all that. You Americans have a guy with the same never-say-die spirit–General Custer.

Unfortunately, it’s his example that has left the upper slopes of Everest strewn with corpses, a condition that Mallory would probably find highly distasteful and very un-British, just like the non-disclosure contracts signed by the climbers who found his remains. Trust Me! Soon there will be guided tours to his burial place, those eternal snows tramped down by endless lines of nouveau-riche peak baggers and globe-trotting over-achievers. Did it ever really exist, that mountain of my youth?

An Incomplete List of Books on Everest ’96:

Into Thin Air by John Krakauer

The Climb by Anatoly Boukreev and Weston DeWalt

Everest-Mountain Without Mercy by Broughton Coburn

Everest Free to Decide by Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall

Ascent and Dissent by Ken Vernon

The Other Side of Everest by Matt Dickinson

Climbing High by Lene Gammelgaard

High Exposure by David Breashears

Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson

Sheer Will by Michael Groom

The Wind in My Hair by Bridgitte Muir

Within Reach by Mark Pfetger & Jim Galvin

Back From the Dead by Beck Weathers

Something Scandinavian by Goran Kropf

Back from the Edge-Makalu Gau (in Chinese)

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