July 31, 1996
Mr. Mark Bryant, Editor
400 Market St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Dear Mr. Bryant:
I am writing you because I think Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," which appeared in your September, 1996 issue, was unjustly critical of my decisions and actions on Mount Everest on May 10, 1996. While I have respect for Mr. Krakauer, share some of his opinions about high altitude guiding, and believe he did everything within his power to assist fellow climbers on that tragic day on Everest, I believe his lack of proximity to certain events and his limited experience at high altitude may have gotten in the way of his ability to objectively evaluate the events of summit day.
My decisions and actions were based upon more than twenty years of high altitude climbing experience. In my career I have summited Mount Everest three times. I have twelve times summited mountains of over 8,000 meters. I have summited seven of the world's fourteen mountains over 8,000 meters in elevation, all of those without the use of supplementary oxygen. This experience, I can appreciate, is not response enough to the questions raised by Mr. Krakauer, so I offer the following details.
After fixing the ropes and breaking the trail to the summit, I stayed at the top of Everest from 1:07 p.m. until approximately 2:30 p.m., waiting for other climbers to summit. During that time only two client climbers made the top. They were Klev Schoening, seen in the summit photograph (pages 46-47) taken by me, and Martin Adams, both of them from Scott Fischer's expedition. Concerned that others were not coming onto the summit and because I had no radio link to those below me, I began to wonder if there were difficulties down the mountain. I made the decision to descend.
Just below the summit I encountered Rob Hall, the expedition leader from New Zealand, who appeared to be in good shape. Then I passed four of Scott Fischer's client climbers and four of his expedition's Sherpas, all of whom were still ascending. They all appeared to be all right. Then, just above the Hillary Step I saw and talked with Scott Fischer. He was tired and laboring, but said he was just a little slow. There was no apparent sign of difficulty, although now I have begun to suspect that his oxygen supply was, then, already depleted. I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly and that I was concerned descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV. I explained I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV in order to warm myself and gather a supply of hot drink and oxygen in the event I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall immediately before him, said "OK" to this plan.
I felt comfortable with the decision, knowing that four Sherpas, Neal Beidleman, (like me, a guide), Rob Hall, and Scott Fischer would be bringing up the rear to sweep the clients to Camp IV. Understand, at this time there were no clear indications that the weather was going to change and deteriorate as rapidly as it did.
Given my decisions: (1) I was able to return to Camp IV by shortly after 5:00 p.m. (slowed by the advancing storm), gather supplies and oxygen and, by 6:00 p.m. begin my solo effort in the onset of a blizzard to locate straggling climbers; and (2) I was able, finally, to locate lost and huddled climbers, resupply them with oxygen, offer them warming tea, and provide them the physical support and strength necessary to get them to the safety of Camp IV.
Also, Mr. Krakauer raised a question about my climbing without oxygen and suggested that perhaps my effectiveness was compromised by that decision. In the history of my career, as I have detailed it above, it has been my practice to climb without supplementary oxygen. In my experience it is safer for me, once acclimatized, to climb without oxygen in order to avoid the sudden loss of acclimatization that occurs when supplementary oxygen supplies are depleted.
My particular physiology, my years of high altitude climbing, my discipline, the commitment I make to proper acclimatization and the knowledge I have of my own capacities have always made me comfortable with this choice. And, Scott Fischer was comfortable with that choice as well. He authorized me to climb without supplementary oxygen.
To this I would add: As a precautionary measure, in the event that some extraordinary demand was placed upon me on summit day, I was carrying one (1) bottle of supplementary oxygen, a mask, and a reductor. As I was ascending, I was for a while climbing with Neal Beidleman. At 8,500 meters, after monitoring my condition and feeling that it was good, I elected to give my bottle oxygen to Neal, about whose personal supply I was concerned. Given the power that Neal was able to sustain in his later efforts to bring clients down the mountain, I feel it was the right decision to have made.
Lastly, Mr. Krakauer raises a question about how I was dressed on summit day, suggesting I was not adequately protected from the elements. A review of summit day photographs will show that I was clothed in the latest, highest quality, high altitude gear, comparable, if not better, than that worn by the other members of our expedition.
In closing, I would like to say that since May 10, 1996, Mr. Krakauer and I have had many opportunities to reflect upon our respective experiences and memories. I have considered what might have happened had I not made a rapid descent. My opinion: Given the weather conditions and the lack of visibility that developed, I think it likely I would have died with the client climbers that in the early hours of May 11, I was able to find and bring to Camp IV, or I would have had to have left them on the mountain to go for help in Camp IV where, as was in the reality of events that unfolded, there was nobody able or willing to conduct rescue efforts.
I know Mr. Krakauer, like me, grieves and feels profoundly the loss of our fellow climbers. We both wish that events had unfolded in a very different way. What we can do now is contribute to a clearer understanding of what happened that day on Everest in the hope that the lessons to be learned will reduce the risk for others who, like us, take on the challenge of the mountains. I extend my hand to him and encourage that effort.
My personal regards,
Anatoli Nikoliavich Boukreev