Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Krakauer vs Boukreev

I went onto a 'Boukreev' forum and the majority of people seem to feel that Boukreev is 'the man', and that Krakauer is just a slick, excellent story teller, and a bit of spin doctor (and an egotist). I don't think it makes sense to get personal, it's just interesting to see how hardcore these guys are.

One of the bottom lines of 1996 appears to be that there are limits when carrying oxygen, and these limits include how much you can carry. Theoretically, if you are going to depend on the stuff, you make life harder because you also have to carry the extra load, and then if you run out, you're in an even worse situation.

I think there is a heck of a lot of wisdom in Broukeev's stated policy of not using the stuff if at all possible, but having some around if you need it. A policy of not allowing ascents up Everest when climbers are unable to do so without oxygen may work...except that it is unlikely.

I think it is also a bit pointless, all this conjecture, because at the end of the day, men and women decide to risk their lives on the mountain, and if things don't work out, then they die. They take on that risk, and at ground level sensibilities exist that don't exist beyond 28 000. You can't recognise people, hear people, or think straight, so it's crazy to hold a court and decide who is guilty or who is to blame. The best is that previous tragedies can be used to guide ideas for future ascents.

Interestingly Boukreev ran into similar trouble when he guided and led an Indonesian group. Here was a guy who said people who don't belong on a mountain (that need babysitting) shouldn't be there. People are entitled to modify how they do things based on their experience. He gave them rigorous training, and despite a huge amount of preparation, encountered deep snow (they were the first up that year) and also summited late in the day, an almost carbon copy repeat of the year before. This seems to indicate that the margin for error on Everest is such that slight weaknesses are blown up.

In 1996, climbers were still ascending with the approval of leaders till as late as 4pm. These lapses of judgement, on the part of each climber, whether leader or follower, are part of that risk that one faces by undertaking the ascent of High Mountains (that once on the mountain one's own mental mechanism works against you, compels you upward, when the most important ability is knowing when to turn back, or how to stay within a time-frame given the mental and physical wooziness).

Dispute (from Salon website)

This is a dispute, it's worth noting at the top, that has grown surprisingly ugly. One example: Boukreev's supporters are circulating a tape that, they allege, proves that Krakauer refused to help a climber in serious distress that day on Everest. Another example: Both sides hint that they have gone easy on one another in their books, and that the really damning stuff is still in their files. And there are unsubstantiated rumors of adultery, petty hatreds and drug use high on Everest that might have contributed, if only in small ways, to the death toll that day.

Because the tragedy is still so fresh, few are willing to go public with these kinds of details. But you get the impression that, if anyone still remembers Everest '96 in the year 2010, the tell-all memoirs and retrospectives will be rolling off the assembly line.

That said, the core document in the case against "Into Thin Air" is indisputably "The Climb," co-written by Boukreev, a flinty Russian climber who was the lead guide on Scott Fischer's team, and DeWalt, a little-known writer and investigative filmmaker. It is not a particularly impressive book, nor one that inspires deep confidence in its reportorial method. (Among other things, the book's co-authors did not, as Krakauer did, conduct independent interviews with either Mike Groom or Neal Beidleman, the only other professional guides who survived after being caught high on the mountain that day. DeWalt, whose account of the tragedy relies heavily on briefing tapes that were made shortly after the tragedy, says he tried vigorously to contact Beidleman.) But "The Climb" has become a rallying point for climbers and others who felt maligned by, or disappointed in, Krakauer's book.

Written mostly by DeWalt and interlaced with excerpts from interviews with Boukreev, "The Climb" often feels like it's been lashed together with duct tape. DeWalt didn't do his co-author any favors by interviewing him in English, instead of translating Boukreev's words from his native Russian. The climber's halting responses to DeWalt's questions tend to sound like garbled subtitles on a movie you'd probably want to flee. ("Yes, big strong wind outside, very cold, lots of problem come, and I upset with him in this situation.") Worse, "The Climb" was riddled with small errors -- misidentified photos, misinformation about where key bits of evidence about climber Andy Harris' mysterious demise were found -- not all of which have been fully corrected in the new paperback edition.

But "The Climb" has an unvarnished power that's very difficult to deny. Part of that power comes from the slow accumulation of detail about the journeyman climber's life in post-Soviet Russia. (At one point, Boukreev is so broke that he frets he will have to sell his ice ax in order to return home.) But the bigger part of that power -- and, unfortunately, the factor that will frustrate readers in search of a coherent, independent story -- derives from the fact that it's an angry book, written in direct response to Krakauer's account. As one climber has put it, it's a book that reads more like a legal document, a brief for the defense, than an attempt to tell a straightforward tale.

Boukreev is no longer around to defend "The Climb." But by all accounts he was puzzled and upset by his depiction in Krakauer's book and wanted to get his version on the record.

As anyone who's read "Into Thin Air" or other accounts of the Everest tragedy is aware, multiple errors in judgment -- some minor, some less so -- combined with the weather to cause the stunning death toll in May of 1996. Krakauer, to be sure, spreads the blame pretty widely, and doesn't spare himself. Among the questions he asks is: Why did savvy guides like Fischer and Hall allow clients to stay on the summit so late in the day? A generally accepted rule is that climbers who aren't within shouting distance of Everest's summit by 1 or 2 p.m. must be turned around in order to descend before nightfall. But many climbers that day were on or near the summit as late as 4 p.m., shortly before the blizzard began to roll in. It's a question that, despite being hashed over in countless late-night discussions among climbers, continues to be a source of puzzlement.

The climber who comes off the least well in Krakauer's account, however, is probably Boukreev. Headstrong and taciturn, he was a difficult man to cozy up to -- a situation that was exacerbated by his fractured English. Boukreev didn't believe in coddling weak clients. He was hired, he says in "The Climb," "to prepare the mountain for the people instead of the other way around." Unlike many of the other Everest guides, Boukreev tended to hustle quickly up and down the mountain, fixing ropes and performing other duties, while only rarely attending to individual climbers or delivering much-needed pep talks. "He just wasn't a team player," says Dale Kruse, a fellow climber on Fischer's expedition, in "Into Thin Air."

Boukreev and DeWalt don't quibble much with this interpretation; they merely note that Fischer had a second guide, Beidleman, who could make nice with the paying clients. What Boukreev and DeWalt do take issue with is Krakauer's interpretation of Boukreev's decisions once things began to get hairy that day on Everest.

Many of the facts about Boukreev's actions on May 10 aren't really in dispute. Both sides agree that, with Fisher's assent, Boukreev climbed without supplemental oxygen -- an unorthodox decision for a guide, who needs to be strong enough not merely to get to the summit but to aid climbers who might be in distress. Both sides agree, too, that, before the storm approached, Boukreev sped down the mountain alone, hours ahead of his clients. ("Indeed, by 5:00 p.m., while his teammates were still struggling through the clouds at 28,000 feet," Krakauer writes, "Boukreev was already in his tent resting and drinking tea.") Both sides further agree that, after returning alone to Camp Four, Boukreev acted heroically in returning back out into the storm to rescue three other climbers who were stranded a short distance away on the South Col.

In "Into Thin Air," Krakauer portrays Boukreev's decision to climb without oxygen as a grievous mistake -- one that forced him, because of the severe cold, to descend rapidly instead of being able to wait for clients on the summit. He provides Boukreev's rationale for his quick descent in the form of an interview the Russian climber gave to Men's Journal:

"I stayed [on the summit] for about an hour ... It is very cold, naturally, it takes your strength ... My position was that I would not be good if I stood around freezing, waiting. I would be more useful if I returned to Camp Four in order to be able to take oxygen up to the returning climbers or to go up to help them if some became weak during the descent."

An unnamed climber from Fischer's team, quoted in "Into Thin Air," characterizes Boukreev's actions somewhat differently. Boukreev, this climber says, "cut and ran." Krakauer, too, is suspicious of Boukreev's motives, and he points out what he calls a "serious flaw" in the "return to get tea" argument. Since Boukreev was not issued a radio on the climb -- another mistake on Fischer's part -- how could he have known if anyone left above him needed his help?

"I certainly don't think Anatoli caused the tragedy," Krakauer says. He claims that he tried to be as fair as possible to Boukreev in "Into Thin Air," and to fully credit him for his late-day heroism, particularly since he felt that he had perhaps been too hard on the Russian climber in his earlier Outside article. But Krakauer doesn't back off his criticisms. Among the facts he hasn't printed, he says, is that many of the Sherpas on the trip, some of whom were treated poorly by Boukreev, do blame him for many of the deaths.

To Boukreev and DeWalt, however, few things seemed fair about "Into Thin Air." For Boukreev, this spat had entered Hemingway territory -- both his honor and his manhood had been publicly called into question. In "The Climb," they make a number of responses to Krakauer's book. Among other things, they reemphasize that Boukreev, who had already summited several 8,000 meter peaks without oxygen and was among the strongest climbers alive, was given permission to climb without O's, as climbers like to call the bottles of compressed gas. More important, though, they hotly dispute Krakauer's assertion that Boukreev acted unilaterally when he descended down to Camp Four in front of his clients.

This is the point where, in the case of Boukreev vs. Krakauer, all paths diverge.

Here's Krakauer's version: In "Into Thin Air," he recounts a conversation that took place between Boukreev and Fischer during the mid-afternoon on May 10 above the Hillary Step, a notoriously treacherous ridge just below the summit. A tired-looking Fischer was heading up the mountain; Krakauer, Boukreev and two other climbers, Andy Harris and Martin Adams, were heading down.

According to Krakauer, a short conversation ensued. "As Adams remembered the conversation, Boukreev told Fischer, 'I am going down with Martin [Adams].'" Fischer assented, and continued trudging up the mountain. It would become clear, however, that Boukreev did not stick with Adams as he claimed he would -- instead he raced down without him.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, however, Boukreev said that he'd had a second conversation with Fischer above the Hillary Step after the other climbers had left. In this conversation, according to Boukreev, Fischer agreed that Boukreev should descend ahead of all of his teammates in order to prepare tea and gather oxygen in order to bring them to anyone who needed them.

Krakauer is convinced -- or at least, he says, he is "98 percent convinced" -- that Boukreev invented this second conversation. "This was a new story," he says. "Scott [Fischer] was walking away -- he didn't wait around."

Besides Krakauer, the only other living climber who was there for the first -- and perhaps the only -- part of that conversation is Adams, a retired Wall Street bond trader who now spends most of his time in the Rocky Mountains. Along with DeWalt and Sandy Hill Pittman, a wealthy Manhattan socialite and climber who also came off poorly in "Into Thin Air," Adams is among Krakauer's harshest critics.

Adams acknowledges that he doesn't know if the conversation took place, but argues that "it is impossible for Jon to say that there was no second conversation. It may not have happened while he was up there. It may have happened later. But I wasn't there, and he wasn't there, either."

For his part, Krakauer says Adams has changed his story. Krakauer supplied Salon with typed notes from an untaped telephone interview with Adams in July 1996. In those notes, Adams says that Boukreev's "memory of the conversation between him and Scott ... is somewhat different than mine. As I remember it, he told Scott he was going to go down with me. He says he told Scott that he was going down ahead of everybody. But we talked through our differences and reached some agreement."

Adams doesn't recollect making those comments. "I think Krakauer misquoted me, and took things I said out of context," he says. Krakauer replies that he'd stake his professional reputation on their veracity.

Adams also implies that Krakauer had good reason to vilify Boukreev. "Krakauer couldn't acknowledge Anatoli as the hero of this story," he says. "Because if Anatoli is the hero, who's going to get the book contract? Anatoli, not Jon."

Krakauer remains skeptical about the notion of a second conversation, but he is willing to concede the slight possibility it did indeed happen. "OK, let's say for the sake of argument I missed it," he says. "How does that change anything? Fischer was virtually comatose. Anatoli says to him, 'I'm going to go make tea.' Fischer was in no shape to be making decisions, and Anatoli should have known better." This was another example, Krakauer says, of Boukreev "blaming Fischer for his own bad decisions. Getting permission did not make it right."

The final wrinkle is that DeWalt claims in "The Climb" that there was another, earlier plan to have Boukreev descend the mountain ahead of clients. In the book he quotes a woman named Jane Bromet, a correspondent for Outside online, as saying that Fischer had discussed such a plan with her in the days before the climb. (In a letter to DeWalt after "The Climb" was published, Bromet disputed the quote -- she said her conversation with Fischer happened weeks, not days, before the climb, and that he never mentioned it again.) The Bromet quote now seems like a red herring; even DeWalt admits that if Fischer had mentioned such a plan, Boukreev was probably never made aware of it. Disgusted, Krakauer cites DeWalt's use of the quote as another example of what he calls "The Climb's" intellectual dishonesty. DeWalt replies that, by ignoring even the possibility of both plans, Krakauer abdicated his journalistic responsibility.

In any case, most mountaineers agree on two central points: A guide should, in general, remain with his clients; and Boukreev's failure to carry oxygen made it extremely difficult for him to do that. If Boukreev had carried oxygen, he would likely not have been forced to descend early, and might have been able to save more climbers.

Nick van der Leek:
In the end it is simply a case that each is responsible for his or her own life, and experts around them may provide assistance, and yes, at that vital time when their lives are also at risk, as a result of an array of reasons, they may not provide the best advice. Climbers should realise their greatest asset is their own control over themselves, and how they exert it. That is obviously what the mountain tests, whether we accept its terms, or enforce our own, even unto death.

Here's more:


While it's likely that no one will ever know for certain whether that second conversation happened -- whether Fischer told Boukreev to flee down the mountain before his teammates -- that fact hasn't prevented many climbers who were on Everest that day (and some who weren't) from taking sides on the issue of Boukreev's actions.

Most of the big names have fallen in behind Krakauer. These include David Breashears, an accomplished climber and filmmaker who was on Everest that day making an IMAX film. Breashears and his crew were among many climbers who acted heroically on May 10; in his case, his crew immediately set back their own summit plans -- and threw a $5 million film into jeopardy -- in order to offer aid, including valuable oxygen canisters, to climbers in distress. Breashears refuses to criticize Boukreev directly, but he manages to make his beliefs clear.

"I think Jon's book is a very honest account," Breashears says. "He is a good reporter, trained at gathering facts." Krakauer's book is "tough," he adds. "It tells a lot of hard truths. Climbers are not a group of people who are used to internal criticism. We're tribal. Jon wrote about things that people were uncomfortable hearing about, and that was traumatic for some."

Two other climbers who back Krakauer's account are Neil Beidleman, who was a guide alongside Boukreev on May 10, and Beck Weathers, who climbed on Hall's New Zealand team. Beidleman declined to speak to Salon on the record, but he made it abundantly clear that he disputes many of Boukreev's assertions. Weathers concurs: "In general, I agree with the substance of the points Jon raises about Anatoli," he says.

Peter Hackett, one of the world's preeminent experts on the effects of high-altitude climbing -- he lived in Nepal for six years, climbed Everest solo in 1981 and helped found the Himalayan Rescue Association -- is another critic of Boukreev's actions. "I think it's unwise for a guide to climb without oxygen," he says. "You've got to be at optimum levels. If there's a crisis, people without oxygen are much more susceptible to cold, hypothermia, frostbite. You can't spend time waiting for others. You've got to keep moving."

Hackett says he told the same thing to an assistant of DeWalt's when she called him for an interview, but that his quotes did not end up in "The Climb." ("I interviewed a lot of people who weren't quoted in my book," DeWalt replies.) Hackett also points out that when Boukreev guided Everest again in 1997, the year after the disaster, he did indeed use oxygen. "He decided to change his style," Hackett says.

DeWalt is more than happy to direct journalists to climbers who see things very differently. He also points out that, in December 1997, Boukreev was given an award for his heroism on Everest by the country's preeminent professional climbing organization, the American Alpine Club.

Jim Wickwire, a climber and the author of a recent book titled "Addicted to Danger," chaired the five-member committee that bestowed the award on Boukreev. "We looked at all the information we could before making our decision," Wickwire says. "But we looked first and foremost at what Anatoli did that day. He went out into the storm three times before he brought back three climbers. We did not feel that what happened up to that point changed the analysis."

That explanation, some Boukreev critics argue, is like praising the arsonist for putting out the fire. Krakauer says, "Why was Anatoli the only person to go back out? He may have been fearless. But he was also pretty goddamn motivated. He was having tea when a lot of people died. It wouldn't have looked too good."

Krakauer sees low-level conspiracy in the Alpine Club award. "I've never been the darling of the American Alpine Club," he says, describing its members as "elitists" and "old farts" who like to tell other climbers what to do.

"The American Alpine Club used to piss the shit out of me in the 1970s, when I was just starting to climb," he says. "To climb in foreign countries, they demand you have sponsorship from them -- you'd be denied permission without it. It reminded me of one of the things I hated about organized sports; you had to have a coach, you had to cut your hair. With climbing it felt different. You could hitchhike to a mountain on your own ... it had an anarchic, counterculture quality. And here were these guys with clipboards telling you what you could or couldn't do."

A more compelling defender of Boukreev's actions on Everest is Sandy Hill Pittman, a paying member of Fisher's team and one of the climbers Boukreev dragged to safety on the evening of May 10. (Now divorced, she goes by her maiden name, Sandy Hill.) As most people who read "Into Thin Air" or other articles about the Everest climb are aware, Hill became a frequent target of satire shortly after the tragedy. Although she's an accomplished climber -- when she summited Everest in 1996, she became only the second woman to climb each of the "Seven Summits," the highest peaks on each continent -- her penchant for carting the appurtenances of her luxurious lifestyle (gourmet food, laptops, fashion magazines) along with her rankled hard-core climbers. "I wouldn't dream of leaving town without an ample supply of Dean & DeLuca's Near East Blend and my espresso maker," Hill burbled in one often-quoted dispatch to an NBC Web site.

Krakauer was fairly hard on Hill in "Into Thin Air." Among other things, he was critical of her desire to have expensive (and very heavy) electronic equipment hauled with her up the mountain, thus exhausting a Sherpa who should have been attending to more important matters. ("Sandy wasn't to blame for that," Krakauer says now. "Fischer is, for letting her climb with it. He wanted the publicity her online dispatches would provide.")

In the two years since the tragedy, Hill has kept a low profile and has rarely given interviews. She is now a graduate student in architectural preservation and restoration at Columbia.

Hill declines to talk about Krakauer's book, which she claims she has not read very closely. But she is keen to talk about Anatoli Boukreev. "I was a person he rescued," Hill says, "and so I really understand the magnitude of his effort. He and he alone came out. He said the others wouldn't come. He did try to muster support, and I envisioned him going tent-to-tent asking people to come out, and no one would." (Among the climbers who had returned to the tents at Camp Four by this point was Krakauer, who said he collapsed into a profound, exhausted sleep.)

"Things would have turned out very differently for me if Anatoli hadn't come back out. From my perspective, if Anatoli had done anything different that day -- even tied his shoelaces differently -- the outcome would have been different. I think that every single action he took that day was in the best interests of his clients."

Hill says she was saddened at the way that everything was "fouled and examined and spun" in the wake of the tragedy. "It made it very difficult to do the business of grieving for Scott Fischer. I'm very resentful. There was no respect paid to the grieving period. Everything was blown wide open and sensationalized."

Hill also defends Boukreev's decision not to use oxygen. "I understand his reasoning," she says. "Oxygen is fine, but when it runs out you hit a wall. Having experienced that myself, I can say that for me -- and I am not in Anatoli's league -- the false sense of security oxygen gives you can be a dangerous thing."

Peter Hackett, the high-altitude climbing expert who was critical of Boukreev's decision to climb without oxygen, concedes that Hill's point has some validity -- although he remains convinced that Everest guides shouldn't climb without it.

While Hill did indeed come perilously close to dying on Everest in 1996, the story of Beck Weathers is perhaps even more striking and poignant. Weathers was nearing the summit on May 10 when, due to a preexisting condition, his eyesight began to fail. Weathers, who was climbing with Krakauer on Hall's New Zealand team, was ordered by Hall to sit down on a balcony above the South Col for a while to see if his vision improved. If it didn't, he was to stay planted where he was and wait for Hall to retrieve him on the way down.

As it turned out, Weathers would sit and shiver on that balcony for several hours, until darkness was descending and conditions on the mountain had turned grim. By then he couldn't move on his own. Later that evening, a guide named Mike Groom would attach himself to Weathers (a procedure called short-roping) and help him further down the mountain. Along with a small group of other climbers, Groom and Weathers became lost on a lower portion of the South Col and couldn't go on. The group huddled together to keep warm, but when Boukreev showed up to help them later in the night, Weathers, along with climber Yasuko Namba, appeared to be dead. (Namba later did die.) Weathers was left behind, and spent a night utterly exposed to the elements. To the astonishment (and deep shame) of many of the climbers on the expedition, he regained consciousness the following morning and staggered into Camp Four.

Earlier, up higher on the mountain, before the bad weather set in, Krakauer had been among those who climbed past Weathers on the balcony. Some of Boukreev's defenders have accused Krakauer of not being completely honest about what transpired between the two. And there are indeed differences between Krakauer's account and a version Weathers later provided.

In "Into Thin Air," Krakauer writes that he implored Weathers to come down to Camp Four with him. "Come with me," Krakauer reports he said. "It will be at least another two or three hours before Rob shows up. I'll be your eyes. I'll get you down, no problem." Krakauer then berates himself for mentioning that Groom would be coming along shortly. Weathers elected to wait for Groom, and Krakauer admits he was secretly relieved. He was worried about being able to drag his own ass down the mountain.

In a taped lecture that Weathers gave not long ago -- a tape that has become a hot bootleg among the anti-Krakauer contingent -- Weathers offers a slightly different, if not entirely irreconcilable, version of this encounter. Here's a relevant excerpt:


It gets to be about 5 o'clock and I see a lone figure coming out of the what is now beginning to be a little bit of blowing snow and a little bit of dropping temperature ... and it's Jon Krakauer. Jon says, "Beck, what are you doing here?" And I tell him my sad little tale. And I said, "Jon, I don't think I can wait any longer. I think Rob's going to have to understand, but it's starting to go south on us. And I'm going to need somebody to act as my eyes. And it's not a big deal. We'll just go a little bit slow ..." And Jon was clearly not happy with this idea. His body language and ... his first reaction was to say, "Beck, I'm not a guide." I said, "I know that, Jon. But I can't see well enough to walk off of this thing." In all credit to Jon, I have no doubt that had I pushed the point with him, he would have done it. But he told me at the same time, you know, Mike Groom is 20 minutes behind. He has a radio. I said, "Not a problem, I'll wait for Mike."
In an interview with Salon, Weathers claims that Krakauer's account doesn't bother him. "There is nothing in Jon's book that offends me. He did say, 'I'm not a guide.' He did not say, 'I'm not a guide so I won't help you down the mountain.' I took it as him saying, 'I have no special skills.'"

He adds: "Anatoli Boukreev certainly did not play a role in getting me off the mountain. The only role he played was stepping over my body."

Krakauer responds by saying, "I don't get why [Boukreev's defenders] are making such a big deal about this. It's just another part of their effort to discredit me." Krakauer says he has no doubt that Weathers' description of his body language is correct, but he says he was more than willing to help him. He adds: "I didn't just tell Beck that I wasn't a guide -- I told him I didn't have any rope. And in order to get him down the mountain, he would have had to be short-roped to another climber. That's what Groom eventually did."

Strangely enough, Boukreev and Krakauer had a final, unexpected, encounter about a month before Boukreev's death on Annapurna. Boukreev was sitting on a panel discussion about climbing at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in Banff, Alberta, and Krakauer happened to be in the audience. Boukreev spent a good portion of the evening attacking Krakauer's book, and when question time rolled around Krakauer was the first in line. "Anatoli," Krakauer said, fuming, "I think your book is so dishonest." It's something Krakauer now regrets saying, calling it an "embarrassing mistake."

Afterward, however, Krakauer caught up with Boukreev and his girlfriend outside the building. "We talked for about a half hour," Krakauer says. "I admitted that my depiction of him in my original Outside article wasn't as balanced as it could have been. He admitted a few things, too. It wasn't exactly a rapprochement. We agreed to disagree about some things. But if he had only lived, I think we could be sorting this thing out."
SALON | Aug. 3, 1998

"Early in the trip, I thought Scott's [Fischer's] system was fucked, and it ended up being better than our system, and that shows you how little I know. I remember thinking Anatoli's this great strong guy, but he's terrible with people. He's never around -- he's always up front with his Sherpa. ... I thought they [the Mountain Madness expedition members] were looking for trouble. ... Some of us [on the Adventure Consultants team] were smug -- that our group was sort of the safest, that it was more conservatively guided. And we worried about Scott's group and his laissez-faire, let people do what they want. And, in the end, all Scott's clients survived. ... Anatoli is who he is. He's going to be always up front. And, as it happened, this time he was down, he just happened to be down and strong enough to save people when the time came." The member of the Adventure Consultants' team who offered this testimony within days of the Everest tragedy and before the media began to seriously hunger for someone to blame? Jon Krakauer.

In closing, I would like to suggest that Krakauer's motivation for continuing to apply creative candlepower to the subject of Anatoli Boukreev may, in part, be motivated by his desire to keep the spotlight from settling on a question that began to loom in the weeks after the Everest tragedy of 1996: Did Krakauer's presence on the Adventure Consultants expedition contribute to the tragedy that unfolded? That question, which has kicked around in pubs and at the crags for more than two years, surfaced three weeks ago in a more than credible forum, the 1998 edition of the American Alpine Journal. In that publication, mountaineer and writer Galen Rowell, who has met in Nepal with several of the players in the Everest tragedy and who favorably reviewed "Into Thin Air" for The Wall Street Journal, says in a review of "The Climb," "The reader senses that the presence of an Outside journalist as a client on the most fatal commercial Everest venture was no coincidence."

It is a matter worth considering, I think -- not for the purpose of placing blame -- but for inquiring into what it means to have a high-profile, participatory media presence in high-risk, extreme sports. Maybe there is something to learn in considering the question. Maybe there are lives to be saved.
SALON | Aug. 14, 1998


For more insights [updated October 19, 2015] read NEVEREST


20 comments:

Travis Dotson said...

I read "Into Thin Air" a couple of months ago now and have been fascinated with Everest in general, and with the events of 1996, ever since. I want to thank you for keeping this information online. Much of it I had come across elsewhere but some of it, particularly the account of Krakauer's reaction to helping Beck Weathers, I had not seen. After first reading Krakauer's book, I was confident that it was a fair portrayal of the events. Since then though, I find myself going back to one question, repeatedly...Why was Krakauer so exhausted that he could offer no help to anyone. Repeatedly throughout the book, Krakauer is the first to reach whatever section of Everest they are climbing. More than once, he helped the Sherpas while waiting for teammates to arrive. On summit day, he descends without incident, ahead of the storm, but now is too trashed to do anything at all? The more I think about this, the more I sense that a common undertone to the entire book is Jon convincing HIMSELF that he should share none of the blame for the events of the Hall 1996 expedition, when it seems there is blame to be shared on more than one level.

Thanks again for keeping these facts online for those who may only now be reading and researching this topic.

latka7 said...

Krakauer did accept some blame in his book but it seemed like he did it so as to lay the groundwork to place most of the blame on Anatoli Boukreev and Lopsang Sherpa. Like Travis wrote, there was plenty of blame to go around, but why did Krakauer have this drive that he could not control to point fingers and place blame? Krakauer could never get over the fact that Boukreev would not accept the blame that Krakauer wanted to place on him. He seemed obsessed with this to point of trying to publicly embarrass Anatoli during the Q&A at Anatoli's presentation at the '97 Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival. The intensity of his feelings is also displayed in the foul language he uses in some of his writings to magazines and websites re: his feelings about Anatoli. It all makes Krakauer seems petty and small.

Smorg said...

Nicely balanced post on this controversy, I say. :o)

"he [Krakauer] points out what he calls a "serious flaw" in the "return to get tea" argument. Since Boukreev was not issued a radio on the climb -- another mistake on Fischer's part -- how could he have known if anyone left above him needed his help?"

I thought Boukreev's book pretty much explained this. He didn't need a radio to know that his clients were going to run out of O2 before making it back to Camp 4. He could do math (he held a BS in physics, after all) and knew how long their O2 supply would last. They were very late.

It seems to me Krakauer expected Boukreev to be some sort of a superhuman. Boukreev was already something of a superhuman at that sort of altitude, but I doubt that he would have been able to get those clients to camp much faster had he stayed with them and been using O2 in his climb. He'd have ran out of the gas along with the clients... and his eye sight wasn't any better than theirs.

There are weirdos taking side on this match up (Krakauer v Boukreev) indeed. It seems to me that Boukreev himself didn't go out of his way to blame Krakauer for anything that happened on the mountain, though. (He hardly mentioned Krakauer in his book. Weston DeWalt, on the other hand, seems aped over Krakauer). People aren't responsible for what the demented factions of their fans do.

I was just reading a book about the 2006 K2 incident (Feddie Wilkinson's One Mountain, Thousand Summits) and was struck by one thing (among many others, of course). As in the 1996 Everest incident, the climbers who weren't using O2 (Chhiring Dorje & Pemba Gyalje) out-performed the ones that were, and ended up being the rescuers. That doesn't mean that everyone should climb those 8,000ers without O2, of course, but perhaps people shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the act of climbing these mtns without O2 as careless or egoistic without considering the climber' caliber and his self-awareness.

Anyhow, thanks for provoking thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Why does Beck Weathers get to have a say about Anatoli Boukreev? They belong to two different expeditions. Boukreev was not responsible for him at all. Boukreev rescued the clients in his team- where he belonged!

Anonymous said...

Travis, I am not sure I would conclude as you have. You will recall that Krakauer stated that he was suffering hypoxia during his decent from the summit, and an error by a fellow climber turned his oxygen on full which depleted leaving him to descend without O's, this, and the storm was the reason he was exhausted - don't forget he sat for an hour 650ft from camp due to exhaustion.

At hand end of the day Krakauer was a client (of sorts), whereas Boukreev was a professional guide charged with his clients safety. Krakauer tables his view on this in his book, a view shared by plenty of respected Mountaineers. Seeing 5 of your party whom you have spent 6 weeks in close proximity perish must hurt, he has a right to ask questions. But don't forget Bourkreev saved 3 lives in the height of the storm, and none of his clients died.

My personal view from reading around the issue is for all their experience, poor planning and poor decisions by Hall's guide team stacked the odds against their clients in gone face of an exceptional storm.

Anonymous said...

The argument that Bukka did not lose a client is very specious to me, Martin Adams had to pull himself out of 2 crevasses after Bukka left him behind, and Bukka's clients were huddled in the South Col with members of the AC team who did die, it could just as easily have been the MM clients instead. And while Bukka did heroically venture repeatedly into the storm he never found the missing clients, they had to make their own way back to the tents to initiate their own rescue.
Did Krakauer's presence lead in some way to the disaster? Sure. But he was going to be on the mountain with one team or the other. There people whose presence contributed more than his to what happened, such as that sociopath Pittman. Ultimately, there were poor decisions by nearly everyone there, including Sherpas.

Anonymous said...

It also sounds like people have the mentality that paying $65,000 guarantees their safety and competence of those around you. There is more than enough information/evidence out there that proves this mentality false. At least some of the fault must be given to each client for their misconception that one can buy perfection.

Michelle Martin said...

I read both "Into Thin Air" and "The Climb." I think that Bourkeev is right that if you want to climb Everest, you should be independent and know what you're doing, otherwise you're dangerous to everyone around you, including yourself. "The Climb" was written well, if not as entertaining maybe as "Into Thin Air". I don't think however, that Kraukauer should have been expected to save others on Everest as he was not trained or qualified to do so. Bourkeev WAS a hero and Kraukauer cannot take that away from him, neither can Beck Weathers who didn't belong on Everest to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading Into thin air and got into the same debate on who is right Job Krakauer or Boukreev/Lopsang/Pittman.

The book is great, but tries in every way to distance the author from the events to avoid taking any blame for the events.

First of all Boukreev/Lopsang or Pittman dont deserve the blame for the events. The weather was the main cause. Bourkreev saved three lives. Lopsang helped Pittman summit and stayed with Fisher for hours and tried to save Fisher.
Pittman for her part summited under those treacherous circumstances and came back alive.

Scott Fisher has himself to blame for his death. He could have turned around as he was atleast an hour behind his group. But the desire to summit another time must have been too strong to resist. The one thing that Fisher did right was to have strong team including sherpas , guides and some strong clients which ensured team success despite his own death due to his own faulty judgement.

Hall is primary to he blamed for his teams disastrous result which ended up with four people dead by not turning around at 2.00 probably fueled by a desire to summit in the face of competition and pressure by presence of journalists Jon and Pittman.

Where does Jon Krakauer lie in all this. He was the one guy who could have helped Andy and Beck and chose not to. He was resting in the tent when events were unfolding.

Jon is a great story teller but should get far more blame than
Boukreev/Lopsang or Pittman. His attempts at deflection are very evident. But all those are for self preservation and i dont this he is a villain here.


Personally i dont think anyone other than the weather deserves the blame. Each individual including the guides had a choice to continue or turn around and chose their own destiny. Some people made the right choice and survived, others made the wrong choice and perished. Lets leave it at that and move on.

Anonymous said...

Travis, Why was Krakauer so exhausted? Going to the top of Everest alone is enough to exhaust people in the best of shape. Add in hypoxia and a hurricane....one in which the people up there had to walk into the wind and snow to get back to camp....anyone would be exhausted. David Breashears said just the sound of the storm was "menacing and ferocious". And he was down at advance base camp. I know it is impossible to actually imagine being up there that night, but it is a wonder more people didn't die. I agree with anon 8:25 am....between poor decisions, a lot of mishaps and the storm itself it was the Perfect Storm.

Semen Rendi said...
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Anonymous said...

RIP to all those who perished in 1996. They all took a known risk climbing Everest. Guides are not super-humans, legally or otherwise. Hall and Fisher perished trying to do their job but ultimately made bad decisions. Don't blame a hired hand like Boukreev who recognized the tragedy too late.

DBoonful said...

I feel all of the discussion of blame during this tragic event is a bit ridiculous. What happened during that storm and what people would/could or would/could not do can never truly be understood by anyone but the individuals there and their estimation of the strength and personal limits they possessed that night.

Real fault starts and ends with the competitive atmosphere, ignorance, and most importantly the Hubris shown by the decisions and leadership shown long before the storm.

What doesn't seem to be acknowledged often is that this fateful storm that hit was known of days before it approached and was largely ignored. Perhaps because of it's unusually low approach to the ground for a summer storm it was severely underestimated as well. But even so the climbers all were timing their ascent between fronts and had every climber on the mountain followed the basic rules of Everest (1 pm turn around time) likely all of them would have survived with a horrifying tale of what it's like to drink tea and suck oxygen in a tent in 100 mph winds at 26,000 ft.

But even so, mistakes were made at high altitude by the guides and climbers, and that is something that everyone should accept as a risk at altitude without looking to find closure by identifying character based on sketchy facts and accounts.

These clients paid to do something that in 1996 was still very very risky -as it still is by comparison to most things even today. These climbers signed up for every bit of this danger and uncertainty all looking for some combination of emotional, social, and professional payoff. They accepted this risk with an open heart and thirst for accomplishment.

Boukreev was a true climber -not a true guide, his motivation for being on a guide was a way to finance his own climbing endeavors and life. Krakauer was a true journalist and a true climber(although he down plays this part), but his personal experience that day was %5 of the story and the rest beholden to the emotionally compromised reflections of the other survivors. Both men had polarizing and alienating personalities before they ever set foot on that mountain so it is no surprise that they are the reference point for lines drawn on the subject -even if not for the notoriety of their accounts.

So while the story is fascinating, I don't see the point in trying to sort out heroes and villains. Like most things in life, trying to simplify things by categorizing them is the selfish method for our brains to think it can understand things in perfect compartmentalized order -like understanding the true hearts and actions of others on that fatal night

-and so the hubris continues..

Nick van der Leek said...

Good point - wanting to declare heroes and villains isn't appropriate, but on the other hand, many people died, and unnecessarily. I think it is human nature to want to know why, and what led to it. Hall's compassion towards Hansen in the end caused him to break his own rule, and led to the death of three men. Doesn't mean any of those three are heroes or villains, but studying this incident does help us to understand how these mistakes happen. That's my take anyway.

John Johansen said...
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John Johansen said...

Why is not Rob Hall's decision not to follow his own turnaround time, more talked about? In my opinion, he is the one to blame, if not solely for this incident

Nick van der Leek said...

Thanks for your comment John. Hall's error, and I agree it was huge, is talked about, people just don't like to talk ill of a good guy. Have a look at this, and then look at the reviews and you'll see what I mean:

https://www.amazon.com/NEVEREST-New-Insights-Consultants-Expedition-ebook/dp/B01BVQRE00

Patrick Ocampo said...

Thanks for posting this analysis. I think that you can place the blame on the weather, and on plain and simple human frailty. Plenty of hubris mixed in with the fact that nobody thinks clearly under such circumstances was the human side of the equation;all of the witnesses are unreliable by varying degrees because of their physical and mental conditions at the time. With regards to the aftemath, I suspect that everyone involved has a pretty decent dose of survivor's guilt, which simply feeds the debate.

Patrick Ocampo said...

Thanks for posting this analysis. I think that you can place the blame on the weather, and on plain and simple human frailty. Plenty of hubris mixed in with the fact that nobody thinks clearly under such circumstances was the human side of the equation;all of the witnesses are unreliable by varying degrees because of their physical and mental conditions at the time. With regards to the aftemath, I suspect that everyone involved has a pretty decent dose of survivor's guilt, which simply feeds the debate.

E.G. Foster said...

I think Travis Dodson nails it. I think Krakauer shifts blame as a sort of projection for all that he didn't do.

IMO, Hall is responsible for the whole mess. His decision not to turn around the last client cost the lives of the client, himself and endangered other members of his team descending ... who he should have been aiding.