Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Krakauer's Letter

True Everest
Everest Revelation: A Clarification

By Jon Krakauer

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.

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