Everest Revelation: A Clarification (Cont.)
Reply from Jon Krakauer
August 24, 1996
TO: Letters Editor, Outside Online
RE: Anatoli Boukreev's objections to my article in the September, 1996 issue of Outside, "Into Thin Air"
Anatoli Boukreev's letter to the editor of Outside, dated July 31, 1996, demands a response. Anatoli performed heroically in the pre-dawn hours of May 11, and helped save the lives of Sandy Pittman and Charlotte Fox; I admire him immensely for going out alone in the storm, when the rest of us were lying helpless in our tents, and bringing in the lost climbers. But his behavior as a guide earlier in the day is troubling, and I continue to feel quite strongly that it needed to be addressed in print.
After speaking with Anatoli at length and on several occasions, the crucial facts remain indisputable: Anatoli elected not to use supplemental oxygen on summit day, May 10, and after tagging the summit he went down alone ahead of his clients, defying the conventions of responsible guiding. Why would a guide do this? Anatoli's explanation—"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"—betrays, at best, an alarming lack of judgment.
If Anatoli was concerned that his clients might run out of oxygen, why didn't he carry extra oxygen for them on the way up, instead of carrying nothing at all, not even a pack? He jettisoned his pack early on the climb, around 6:30 a.m., just above the 27,800-foot "Balcony." All the other guides on the mountain wore packs, in which they carried such items as rope, first aid supplies, extra crampons and clothing—the things experienced guides typically carry to assist clients in the event of an emergency. Of the 30-some climbers attempting the summit on May 10, Anatoli was the only person up there without a pack.
If Anatoli was worried about dwindling oxygen supplies, why didn't he suggest to Fischer or Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa (when Anatoli met them on the summit ridge as Anatoli was descending) that they radio Camp IV and request that Pemba Sherpa (who was waiting on the South Col in support for just such an eventuality) start heading up with extra oxygen? It is extremely difficult for me to accept that the most sensible course of action was for Anatoli to rush down alone ahead of the clients, then attempt to come all the way back up with a load of extra oxygen. Climbing to the summit ridge of Everest twice in a single day—without relying on gas, in a raging blizzard—has never been done in the history of mountaineering, and is probably beyond the abilities of any climber, even one as accomplished as Anatoli. I believe—and some of his clients concur—that the clients would have been better served if Anatoli had stayed and assisted them down the mountain. Anatoli did not have a radio (neither he nor Neal Beidleman were given radios; only Fischer and Lopsang carried radios among Fischer's team). Once he abandoned his crew, it was thus impossible for him to even know what kind of trouble the clients might be in, or know where on that huge expanse of mountain they might actually be.
In fact, at 6 p.m. on May 10, when Anatoli "gathered supplies and oxygen," as he describes it, and began his "solo effort in the onset of a blizzard to locate straggling climbers," he was able to climb no more than 600 feet above Camp IV before becoming disoriented in the storm and being forced to descend back to the tents around 8 p.m. without locating anybody. This was a brave and noble effort on Anatoli's part, and is to be commended, but it was completely ineffective, and demonstrates rather dramatically what was wrong with his decision to descend ahead of his clients.
And even though Scott Fischer gave him permission to do so, does Anatoli really think that it was in his clients' best interest for him to climb without using supplemental oxygen? Anatoli is a remarkably strong climber at altitude, but he was paid $25,000 to perform as a guide, and oxygen would have certainly allowed him to think more clearly and assist clients much more readily. Or does Anatoli somehow believe that he is stronger without oxygen than with it?
Anatoli states, "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." In truth, once acclimatized, any climber—including Anatoli—would be better off using bottled oxygen on a summit attempt and having it run out late in the day than not using it in the first place. The harmful effects of hypoxia are cumulative; the longer you go without oxygen, the more deleterious the outcome. If Anatoli doubts this, I suggest that he consult any reputable expert in high-altitude physiology, or compare notes with such accomplished Himalayan climbers as Alex Lowe and Ed Viesturs—who have demonstrated that they are at least as strong as Anatoli above 8,000 meters—and wouldn't think of guiding without using gas.
Anatoli also states, "As a precautionary measure, in the event that some extraordinary demand was placed on me on summit day, I was carrying one (1) bottle of supplementary oxygen, a mask, and a reductor.... At 8,500 meters [approximately 27,800 feet], after monitoring my condition and feeling it was good, I elected to give my bottle oxygen to Neal [Beidleman], about whose personal supply I was concerned." This implies that Anatoli was doing Beidleman a favor by giving him this bottle. In truth, Beidleman—who had a full bottle of oxygen at the time, and was already using his own perfectly functioning mask and regulator—neither needed nor wanted Anatoli's bottle, mask, and regulator, which added approximately 10 pounds to the large load Beidleman was already carrying (by that point Beidleman was also carrying two coils of rope he'd taken from the ailing Lopsang, who, like Anatoli, was not using gas). In effect, Anatoli said to Beidleman, "Now that I know I'm not going to need this oxygen, you carry it for me, because somebody else may need it later." Anatoli was simply trying to strip his load down to the bare minimum, because he was climbing without gas and wanted every possible advantage in the horribly thin air above 27,000 feet.
In Anatoli's letter to the editor, he included his climbing résumé. It is a very impressive tally of ascents, but there is a world of difference between being a brilliant climber and an able guide. Throughout Anatoli's defense of his actions he has implied that Scott Fischer fully approved of his guiding style. In fact, Fischer had repeatedly reprimanded Anatoli throughout the expedition for not sticking closer to his clients. On May 7, during Fischer's last satellite phone conversation with his business partner in Seattle, Karen Dickinson, he told her that he was furious with Anatoli for not fulfilling his responsibilities as a guide. The day before, on May 6, in the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, Fischer severely castigated Anatoli in front of one of their clients for being AWOL during a potentially life-threatening situation.
Many of us who were on Everest last May made mistakes. As I indicated in my article, my own actions may have contributed to the deaths of two of my teammates. Anatoli is an extraordinary Himalayan climber, and I don't doubt that his intentions were good on summit day. What troubles me, though, is Anatoli's utter refusal to acknowledge the possibility that he made even a single poor decision. Not once has he ever indicated to me that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't the smartest choice to climb without gas or go down ahead of his clients. Anatoli doggedly insists that he would make the same decisions all over again—in his opinion, he was the only person on the mountain who did everything right. The rest of us fucked up big-time, but not Anatoli.
Such arrogance, I believe, is dangerous for any climber, but it is especially dangerous for one who purports to be a Himalayan guide.