Thursday, December 15, 2005
I have never gone shopping with Sandy Hill Pittman, the socialite who climbed Mount Everest last year. She survived a ferocious blizzard that killed eight others the night of May 10, 1996. But her reputation has not survived the avalanche of bad press that followed the tragedy -- stories in Vanity Fair, Life, Men's Journal, Outside, on ABC-TV. Two movies in the works; Jon Krakauer's first-person account, "Into Thin Air," tops the bestseller lists; even the New York Times weighed in with an editorial proclaiming "Everest is no smaller than it ever was, but the motives for climbing seem to have steadily diminished."
Pittman became a lightning rod for criticism, as if her ambition alone killed people on the mountain. Last week, Philip Weiss began the pro-Sandy backlash, seeking to rehabilitate her in the pages of the New York Observer. His defense began with the story of Pittman's pre-Everest shopping spree, a scene Weiss was particularly well-suited to write since he covered it at the time for Vogue magazine. Everyone seems to be writing about the Everest disaster in the first-person voice.
So let me begin by telling you who I am: I co-write the Intelligencer, a gossip column in New York magazine. From that perch, I can back up one of Weiss' more outrageous claims with some authority. Yes, it's true that otherwise-sophisticated Manhattanites blame Pittman for killing "all those people on Everest." I've heard it, too, Phil. I've also heard that Sandy Hill, as the soon-to-be-divorc�e now prefers to be addressed, is being shunned in certain Upper East Side circles. Hill, the only member of Scott Fischer's expedition to hike into base camp with a book contract, is one of the few without a pub date or a movie deal today. How did Sandy Hill turn into "the Susan Lucci of the continuing Everest soap opera," as Pete Wilkinson put it in Men's Journal?
The first thing to remember is that people have loved to hate Sandy Hill Pittman for a long time. In 1990, New York magazine published Michael Gross' delicious "The Couple of the Minute: Doing Good with Bob and Sandy Pittman." Gross painted the couple as shameless social climbers, proved that Bob didn't really invent MTV and coined the phrase "the Martha Stewart of Mountaineering" to sum up Sandy's alpine ambitions. She'd already trekked the Himalayas with Meredith Brokaw, wife of NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, in 1989. "This was no princess out on a hike," Meredith told Gross.
By the time Pittman left Central Park West for Kathmandu seven years later, she was on her third attempt to top Everest. She was divorcing Bob, her husband of 16 years, whose fortunes seemed at a low ebb (he'd gone from Time Warner to the decidedly less glamorous real estate firm Century 21, although he was soon to rebound by taking over the troubled America Online). But her quest had gone well: She'd successfully navigated six of the world's seven top summits. She was under contract to write a coffee-table book, "Summits of My Soul," a sort of memoir-travelogue-scrapbook, for San Francisco's Chronicle Books.
Pittman's ascents had been so well documented over the years that the only nugget left for me to report, in the New York magazine that hit newsstands on April 8, 1996, was a minor update: She was going to be covering her climb on her very own Web site. And she was planning to rendezvous at base camp before the final assent with girlfriends Martha Stewart, Blaine Trump and Sharon Hoge. By the time the New York Observer came out with "Sandy Pittman Social-Climbs Mount Everest" a few weeks later, Stewart and Trump had pulled out of the Nepal trip. But the Observer published a picture from an earlier expedition to Sikkim: There was a smiling Martha Stewart, in a tent, serving crepes suzette to Pittman, Trump and Hoge. The most embarrassing line in the piece, predictably, came from Pittman herself: "I wouldn't dream of leaving town without an ample supply of Dean & DeLuca's Near East Blend and my espresso maker," she had breathlessly told her online readers in a Web dispatch quoted by the Observer.
The point of all this is that Sandy Hill Pittman was ridiculed as a social-climbing adventuress long before tragedy struck on the mountain. Her responses after the blizzard didn't win her new friends. Like Richard Nixon, Sandy Hill Pittman was done in by the cover-up. She never mentioned that she was short-roped up the mountain by the Sherpa Lopsang, just as she never mentioned that she was carried out of the blizzard by the guide Anatoli Boukreev. By the time others mentioned it to the swarm of reporters circling the story, Pittman's reporting looked suspect.
So, she's not a good reporter. Does that make her a murderer? OK, so she had the Sherpas running the latest copies of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Allure up the mountain after they'd been sent by DHL to Kathmandu. So she hooked up with a guy on the mountain, the 26-year-old California snowboarder Stephen Koch. So she had a Sherpa carry her 40-pound satellite phone up to Camp 4, where it didn't work. So call her a princess on a hike. But not a murderer. Not even Krakauer thinks that Pittman's mistakes on the mountain were as fatal as those made by some of the others.
But every time Pittman opened her mouth, she got into trouble again. She told Wilkinson in Men's Journal that she would "think twice about going on supplemental oxygen again. I acclimatize really well." How could Lene Gammelgaard -- the climber who was ordered by guide Neal Beidleman to hand over her oxygen canisters to a suffering Sandy -- have felt, reading that quote? It's no wonder, as blame is being assigned and reassigned for what went wrong on the mountain, that "everybody hates everybody," as one survivor told Men's Journal.
Even Pittman's friends who weren't on the trip have been keeping their distance. Upper East side hostesses whisper that the Brokaws have been distancing themselves from their former friend. She wasn't at their big Christmas party last year, for instance. (Another woman in a messy divorce -- Judge Kimba Wood, who's splitting from journalist Michael Kramer -- was at the party, with rich beau Frank Richardson in tow.) By the time Bob Pittman was photographed in the New York Times this spring with his new girlfriend -- Veronique Choa, the estranged wife of climber and film-maker David Breashears -- Sandy Hill was off cruising the Mediterranean with her new boyfriend, Stephen Koch (the 26-year-old from the mountain). Women's Wear Daily reported she's planning to travel overseas with party planner Robert Isabel this summer.
When push came to shove, Hill retreated back into her money, like Daisy Buchanan. She hired a famous libel attorney -- Jonathan Lubell, who once defended the Church of Scientology -- to protect her name. He sent threatening letters to some of the more vocal survivors, including Jon Krakauer.
Everyone's got an opinion. (Maybe that's why everyone's writing about this in the first person.) Everyone, that is, except Hill herself. Her coffee-table book is "indefinitely on hold," reports Sarah Bailey, a spokeswoman at Chronicle Books. "The Everest climb ... pretty much changed her perception of her other climbs. And changed her," Bailey reports. "She really wanted time to think about what kind of a book she wanted to write." When called by Salon, Hill sounded cheerful and upbeat. "No, I really don't want to talk about it," she said. "I think I'll just stay quiet, if you don't mind."
June 11, 1997