May 10

This Day in History

Disaster

May 10, 1996:

Death on Mount Everest

Eight climbers die on Mount Everest during a storm on this day in 1996. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997. A total of 15 people perished during the spring 1996 climbing season at Everest. Between 1980 and 2002, 91 climbers died during the attempt.

Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, in 1953. Though incredibly difficult and dangerous to climb, by the mid-1990s technology had advanced to the point that even intermediate-level climbers could make the attempt with the assistance of expert guides. In 1996, an unprecedented 17 expeditions--hundreds of climbers--attempted to scale the Himalayan peak. One of these included Sandy Pittman, an only moderately experienced climber.

Pittman, the socialite wife of legendary television businessman Bob Pittman, joined expert guide Scott Fischer's team and was acting as a web correspondent for NBC Interactive Media. In her first report, she wrote: "I have got as much in the way of computers and electronic hardware as I have climbing equipment: two portable microcomputers, a camcorder, three 35 mm cameras, a digital camera, two tape recorders, a CD player, a printer and a sufficient quantity (I hope) of solar panels and batteries to make the whole lot operate. I would not like to leave without taking a blend of coffee from Dean & DeLuca, as well as my espresso machine. And because we will be on Everest for Easter, I have also taken four chocolate eggs. Hunting for Easter eggs at 5,000 meters should be interesting." All of these items were carried up the mountain not by Pittman, but by Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, an employee of the Fischer team. Furthermore, Pittman planned a meeting with her friends--including Martha Stewart--at the base camp and reportedly had the latest copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair ferried up to her at the camp while the team acclimatized to the high altitude of the Himalayas.

Disaster struck on May 10 as four different expeditions all attempted to reach the summit. Guide Anatoli Boukreev took his team to the top early in the day, with Rob Hall and Scott Fischer's teamclose behind. When a powerful storm came up suddenly, the climbers were trapped in a precarious position. Even strong and experienced climbers such as Hall and Fischer, both Everest veterans, could only struggle short distances down the peak. Boukreev descended to the nearest camp without his clients, ostensibly to be in a better position to rescue them. (In his book, Krakauer was highly critical of this move. Boukreev countered Krakauer's version of the story with his own in The Climb, published in 1997.)

Hall and Fischer stayed with their clients but the continuing storm made everyone vulnerable to death as oxygen supplies ran out. Although technology allowed Rob Hall to talk to his wife in New Zealand by satellite phone, there was nothing that could be done to save eight of the climbers, including both Hall and Fischer, who could not make it back to camp. Pittman survived with only minor frostbite. Krakauer blamed the inexperienced climbers and the guides who agreed to lead them--in return for large sums of money--for the tragedy.

Ninety-eight other climbers made it to the peak of Everest in the spring of 1996.

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