Neal Beidleman's Return to Mount Everest

By Neal BeidLeman | November 30, 2011 | Home Page

10 - Neal Beidleman's Return to Mount EverestDescending the Hillary Step at 29,000 feet, on May 20, 2011.

In May of 1996, 18 months prior to the avalanche that caused Anatoli’s tragic death, I was on the upper reaches of Everest, assisting clients on a treacherous descent, as a powerful late-day storm brutally imposed its wrath. I had been fixing ropes and breaking trail for hours, and was eventually joined on the summit ridge by Anatoli, who was guiding along with me. But Anatoli, a highly respected mountaineer and an imposing figure from the town of Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union, climbed without supplementary oxygen. This was his hallmark and he doggedly stuck to it, despite the direct disapproval of our boss and expedition leader, Scott Fischer. Anatoli’s decision necessitated he head down shortly after reaching the top, leaving me to wait for Scott and the rest of our clients. Hours passed; turnaround times came and went. Finally, my charge arrived and I descended with them, passing Scott as he neared the summit. Within minutes, a powerful storm rolled up the slopes and enveloped us all, adding one more chapter to the wickedly complicated chain of events that is still, to this day, not completely understood.

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Chris Davenport descends the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall

What eventually occurred on the mountain—five deaths and 10 total in the season—is clearly what should be most remembered. Families were broken and lives were forever changed. But there began a phantasmal second life to those events, one that played out on an international stage in a media firestorm of books, movies, documentaries, and online blogfests, where anyone, climber or not, can voice ruthless attacks.

Even before Anatoli and I departed the slopes of Everest, our plight had landed us on the international covers of both Time and Newsweek. Magazine and newspaper editors reached us by satellite phones at base camp and later, at all hours, in Kathmandu hotel rooms. TV newsmagazines jockeyed for exclusivity. We became embroiled in arguably the most recognized and scrutinized mountaineering calamity of all time, most notably detailed in Jon Krakauer’s best-selling firsthand account, Into Thin Air.

Krakauer’s Outside magazine piece, the basis for Into Thin Air, hit newsstands in the fall of 1996. A friend called to say he had “it” and that he never imagined how inconceivable the story was. He brought me the already worn copy and I sequestered myself in my bedroom for hours, ingesting every word. It was the longest piece ever printed by the magazine, nearly one-third of a book. Krakauer, an extraordinary writer and investigative journalist who climbed to the summit with us, was the first to piece together the complex timeline of what happened on the mountain. It was a captivating read and an out-ofbody experience to be part of the story—that story. Krakauer was careful to narrate the facts as he saw them, but he also took several people to task for their actions on the mountain. One of those was Anatoli.

Krakauer felt strongly that no lead guide, especially one with Anatoli’s experience, should have climbed without oxygen and that he never should have departed while clients were still ascending. Anatoli’s hasty summit exit became the single-most polarizing event of the aftermath’s discussion. It represented an ethical and moral conundrum that pitted Anatoli and his followers against those who dared to impose Western guiding norms on the iconic folk hero that he had fast become.

7 - Neal Beidleman's Return to Mount EverestThe tent platformce in 2011, at Camp 3 which sits at 24,000 feet.

If the outcome of that day had only been thwarted summit bids or some frostbitten toes, not the deaths that occurred, perhaps this controversy wouldn’t have gathered the steam it did. But, in Anatoli’s eyes, Krakauer’s barbs were akin to a far greater prosecution than bad style. Anatoli fired back with his own account and book, The Climb, cowritten by G. Weston DeWalt.

During this period, Anatoli looked heavily to me to publicly defend the case he made for leaving the summit early. In his book, he claimed that he saw the disaster unfolding a priori, and by heading down he would be able to climb back up the mountain yet again, carrying extra oxygen for those who would certainly run out. I didn’t believe he had that insight and, furthermore, even if he did, I felt it would have still been the wrong decision. Help was needed there and then, not later when few options remained. If we could have reached the South Col even minutes before we did, or had there been a few more capable hands on our descent, the outcome could have played out differently. I never, though, felt Anatoli was conscientiously derelict in his actions. I felt he was unsuspecting of all the circumstances that laid in wait. Moreover, he needed to descend because of the position he put himself in by climbing without oxygen. I chose to keep my silence rather than speak out against my friend, especially when it became clear to me I couldn’t defend what he was saying. Anatoli was hurt and angry over my unwillingness to speak up, and I felt I was doing him a favor by not.

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Sherpas crossing the massive void dubbed the “Super Ladder,” above Camp 1.

I’d first met Anatoli nearly a decade earlier, when he landed in Boulder, Colorado, as part of a climber’s exchange. At the time I was 28 and doing the best impression of an aerospace engineer I could muster while aggressively pursuing my own climbing and adventure ambitions. My friends and I climbed and ran and drank with Anatoli. He, in turn, slept on our couches, ate us out of house and home, and flirted with our girlfriends. In other words, he fit right in.

Fiercely proud and quite the physical specimen, Anatoli, at an early age, was invited by his country to join the National Climbing Team. It afforded him a small stipend and a chance to learn from some of the best and baddest high-altitude climbers in the world. It was his job to bring success and pride to his country. And he learned well. He was personally awarded Master of Sports with Honors in 1989 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1994, when Anatoli and I climbed Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak, located 14 miles east of Everest, it would become his sixth of the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters climbed, all without using bottled oxygen, which greatly increases the difficulty.

Makalu had been especially galvanizing in our friendship. It was a tedious and difficult expedition for the 10 climbers involved. Alone on the mountain, we were a ragtag team whacking away old-school style, without Sherpa support, bottled oxygen, or any type of communication to the outside world. Our beat-up tents, recycled ropes, and borrowed mismatched clothing would seem wildly out of place today on any of the big, crowded climbs. I broke two ribs coughing and was advised if I didn’t depart, I’d probably puncture a lung. Fortunately neither happened.

Our team made several attempts on the summit, all of which came up short, and the expedition was finally called. But Anatoli got in my ear immediately after I returned from just a few hundred meters shy of the top and said, “You and me, we’re not quitting. We’re heading back up to do it in one 24-hour push and we’re leaving after dinner tomorrow.” As unlikely as a two person, nooxygen, one-day ascent of this gigantic mountain sounded, we summited together, alone in our own “Private Idaho,” as the rest of our team abandoned base camp. He was the first Kazakh to reach Makalu’s summit, and I was the seventh American. These kinds of experiences are never forgotten.

It was also the beginning of our quasi-professional relationship, a partnership that had us dreaming of being paid to guide expeditions to remote places and to further our goals of climbing the world’s highest peaks. Compatible in our climbing pace, we also shared a similar temperament and philosophy, strangely enough, considering we came from such different cultural backgrounds. Just a few months after Makalu, Anatoli and I worked together guiding an attempt on 26,906-foot Cho Oyu.

The following year, a gregarious, up-and-coming commercial expedition leader named Scott Fischer, a friend of ours, tagged us both to guide with him on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996.

In the 15 years that have passed since our ordeal on Everest, chances to return have come and gone. None seemed just right. Finally, one such offer resonated, and in April 2011, I walked into the base camp of Everest with a small team of friends, intent on scaling the mountain for a second time.

Chris Davenport, a well-known Aspenite and accomplished big-mountain skier, had been guiding an individual for a few years who wanted to attempt Everest. Dav and I had been friends for a long time. I had skied some of the most difficult of the Colorado 14ers (Pyramid, Capitol, and his last, Longs Peak) with him when he was doing his successful Ski-the-14ers-in-a-Year project. Those experiences cemented our friendship and trust in each other’s abilities. When he asked if I would help guide on Everest, I quickly answered yes. These were precisely the right circumstances for a return climb that I had hoped would someday come.

But I soon realized that my motivations to return to Everest—the stage for so many haunting memories—would be tough to sort. My initial rationale made sense: I wanted to guide again with a small, qualified team, pay my respects properly to those who died, and make peace with the mountain. But I knew there was more to it, and those mysteries would have to be revealed on, and by, the mountain.

Approaching the tiny ramshackle village of Lobuche, nestled in the majestic Khumbu Valley, lays a prominent plateau overlooking the expansive valley below, cradled by the great knifing spires of Cholatse, Nuptse, and Pumori. Here, dozens of large stone monuments have been built to remember the fallen on Everest. The peak’s climbing history can seemingly be read through the memorials.

On one large rock, Scott Fischer’s name is engraved. Prayer flags and a brass plaque adorn the rock’s face. I had brought along an old, weathered backpack lid that was Scott’s. He had been carrying it when he died, and for years I intended to do something appropriate with it. Returning it to Scott’s memorial seemed fitting. It was here, for the first time on my return journey, that I experienced the weight of suppressed emotions of so many years of articles and interviews and conversations about the events of ’96. It was all very real now. Not just memories and thoughts, but a big rock with my friend’s name carved deeply in its side. Clarity of purpose began to evolve. Now my climb really began, and it was good to be doing it with close friends and supportive family back home.

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A self-portrait by Neal Beidleman, on the South Col.

After passing Scott’s memorial, we spent five hard-earned weeks on the mountain prepping for our summit push. We climbed up and down establishing camps, getting acclimated, and even doing some skiing. One afternoon, Dav and I anxiously clicked into our skis at over 24,000 feet to descend the imposing Lhotse Face from above Camp 3. Powder turns on Everest—who would have thought?

Eventually, Dav and I sat on the windswept, 26,000-foot-high South Col, the exact spot where, 15 years ago, 11 of us huddled through the night, fending off cold, sleep, and death in a blistering windstorm. This was where Anatoli had come to rescue several people after a few of us had struggled desperately to find Camp 4, where Anatoli anxiously waited during a break in the storm. And it was also where Yasuko Namba had died not long after I had walked her down, arm-in-arm, off the mountain’s higher terrain. In a few more hours our team would ready ourselves and depart for the summit, passing where Scott, Rob Hall (head guide), Andy Harris (junior guide), and Doug Hansen (client) each had been lost during the ’96 expedition. But unlike in ’96, this new day was calm and strangely peaceful.

Under a cold and surreal moonlit sky, we strapped on our crampons and wrestled with masks and tanks. At midnight we climbed away from Camp 4. Upward progress came easily as the highest mountains and cols in the world fell away below us. Spirits were high.

But unexpectedly, just before dawn, I began to struggle and dropped off the pace. My world shrank around me and I heaved and slobbered into my rubber oxygen mask, fogging my eyewear with every labored breath. I checked and rechecked the oxygen cylinder, the regulator, the flow indicator, and the mask. I could hear gas hissing through the device. But it seemed of no help. Had my body finally had enough of the years spent at high altitude? Was it shutting down in revolt? Or was this the beginnings of HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), a severe form of altitude sickness, or some other medical problem?

Lumbering toward the 29,035-foot summit, it was all I could do to take care of myself and snap a few tilted pictures. I contemplated turning around. But even in my oxygendeprived state, I drew strength and inspiration thinking about Scott, Anatoli, and the others on the mountain in ’96. I imagined Scott in this same bad way, with the pressures and responsibilities of being the leader. I considered where Anatoli’s head might have been after shunning the use of oxygen the entire climb. And I remembered back to my own descent, when my oxygen ran out and a barely conscious Yasuko was draped on my arm, how difficult it was trying to guide a large group of people back to the safety of the Camp 4 tents on the South Col.

It’s easy to believe we can understand someone else’s situation and circumstance, but it most likely happens with our own mind frame projecting itself on to another’s world. But to truly experience another’s dilemma, we must wear the same boots—or in this case—breathe the same thin air. At 8 am I plodded the last steps to the summit. It was a glorious day. I took some photos and tried to take it all in. But mostly, I kept trying to figure out why I felt like I was on the moon, not just the top of Everest. After an hour on top, I needed to descend. Before I headed down, I asked Bill Allen, another guide with us, to give me the once-over, in case I had damaged some part of my equipment trying to fix it. He looked me up and down, knowing I wasn’t right. Then he moved to within inches of my mask, studying it intently. Pulling his glove off, he reached up and grabbed the side of the device and, with an audible pop, snapped a pucker of the rubber mask back through the frame straps and into the correct position. Within seconds, a warm tingling wave rushed through me like a large shot of schnapps on a cold night. My breathing slowed for the first time in hours, and, in just a few minutes, my brain emerged from the tangible fog. Bill and I would later re-create the mask failure that exposed the oxygen inlet port directly to the ambient air. The system was working, but the oxygen was escaping out the side, never visiting my lungs. I had climbed the last four hours to the summit without oxygen.

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A sherpa hauls a massive load from Camp 1 to Camp 2.

Earlier, when I had first arrived at the top, Dav and I sat together and I attempted to explain how Scott, Anatoli, and the others from ’96 had been with me on my ascent. Dav was listening to me, keenly even, but I know now he couldn’t possibly have understood what I was babbling about unless maybe he had turned off his oxygen hours earlier, too. This is exactly the point that easily gets missed concerning ’96: Until you experience your brain with no supplemental oxygen— completely addled and relying solely on the one-third of sea-level oxygen up there—you can’t fully comprehend what the real limitations are on your faculties and physical abilities and the hallucinatory effects it causes. It was one of those serendipitous experiences where an unexpected bad had become the gift of understanding.

I n returning to climb Everest, I knew I had a chance to close a chapter with Scott and the others who died that day. But it never came to mind that I would be able to do the same regarding Anatoli. Most of our disagreements and the eventual falling out occurred over how it all played out after Everest, not during.

I always believed that some of what Anatoli (or his author) had said in his book was spun to support his early descent from the summit. Clearly, as a professional climber, his climbing reputation meant everything to him, and for him to admit any kind of personal foible during the climb was not going to happen. The irony is that in his dogmatic purist style of no-oxygen climbing, it was the lack of oxygen that made him leave when and where he was most needed. As a result, for some people, it tarnished the very reputation he sought to protect. His descent off the mountain that day in ’96 was never intended to be coldhearted or negligent. It was simply the reality of climbing without oxygen and the effects it had on his power and reasoning.

I wish I could have shared these thoughts with Anatoli before his passing and been able to convince him that his heroic rescue of people from the Col would be more than enough to make up for any understandable, and very human, error in judgment or oversight earlier in the day. But that possibility ended when the turmoil of Everest partially influenced Anatoli to seek out the most ambitious, and in his mind, redemptive of routes on Annapurna.

As for me, unsuspectingly, the insidiously dangerous and unforgiving effects of high-altitude climbing tapped me on the shoulder again, forcing me to relive not just what happened, but how it can all happen to anyone, even Anatoli, one of the strongest climbers of his generation. With it, reconciliation came while climbing with Anatoli and Scott’s presence to the summit of Everest a second time. It has given me a greater understanding and, with that, peace, than I ever anticipated could come from returning. And for that I am thankful.

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