Neal Beidleman's Return to Mount Everest
By Neal BeidLeman
Descending 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.
|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.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NEAL BEIDLEMAN
Aspen Peak editor in chief Erin Lentz goes behind the scenes at the annual charity race.