1996 Mount Everest Disaster: Death on Top of the World

A Storm and Mistakes Led to 8 Deaths

Mount Everest
Mount Everest. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

On May 10, 1996, a ferocious storm descended upon the Himalayas, creating perilous conditions on Mount Everest, and stranding 17 climbers high upon the tallest mountain in the world. By the following day, the storm had claimed the lives of eight climbers, making it—at the time—the greatest loss of life in a single day in the history of the mountain.

While climbing Mount Everest is inherently risky, several factors (aside from the storm) contributed to the tragic outcome—crowded conditions, inexperienced climbers, numerous delays, and a series of bad decisions.

Big Business on Mount Everest

Following the first summit of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the feat of climbing the 29,028-foot peak had for decades been limited to only the most elite climbers.

By 1996, however, climbing Mount Everest had evolved into a multi-million dollar industry. Several mountaineering companies had established themselves as the means by which even amateur climbers could summit Everest. Fees for a guided climb ranged from $30,000 to $65,000 per customer.

The window of opportunity for climbing in the Himalayas is a narrow one. For just a few weeks—between late April and late May—the weather is typically milder than usual, allowing climbers to ascend.

In the spring of 1996, multiple teams were gearing up for the climb. The vast majority of them approached from the Nepalese side of the mountain; only two expeditions ascended from the Tibetan side.

Gradual Ascent

There are many dangers involved in ascending Everest too rapidly. For that reason, expeditions take weeks to ascend, allowing climbers to gradually acclimatize to the changing atmosphere.

Medical problems that could develop at high altitudes include severe altitude sickness, frostbite, and hypothermia. Other serious effects include hypoxia (low oxygen, leading to poor coordination and impaired judgment), HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain). The latter two can prove especially deadly.

In late March 1996, groups assembled in Kathmandu, Nepal, and opted to take a transport helicopter to Lukla, a village located about 38 miles from Base Camp. Trekkers then made a 10-day hike to Base Camp (17,585 feet), where they would stay a few weeks adjusting to the altitude.

Two of the largest guided groups that year were Adventure Consultants (led by New Zealander Rob Hall and fellow guides Mike Groom and Andy Harris) and Mountain Madness (led by American Scott Fischer, assisted by guides Anatoli Boukreev and Neal Beidleman).

Hall's group included seven climbing Sherpas and eight clients. Fischer's group comprised eight climbing Sherpas and seven clients. (The Sherpa, natives of eastern Nepal, are accustomed to the high altitude; many make their living as support staff for climbing expeditions.)

Another American group, helmed by filmmaker and renowned climber David Breashears, was on Everest to make an IMAX film.

Several other groups came from around the globe, including Taiwan, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, and Montenegro. Two other groups (from India and Japan) climbed from the Tibetan side of the mountain.

Up to the Death Zone

Climbers began the acclimatization process in mid-April, taking increasingly longer sorties to higher elevations, then returning to Base Camp.

Eventually, over a period of four weeks, the climbers made their way up the mountain—first, past the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1 at 19,500 feet, then up the Western Cwm to Camp 2 at 21,300 feet. (Cwm, pronounced "coom," is the Welsh word for valley.) Camp 3, at 24,000 feet, was adjacent to the Lhotse Face, a sheer wall of glacial ice.

On May 9, the scheduled day for the ascent to Camp 4 (the highest camp, at 26,000 feet), the expedition's first victim met his fate. Chen Yu-Nan, a member of the Taiwanese team, committed a fatal error when he exited his tent in the morning without having strapped on his crampons (spikes attached to boots for climbing on ice). He slipped down the Lhotse Face into a crevasse.

Sherpas were able to pull him up by rope, but he died of internal injuries later that day.

The trek up the mountain continued. Climbing upward to Camp 4, all but only a handful of elite climbers required the use of oxygen to survive. The area from Camp 4 up to the summit is known as the "Death Zone" because of the dangerous effects of the extremely high altitude. Atmospheric oxygen levels are only one-third of those at sea level.

Trek to the Summit Begins

Climbers from various expeditions arrived at Camp 4 throughout the day. Later that afternoon, a serious storm blew in. Leaders of the groups feared that they would not be able to climb that night as planned.

After hours of gale-force winds, the weather cleared at 7:30 p.m. The climb would go on as planned. Wearing headlamps and breathing bottled oxygen, 33 climbers—including Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness team members, along with a small Taiwanese team—left at about midnight that night.

Each client carried two spare bottles of oxygen, but would run out at about 5 p.m., and would, therefore, need to descend as quickly as possible once they had summitted. Speed was of the essence. But that speed would be hampered by several unfortunate missteps.

Leaders of the two main expeditions had supposedly ordered Sherpas to go ahead of the climbers and install lines of rope along the most difficult areas in the upper mountain in order to avoid a slowdown during the ascent. For some reason, this crucial task was never carried out.

Summit Slowdowns

The first bottleneck occurred at 28,000 feet, where setting up the ropes took nearly an hour. Adding to the delays, many climbers were very slow due to inexperience. By late morning, some climbers waiting in the queue began to worry about getting to the summit in time to descend safely before nightfall—and before their oxygen ran out.

A second bottleneck occurred on the South Summit, at 28,710 feet. This delayed forward progress by another hour.

Expedition leaders had set a 2 p.m. turn-around time—the point at which climbers must turn around even if they had not reached the summit.

At 11:30 a.m., three men on Rob Hall's team turned around and headed back down the mountain, realizing they might not make it in time. They were among the few who made the right decision that day.

The first group of climbers made it up the famously difficult Hillary Step to reach the summit at about 1:00 p.m. After a brief celebration, it was time to turn around and complete the second half of their laborious trek.

They still needed to get back down to the relative safety of Camp 4. As the minutes ticked by, oxygen supplies began to dwindle.

Deadly Decisions

Up at the top of the mountain, some climbers had been summiting well after 2:00 p.m. Mountain Madness leader Scott Fischer did not enforce the turn-around time, allowing his clients to stay on the summit past 3:00.

Fischer himself was summiting just as his clients were coming down. Despite the late hour, he continued up. No one questioned him because he was the leader and an experienced Everest climber. Later, people would comment that Fischer had looked very ill.

Fischer's assistant guide, Anatoli Boukreev, had inexplicably summited early on, and then descended to Camp 4 by himself, instead of waiting to assist clients.

Rob Hall also ignored the turn-around time, staying behind with client Doug Hansen, who was having trouble moving up the mountain. Hansen had tried to summit the previous year and failed, which is probably why Hall made such an effort to help him up despite the late hour.

Hall and Hansen did not summit until 4:00 p.m., however, far too late to have stayed on the mountain. It was a serious lapse in judgment on Hall's part—one which would cost both men their lives.

By 3:30 p.m. ominous clouds had appeared and snow began to fall, covering up tracks that descending climbers needed as a guide to find their way down.

By 6:00 p.m., the storm had become a blizzard with gale-force winds, while many climbers were still trying to make their way down the mountain.

Caught in the Storm

As the storm raged on, 17 people were caught on the mountain, a perilous position to be in after dark, but especially so during a storm with high winds, zero visibility, and a wind chill of 70 below zero. Climbers were also running out of oxygen.

A group accompanied by guides Beidleman and Groom headed down the mountain, including climbers Yasuko Namba, Sandy Pittman, Charlotte Fox, Lene Gammelgaard, Martin Adams, and Klev Schoening.

They encountered Rob Hall's client Beck Weathers on their way down. Weathers was stranded at 27,000 feet after being stricken by temporary blindness, which had prevented him from summitting. He joined the group.

After a very slow and difficult descent, the group came within 200 vertical feet of Camp 4, but the driving wind and snow made it impossible to see where they were going. They huddled together to wait out the storm.

At midnight, the sky cleared briefly, allowing guides to catch sight of the camp. The group headed off toward camp, but four were too incapacitated to move—Weathers, Namba, Pittman, and Fox. The others made it back and sent help for the four stranded climbers.

Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev was able to help Fox and Pittman back to camp, but could not manage the nearly comatose Weathers and Namba, especially in the middle of a storm. They were deemed beyond help and were therefore left behind.

Death on the Mountain

Still stranded high on the mountain were Rob Hall and Doug Hansen at the top of the Hillary Step near the summit. Hansen was unable to go on; Hall tried to bring him down.

During their unsuccessful attempt to descend, Hall looked away for just a moment and when he looked back, Hansen was gone. (Hansen had likely fallen over the edge.)

Hall maintained radio contact with Base Camp through the night and even spoke with his pregnant wife, who was patched through from New Zealand by satellite phone.

Guide Andy Harris, who was caught in the storm at the South Summit, had a radio and was able to hear Hall's transmissions. Harris is believed to have gone up to bring oxygen to Rob Hall. But Harris also disappeared; his body was never found.

Expedition leader Scott Fischer and climber Makalu Gau (leader of the Taiwanese team that included the late Chen Yu-Nan) were found together at 1200 feet above Camp 4 on the morning of May 11. Fisher was unresponsive and barely breathing.

Certain that Fischer was beyond hope, the Sherpas left him there. Boukreev, Fischer's lead guide, climbed up to Fischer shortly thereafter but found he had already died. Gau, although severely frostbitten, was able to walk—with much assistance—and was guided down by Sherpas.

Would-be rescuers had attempted to reach Hall on May 11 but were turned back by severe weather. Twelve days later, Rob Hall's body would be found at the South Summit by Breashears and the IMAX team.

Survivor Beck Weathers

Beck Weathers, left for dead, somehow survived the night. (His companion, Namba, did not.) After being unconscious for hours, Weathers miraculously awoke late on the afternoon of May 11 and staggered back to the camp.

His shocked fellow climbers warmed him up and gave him fluids, but he had suffered severe frostbite on his hands, feet, and face, and appeared to be near death. (In fact, his wife had been notified earlier that he had died during the night.)

The next morning, Weathers' companions almost left him for dead again when they departed camp, thinking he had died during the night. He awoke just in time and called out for help.

Weathers was assisted by the IMAX group down to Camp 2, where he and Gau were flown out in a very daring and dangerous helicopter rescue at 19,860 feet.

Shockingly, both men survived, but frostbite took its toll. Gau lost his fingers, nose, and both feet; Weathers lost his nose, all of the fingers on his left hand and his right arm below the elbow.

Everest Death Toll

The leaders of the two main expeditions—Rob Hall and Scott Fischer—both died on the mountain. Hall's guide Andy Harris and two of their clients, Doug Hansen and Yasuko Namba, also perished.

On the Tibetan side of the mountain, three Indian climbers—Tsewang Smanla, Tsewang Paljor, and Dorje Morup—had died during the storm, bringing the total of deaths that day to eight, the record number of deaths in one day.

Unfortunately, since then, that record has been broken. An avalanche on April 18, 2014, took the lives of 16 Sherpas. A year later, an earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015, caused an avalanche that killed 22 people at Base Camp.

To date, more than 250 people have lost their lives on Mount Everest. Most of the bodies remain on the mountain.

Several books and films have come out of the Everest disaster, including bestseller "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer (a journalist and a member of Hall's expedition) and two documentaries made by David Breashears. A feature film, "Everest," was also released in 2015.

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Daniels, Patricia. "1996 Mount Everest Disaster: Death on Top of the World." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/1996-mount-everest-disaster-4043349. Daniels, Patricia. (2021, July 31). 1996 Mount Everest Disaster: Death on Top of the World. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1996-mount-everest-disaster-4043349 Daniels, Patricia. "1996 Mount Everest Disaster: Death on Top of the World." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1996-mount-everest-disaster-4043349 (accessed August 1, 2021).