Climber's 'Emotional' Return to Everest

In 1996, a storm blew up suddenly, stranding him and colleagues in the so-called "death zone."

THE GIST

A survivor of a disaster on Mount Everest is retracing his steps for the first time.

A storm on the mountain in 1996 took the lives of eight climbers -- all of whom were Neal Beidleman's friends.

The story of the ill-fated day was brought to a worldwide audience in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air."

Neal Beidleman, a survivor of the Mount Everest disaster chronicled in the book "Into Thin Air," says retracing his steps helped him come to terms with the tragedy that cost the lives of eight climbers.

Last Friday, 51-year-old Beidleman again reached the top of the world's highest peak in an expedition that took him past the graves of his friends and to the site of a disaster that has been etched in his mind for the past 15 years.

"At times, it was very emotional, but it was also good because I could see it from a different light," Beidleman told AFP in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in his first interview since returning to the mountain.

"We were passing places where my friends died... So as you go up the mountain, it takes a long time, and you have a lot of time to reflect on these places," he said.

In May 1996, Beidleman, a professional climber, was guiding clients on the way down from the summit of Everest when a storm blew up suddenly, stranding him and colleagues in the so-called "death zone."

Eight people including Beidleman's friend and climbing partner Scott Fischer were killed, and several others severely injured, in one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

The climbers are believed to have died from acute mountain sickness and exposure to freezing temperatures.

The story of the ill-fated day was brought to a worldwide audience in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air" by mountaineering journalist Jon Krakauer which was made into a film in 1997.

Krakauer said in the introduction to his gripping account of the tragedy that writing about it was a cathartic exercise to try to "purge" Everest from his memory and overcome the sense of loss and responsibility.

For Beidleman, the climb was a chance to bid a final goodbye to Fischer, whose body was left on Everest at his family's request.

"This year there was tons of snows and we were not able to actually see his body and the memorial. But we knew where it was. I stopped and paid my respects," he said.

The 1996 disaster caused introspection and anger in the mountaineering community about whether the guides had endangered clients' lives by pushing for the summit as the weather closed in.

It also led to a debate about safety on Everest and the wisdom of allowing anyone with the money to pay for a guide to attempt to scale a mountain that has claimed hundreds of lives since it was first conquered in 1953.

Beidleman lives in Aspen, Colo., and away from the mountains works as an consultant engineer. He was not among the guides criticized in the book, and has said in the past he believes he did all he could to save fellow climbers in 1996.

After the latest climb, he said the tragedy was "not necessarily anyone's fault," but "being there again this year confirmed to me that this can happen again and happen very easily."

"I think that the good climbing teams are very much more responsible (than in 1996). And I think there were climbing teams in which people were not responsible at all (this year)," he added. "On one end it's gotten better, but on the low end, it's worse."

Four people have died have on Everest this year, an 82-year-old Nepalese former minister hoping to become the oldest man to climb the mountain, a 59-year-old Japanese climber, a 55-year-old American and a 41-year-old Irishman.

All are thought to have died of acute mountain sickness, which can develop rapidly at altitude due to the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. In severe cases, sufferers can develop swelling of the brain or fluid on the lungs.

Beidleman said his family was initially skeptical about his decision to return to Everest, but eventually came round to the idea.

His wife Amy is also a climber -- the pair got engaged during an expedition on Makalu, the world's fifth-highest mountain.

"I explained that I wanted to go back, and to guide, and I wanted to end up with Everest being a good experience, and not the one that ended in tragedy. I told them the circumstances, they understood," he said.

The father of two, who said his latest Everest summit was likely to be his last, admitted he had been unsure how hard the climb would be at his age, but added: "It was no problem."