In the dark and the screaming howl of the storm the climbers began to bargain. My fingers for my life?
Fair enough: just let me live.
That describes in nutshell the summary of events that unfolded on the fateful night of 10 May 1996. The summers of 1996 claimed 12 lives making it one of the deadliest years on the tallest mountain. Not only it raised questions about crass commercialization of the mountain (which as a matter of fact has gotten worse since then) but it also started a never ending debate about the role of Anatoli Boukreev on the mountain.
Jon Krakauer in his much celebrated book ‘Into Thin Air’ (click to read review) explained the events of that unfateful Everest expedition. Even the movie adaptation Everest (released in 2015) was based on the events as described by Krakauer in his book. Having read both the books and after digging deep into discussions that followed after the debacle happened, it seems *to me* that Krakauer unjustly defamed Boukreev. On the other hand, to climb without oxygen is one thing but to climb without oxygen as a guide could be a disastrous choice which happened to be the case with Everest 1996.
Anatoli was almost painted a villain by Krakauer in his book. Anatoli claims that he had written numerous letters to Jon Krakauer explaining his side but that never made into the book or the movie. And that’s why the idea of writing The Climb took shape first in his mind and then on paper.
Anatoli Boukreev tells his story and his version is not just about the excitement and thrill that comes as a package deal while you’re up at the mountain. Anatoli, being a fine climber that he was, clearly lays out the detailed preparations that an expedition organizer has to make to be able to ensure the success and safety of his/her clients. Leaving apart the Krakauer-Anatoli debate, this book has so much more to offer. Detailed insights about the importance of acclimatization and walking the reader through mundane yet indispensable tasks associated with high altitude climbing.
Given his lack of command of English, Boukreev’s version is narrated by De Walt who conducted interviews with the members of Everest expedition during the course of this book. The book establishes that climbers from none of the expeditions were in great shape. While some of them did manage to gain strength and confidence as the expedition moved forward but it was nowhere close to what was expected from a climber going to the top of the world. Logistic nightmares, ill informed and under performing Sherpas too have been cited as one of the reasons behind the failure of this expedition.
The general theory of turning back by 1400 Hours even if the summit was a stone’s throw away was grossly overlooked and that turned out to be one of the many blunders that climbers committed on that fateful day. While the debate primarily focuses on what more Boukreev could’ve done or shouldn’t have done, the role and responsibility of Fischer and Hall (two expedition leaders) is not discussed in detail. Boukreev does mention the lack of communication gear and lack of will-power at organizer’s part to enforce turnaround time.
If one has to categorize people as heroes and villains for this particular event, Boukreev for one would certainly fall in the hero category for his act of valour that saved many lives. Bad planning and inclement weather were the real villains that not only claimed many lives but left many unanswered questions behind. And for his act of bravery he was rightfully awarded the American Alpine Club’s Highest Honor in 1996.
Unlike Into Thin Air, this book is tad slow and (forgive me to say this) bit boring at places and rightly so because Bourkeev was no journalist but a climber par excellence. Boukreev, to clear his name from the controversy, details each and every aspect of planning and executing a high altitude expedition.
Just to read either of these books would be gross injustice. So if you’ve read Into Thin Air, I suggest you read Boukreev’s version too. Reading just either one of them would be like charging your mobile phone without having the power button turned on.
And while you’re in the mountains remember what Boukreev had to say about his life in the mountains:
“There’s not enough luck in the world. That night I got somebody’s share”