Inside The Expedition That Led To One Of The Deadliest Days On Mount Everest

Climbing Mount Everest is one of the most challenging feats a person can take on. Those who attempt the summit face dangerous conditions, extreme cold, and lack of access to emergency crews - not to mention exhaustion. It's not surprising that there are so many fatal Mount Everest stories, or that the slopes of the peak are littered with dead bodies. Though the mountain has claimed hundreds of lives, no expedition in the 20th century was deadlier than the fatal 1996 Mount Everest climb.

On May 10 and 11, 1996, eight climbers lost their lives on the mountain. Some were seasoned athletes who had completed this trek before; others had never attempted a climb of this magnitude. None could have anticipated what it's like to die on Mount Everest, and the mountain would not see a more catastrophic loss of life until April 2014

You know the story: it's the true inspiration behind Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air. But what you likely don't know is how terrifying that climb really was. These facts about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster will chill you to the bone, almost as much as the Himalayan mountain's icy peaks.

  • More Novices Were Attempting The Climb

    More Novices Were Attempting The Climb
    Photo: r hyland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men known to summit Mount Everest in 1953. But by the mid-1990s, technology had advanced so much that even intermediate climbers could attempt the dangerous trek with the help of guides. In 1996, there were more expeditions up Everest than ever before. A whopping 17 groups, made up of hundreds of climbers, tried to climb the peak that year.

    Many of those climbers were relatively inexperienced. That, combined with the overcrowded conditions on the mountain, proved deadly.

  • Four Separate Groups Tried To Reach The Summit

    Four Separate Groups Tried To Reach The Summit
    Photo: Indian Navy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5 in

    Four groups were caught up in the deadly events on Everest. The Mountain Madness team was led by Scott Fischer, Neal Beidleman, and Anatoli Boukreev. They had eight clients of varying experience. They were also accompanied by a number of Sherpas to help carry their gear.

    Adventure Consultants was led by veteran climbers Rob Hall, Mike Groom, and Andy Harris. They guided eight clients, including Jon Krakauer, a journalist from Outside magazine, who was there to report on the commercialization of Everest.

    The third group was a Taiwanese expedition led by Hau Ming-Ho, and the fourth was organized by the Indio-Tibetan Border Police.

  • Climbers Paid Nearly $60,000 To Make It To The Top

    Climbers Paid Nearly $60,000 To Make It To The Top
    Photo: Caters Clips / via YouTube

    Climbing Mount Everest comes at a cost, and each of the climbers on Rob Hall's expedition that left on that deadly day paid nearly $60,000 to make the trip. Scott Fischer had competing rates, and the guides were locked in an unofficial rivalry as they promised climbers the chance to reach the summit.

    Survivor Lou Kasischke blames the price tag for the intense pressure to succeed, and claims that the deaths could have been avoided had they just turned around like they normally would have: "To feed the business they need success. The minute Scott kept going to the summit, he couldn’t face not going."

  • Some People Treated The Expedition Like A Vacation

    Sandy Pittman, the wife of TV businessman Rob Pittman, had climbed six of the "High Seven" mountains before she signed onto Scott Fischer's expedition up Everest. But her experience didn't stop her from bringing a slew of bizarre items with her, possibly to enliven her reports for NBC Interactive Media:

    "I have got as much in the way of computers and electronic hardware as I have climbing equipment: two portable microcomputers, a camcorder, three 35 mm cameras, a digital camera, two tape recorders, a CD player, a printer and a sufficient quantity (I hope) of solar panels and batteries to make the whole lot operate. I would not like to leave without taking a blend of coffee from Dean & DeLuca, as well as my espresso machine. And because we will be on Everest for Easter, I have also taken four chocolate eggs. Hunting for Easter eggs at 5,000 meters should be interesting."

    Pittman didn't seem to understand how formidable of an undertaking climbing Everest was. Reportedly, she even enlisted friends like Martha Stewart to meet her at base camp and had copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair sent to her while she adjusted to the high altitude.

    Years later, Pittman spoke out about the way she was portrayed in the book Into Thin Air. She resented being characterized as a diva, saying, "I was an easy target. Back in those days you could get away with destroying someone's life and flogging them with innuendo."

  • Disastrous Delays Happened From The Start

    Disastrous Delays Happened From The Start
    Photo: Wang Lama Humla / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    All of the expeditions encountered delays before they even really set out to the peak on May 10. The Sherpas and guides hadn't fixed ropes by the time the climbers reached the Balcony (at around 8,300 feet); installing them cost the climbers an hour. When they reached the Hillary Step, they discovered that there was no fixed line there, either, which took another hour to install.

    There was also a terrible bottleneck effect because multiple climbers were trying to make it through Hillary Step at the same time. Some climbers began to turn around in fear of running out of oxygen because of the delays. Others continued to the summit without extra oxygen.

  • The Guides Pressed On Despite Waning Daylight

    The Guides Pressed On Despite Waning Daylight
    Photo: Debasish biswas kolkata / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Lou Kasischke, an amateur climber who managed to survive the 1996 disaster, believes a rivalry between the climbing teams lead to the high body count on Everest. Guide Rob Hall promised to turn around if the climbers didn't have a chance of reaching base camp in daylight; in fact, he had turned back the year prior over safety concerns. But, according to Kasischke, Hall saw Fischer head to the summit, so he ignored the shrinking daylight and went, too.

    "The climbing plan was to go down at that point. No one would have died if the plan had been followed," Kasischke said.

    At around 1:25 p.m., a group of climbers lead by Anatoli Boukreev arrived at the summit. People didn't begin the descent until after 3 p.m., and by that point, it was dangerously late to be starting back down the mountain.