Almost 20 years after eight mountaineers, including top American Scott Fischer and New Zealander Rob Hall, died in a ferocious storm on Everest in 1996, mountaineers still disagree on many aspects of the tragedy. But all agree that the British-born leader of the First South African Everest Expedition, Ian Woodall, was the villain. Ironically he not only survived, he also summited.
The human drama of the storm is subject of the new blockbuster movie Everest [ click here to watch official trailer ], due for release mid-September, which is sure to rip the scab off the never healed what happened on Everest in ’96.
Ken Vernon—an Australian journalist assigned to cover the South African expedition by the Sunday Times newspaper that sponsored the expedition—has produced a forensic examination of the ‘dysfunctional expedition with a delusional leader’.
His book, Everest ’96, looks at the wider issues that dogged Everest in 1996 through the prism of one expedition. Here's a quick look at Everest ’96:
The highest mountain on the planet brings out the best in people – and the worst. We usually only hear about the best – about the bravery, the courage and the sacrifice of mountaineers who risk life and limb to achieve excellence for themselves and others.
But there are other mountaineers – the charlatans, the conmen, the bullies, the petty-minded and narcissistic –who prefer to sacrifice others to their obsession to reach the top of Mt. Everest.
Vernon is talking about Ian Woodall, the Briton who led the controversial South African expedition and whose dictatorial attitude and delusional military and climbing record split the South African expedition before it even reached base camp.
Woodall was later pilloried by Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer for refusing to lend his radio – the only working radio on the South Col at the time of the killer storm of May 10-11 – to rescue efforts.
Despite this telling indictment, Vernon writes that Woodall has since contrived in books and on the international speaking circuit to cast his actions on the South Col in a heroic light.
In Everest ’96, Vernon tracks down two others who were on the mountain at the time but whose accounts have never been told before, and both say they also asked Woodall to make his radio available but he refused.
Neil Laughton, a British SAS officer who was on the South Col on May 10-11 as part of a commercial expedition organised by Everest veteran Henry Todd, says he personally went to Woodall’s tent on the South Col to ask Woodall to lend his radio to the rescue efforts but was rebuffed
“Anatoli Boukreev poked his head into our tent and explained in his Russian accent what had happened the day before and what he believed to be the current situation.
"I got kitted up and went round the various tents and was surprised to find many empty. However, I came across the South African team tent with Ian Woodall, Cathy (O’Dowd) and Bruce (Herrod) whom we had met in Kathmandu and at Base Camp.
“I specifically asked this question into the tent whilst squatting outside: ‘Can I borrow your radio to help with the rescue effort?’ There was a fraction of a pause before Ian stated bluntly: ‘No, we need it for our summit bid.’
“My question and his response are absolutely word for word.
“Surprised at this retort for the selfish connotations but also because I was fairly certain there would be no further ascents due to the continuing poor weather (continuing high winds) and because of the severity of the human drama, I walked away without saying another word.”
In another instance Vernon quotes Helen Wilton, Rob Hall’s base camp manager, who until now has remained silent on most aspects of the deadly storm of May 10-11.
Wilton’s memory, backed up by a detailed logbook, corroborates both Krakauer’s and Laughton’s accusations against Woodall.
“My radio encounter with Woodall came after I received radio calls from a distressed Rob Hall late in the afternoon on 10 May, initially at 4:15 p.m., asking for more oxygen for someone (Doug Hansen) at the top of the Hillary Step.
“At 4:30 p.m. the calls became more urgent and I realised after our Base Camp Sherpas tried to contact them that we had no communication with our Sherpas on the Col who were waiting for the climbers to arrive back from their summit attempt.
“It was imperative that a message reach Rob to tell him there was oxygen waiting for him in a cache at the South Summit.”
Wilton said that radio transmission between summit and Base Camp was so broken the team had to rely on relayed messages from Guy Cotter on nearby Mt. Pumori.
“Between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. I ran down the glacier to the South African camp with the NZ Base Camp Sirdar, Ang Tshering – a distance of about half a mile.
“It was during this run through the rocks that I noticed for the first time the abrupt change in the weather, from 3 p.m. sun and white cumulus clouds, to a sky full of dark, low cumulonimbus, being driven by a strong wind.
“We were taken into the main tent and were joined by Philip the Base Camp manager who I was told was Woodall’s brother. He listened to me carefully and made a call to Woodall at the South Col. I took the radio from Philip and said ‘This is a matter of life and death – I need you to take a radio to the NZ camp so that we (Ang Tshering) can speak to our Sherpas.’
“He said arrogantly: ‘I’ll have to think about that for 15 minutes’.
“I was appalled that he sounded far from willing to help. I would have expected something like a description of the current conditions on the col and that he might be a few minutes getting ready to go out. But it was like talking to a stone wall.
“He wasn’t even prepared to listen to whatever else I had to say. I handed the radio back to Philip who looked a bit embarrassed and muttered he was sorry.
“I said to him ‘I haven’t got time for this’ and left with Ang Tshering to get back to our radio. I was desperate as I knew these minutes would be counting for Rob and Doug.”
Unlike Jon Krakauer, author Vernon is not a climber/writer, he is a journalist trained to look at the human side of a situation. Chosen to travel with and report on the expedition he finds that he has been thrust into a maelstrom of deceit, deception and downright lies. Vernon brings climbing the highest mountain on earth down to ground level, by-passing the technicalities of mountaineering to record the human and emotional cost to climbers faced with either having to deal with a despot in order to achieve their dream – or walk away with honor intact.
Of all the questions Vernon asks and answers, the last one – does the end justify the means – is the one the reader has to answer.
Everest ’96 is released as an eBook and is available exclusively from Amazon.
About the Author
Ken Vernon is an Australian journalist who spent over 20 years in Africa covering stories ranging from the South African revolution, to the wars of independence in Angola and Mozambique to the last hurrah of the white mercenary Bob Denard in the Comoros Islands.
Ken Vernon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for interviews and to supply extracts of Everest ’96.