From my bookshelf: Everest 1996
Updated: Aug 29
Every armchair mountaineer has encountered the writings of the tumultuous 1996 Spring season on Everest.
The natural maturation from country/military lead siege style expeditions that began in the 1920's eventually morphed into the beginnings of today's commercial endeavours. The Tibet, China and Nepal governments had begun to grant multiple permits for individual Himalayan seasons compared to the preceding single party permissions. Mountaineering commercialism was in it's infancy, yet quickly gaining in popularity. With a cast of prominent players, Everest 1996 became the unfortunate stage for a perfect storm to play out..
There was also South African interest in the 1996 season, with the countries first attempt. In the latter portion of 1995, while completing my Honours Degree in Geology at Rhodes University, I had already decided to forego applying for the dubious competition to select a female participant in the South African Everest team. By the time May 1996 rolled around I was labouring 3km below surface on a gold mine at the beginning of my mining career. I, like many other mountaineers, am now only able to observe from the outside, through the written word. Much has been published about this season; the livelihood impacts, and the deadly outcomes.
Into thin Air released 6 months after the tragedy by the writer for the Outside magazine, and expedition client, Jon Krakauer. Subsequently questioned by many, yet remains a highly referenced contribution to this narrative.
But Krakauer upset many people, including the skilled professional climber Anatoli Boukreev who had already summited Everest 3x without oxygen. He unfortunately died on Annapurna one month after The Climb was published in November 1997. Having been exposed to Russian guide ethos on Pik Lenin I can find similar examples in this narrative. As the American Alpine Club provides: "This book forces the reader to think, rather than accept armchair answers passively" And that it certainly does, with direct transcripts of the various radio calls during the insuring disaster.
Various of the clients embroiled in the sage added to the literature of the events. As I continue to collect books by other female mountaineers, Climbing High by Lene Gammelgaard is a first hand, first person diary account of her experience that was also one of the first books to be published after the events.
Two that provide more information on the South African involvement, and well worth reading side -by -side, are Cathy O' Dowds account (of both the north and south summits) in Just for the Love of it and then Everest '96 by the Sunday Times journalist Ken Vernon. (Granted each has previous titles: Everest Free to Decide and Ascent & Dissent.) In most life scenarios we are taught that there are generally three sides to most stories. Personal accounts are even harder as we are all different and can take the same action in different ways. These two accounts demonstrate this.
Finally the people most impacted by mountain deaths remain those at home. And no-one knows this landscape better than Joe Tasker's one-time girlfriend Maria Coffey. In Where the mountain casts its shadow she weaves the realities of risk taking climbers with home-bound families. As she says: "now taking from life what I wanted and needed, shaping it to my dreams, experiencing it to the fullest, knowing that the end can come suddenly, without warning, Joe's death jolted me alive".
This list is by no means exhaustive but shares some of the titles that I have explored over the years. If the 1996 season can bring one lesson for us may it be that we should continue to be fully alive.
BTW: This blog is an affiliate of online bookstores. When you click on some book titles you will be directed to a website where you can purchase the pictured item. Should you choose to purchase the item I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. All my opinions and suggestions are unbiased & based on my own extensive experience.