Mountaineer Neal Beidleman survived the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy that left eight climbers dead. Upon his return this year he found some peace.
As he plodded across Mount Everest’s knife-edge Summit Ridge on May 20, 2011, Neal Beidleman (MechEngr’81) realized something was not right.
His summit push had begun perfectly the night before, with a starry, moonlit sky overhead as he and his partner, Chris Davenport (Hist’93) hiked upward at an impressive clip. But as dawn broke and the icy crown of the world’s highest mountain grew nearer, the effort become much more difficult and eventually Beidleman’s pace slowed to a crawl. An eerie tunnel vision consumed him and his oxygen-starved mind turned to the events of a darker day, 15 years earlier.
“I started having all these wild thoughts,” recalls Beidleman, who later discovered his oxygen mask had malfunctioned, leaving him climbing without oxygen for hours. “On the way up, I felt like I was somehow reliving what Scott [Fischer], myself and some of the others had gone through … like fate made this happen to me, so I could better understand what happened in ’96.”
Beidleman had been a guide during one of the most tragic days in the mountain’s history. His tearful arrival at the summit last spring marked one of the most “emotionally intense” moments in a two-month trip that was full of catharsis, revelation and coming to terms. It was the first time the 52-year-old Aspen-based engineer had returned to Everest since his close friend Scott Fischer perished along with seven other climbers.
For Beidleman, whose life was forever changed by the events of that day, returning was all about moving forward.
“I wanted to go back and leave Everest on better terms,” he says. “Chris and I had a great trip. But there were several times when I was taken off guard by how intense it was. There were some very powerful moments up there.”
Fifteen years after the disastrous expedition, made famous in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air, the events of May 10, 1996, remain a haunting memory in the minds of many involved. In all, eight died after a fierce fast-moving storm engulfed the mountain. Among them was Beidleman’s expedition boss Fischer, one of the first mountaineers to offer guided treks up many of the world’s highest peaks. Veteran Everest guide Rob Hall and a diminutive 47-year-old Japanese client named Yasuko Namba also died. Namba proudly became the oldest woman to summit Everest before dying on its flanks despite Beidleman’s efforts to save her. Three members of an Indian expedition also perished.
Afterward, the tragedy became fodder for countless media accounts, with at least five survivors publishing dueling perspectives on who was to blame. The nagging question that Krakauer asks in his controversial account is, “Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, ushering a gaggle of relatively inexperienced amateurs — each of whom paid as much as $65,000 to be taken safely up Everest — into an apparent death trap?”
The question has yet to be answered fully, as the two men in charge died on the mountain that day. By all accounts, the weather deteriorated quickly. And many have speculated that a friendly, unspoken rivalry between Hall and Fischer may have led the two guides to resist turning their clients around earlier.
But for Beidleman, widely credited for acting heroically that day, returning to Everest was not about stirring up old controversies. Rather, it was about making peace with an iconic mountain he’d dreamed of climbing since he was a child but could only look upon with grim memories.
“To leave Everest on such a horrible note like that and have it be the last word that the mountain speaks to you is not the way I wanted it to be,” he says.
It was just after 1:25 p.m. on May 10, 1996, when Beidleman crested the 29,035-foot Everest summit the first time. But his climb to Everest began in grade school when his outdoors-loving parents turned him on to the sport in his hometown of Aspen. He became a world-class climber, getting engaged to his wife Amy Beidleman in 1994 while on an expedition to Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain, located 14 miles from Everest. When Fischer asked him to join his upstart guiding business and serve as third-in-command leading eight clients up Everest, Beidleman jumped at the chance.
The summit push was fraught with mishaps and delays. But when the then 36-year-old finally arrived at the summit with two clients and Fischer’s second guide Anatoli Boukreev, the clear cobalt sky and sweeping panorama didn’t disappoint.
“It was beautiful. For about five minutes, I took it all in,” he recalls. “But then I got very nervous.”
It was late in the day. He was burning through oxygen even though he turned the flow down. A solid blanket of clouds was building on the jungle plains below. And Fischer and the team’s remaining clients had yet to arrive.
Without a radio to communicate with his boss and reluctant to head down and begin turning paying clients around (that was pre-determined to be Fischer’s job), Beidleman waited a grueling two hours on top until every last client stumbled up.
“My role was to do what Scott had asked me to do and I did those jobs well,” he says. “Had I known Scott was in trouble I might have acted differently, but I assumed he was still making decisions and guiding people to the top.”
Around 3:30 p.m., Beidleman headed down, accompanying five clients into the brewing storm. They passed Fischer, looking tired but still pushing upward near the summit and assumed they’d ultimately see him shortly in the descent. What Beidleman didn’t know was Scott may have been suffering from severe high-altitude sickness that many believe later debilitated him, leaving him unable to continue below 27,500 feet after the others began their descent.
The wind was so ferocious it just kept knocking us down. We put our backs to the wind, and I kept yelling at people and hitting them on the back just to make sure they stayed awake.
As they climbed down, the lightning and thunder worsened. By nightfall, Beidleman’s group had swelled to 11, including two sherpas and several members of Hall’s team.
Blinded by a furious ground blizzard with winds blowing at 75 miles per hour and unable to find their camp, they huddled in the dark on the South Col, not far from the 7,000-foot drop-off of the Kangshung Face. Beidleman feared if they kept wandering they might step off into the abyss, so he made the call to huddle on the ice and rocks and wait for an opening in the weather.
“The wind was so ferocious it just kept knocking us down,” Beidleman recalls. “We put our backs to the wind, and I kept yelling at people and hitting them on the back just to make sure they stayed awake. You just wanted to close your eyes and drift off.”
When the sky cleared after midnight, only four, including Beidleman, had the strength to set out for the tents, which ended up being roughly 400 yards away. Three others would be rescued later that night. Namba, a member of Hall’s team whom Beidleman had virtually dragged off the mountain to the huddle, succumbed to the frigid temperatures, lying down on the Col and never waking.
Hall’s client Beck Weathers, left for dead by other rescuers the next day, miraculously made his way to the tents in late afternoon but lost his right arm, the fingers on his left hand and part of his nose to frostbite. Hall, his third guide Andy Harris and his client Doug Hansen, a postal worker who saved for years for the trip, reached the summit but never made it down. Neither did Fischer.
“Nobody had ever imagined that something so extraordinarily bad like this could happen,” Beidleman says.
After leaving Everest in 1996, Beidleman began to contemplate going back. But it wasn’t until recently that the pieces began to fall together.
Davenport, a fun-loving, professional big-mountain skier and guide famous for skiing all of Colorado’s 14ers in one year, had a client who wanted to climb Everest. He called long-time friend Beidleman and asked if he’d be interested in co-guiding. Beidleman now had a wife and two kids and a thriving engineering business.
But the prospect of climbing with a small team and being in control of the decision-making appealed to him. For Davenport, 40, it was not only an opportunity for another first but also for a rare learning experience.
“It was really powerful to have a firsthand perspective as to what went wrong in ’96 and to learn from the mistakes that were made,” Davenport says. “I learned far more having been there with Neal than had I gone on my own.”
Things went so smoothly on the early acclimatization ascents that they took a detour one day, making a glorious ski descent of a large portion of the Lhotse face, a 45-degree slab of black ice barely covered in powder snow at 24,000 feet.
But the mood intensified as the duo and their client moved higher. On May 18, they made a summit push but turned back without hesitation when the weather turned bad.That bit of “serendipity,” as Beidleman puts it, allowed Davenport and him the full next day to wander around the South Col and visit the rock pile where he and the others had huddled in the blizzard 15 years prior.
“It’s very easy to look back and say to yourself, ‘You should have done this or that,’ but I took one look at the topography, remembered the fierce storm, the dark night, the lack of oxygen and could really see how easy it was to get there instead of where we were supposed to be,” he says.
The next morning, as they pushed toward the summit in their second bid for the top, Beidleman passed the snow-covered area where Fischer’s body still lays and was heading toward the South Summit where Hall, Harris and Hansen perished. Beidleman felt his body weaken, and his oxygen-starved brain began to play tricks on him.
Davenport took the lead, arriving at the crystal clear summit a few minutes ahead.Not long afterwards, Beidleman leaned into his friend’s arms, emotionally cooked by what he described to Davenport as “an epiphany.”
“A lot of people have burdened Scott and Rob and others up there after the fact with all these things they should have done. But the reality is, once you are out of oxygen, your world becomes very small and what you are capable of becomes very limited,” he says. “I was reminded of that.”
After another climber discovered the malfunctioning of Beidleman’s mask and repaired it, Beidleman regained his faculties within minutes and walked away with the epiphany that what occurred in ’96 couldn’t have been easily solved with a few quick fixes. He realized, having climbed inadvertently without oxygen, that not all things are possible on a mountain that has been ascended about 3,000 times but where more than 220 have lost their lives.
“Little things can go wrong, and it is still the highest place on Earth,” he says.
At home in Aspen now, he looks back on the trip as a gift, which helped him close one chapter and start another.
“I will always be sad about what happened in ’96,” he says. “People died up there and that’s a bad thing. You cannot ever change that outcome.
But you can come to terms with accepting what your limitations were. Just allowing yourself to appreciate that you maybe did everything you could under the circumstances is really powerful.”
Photos by Neil Beidleman