Everest controversy continues

Weston DeWalt, co-author of 'The Climb,' responds to Jon Krakauer's assertions in Dwight Garner's recent Salon article 'Coming down.'

By Weston DeWalt
August 7, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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I want to thank Dwight Garner for "Coming Down" and his effort to convey some of the prevailing issues in the "Into Thin Air" vs. "The Climb" controversy. It was a bold start. There were, however, some loose ends in the article, so this letter. I shall restrict myself primarily to the issue of Jon Krakauer's characterization of Anatoli Boukreev's actions on Everest in 1996, and will not discuss Krakauer's suspicions of conspiracy among members of the American Alpine Club; his backing away from Martin Adams, whom he has previously described as seeming to have an "unusually reliable memory"; or the differing memories of Beck Weathers and Krakauer as to their exchange at the Balcony on summit day. By ignoring them I do not mean to suggest that they are not worthy subjects for consideration.

On the matter of the use of O's (oxygen) by high-altitude guides and Boukreev's not having used it on summit day, I would point out that there is not universal agreement among professional mountaineers that a commitment to oxygen use guarantees that a guide will always be able to outperform a guide who does not use it. Witness the events of Everest, 1996. Consider the testimony of Reinhold Messner, one of the world's most highly regarded high-altitude mountaineers who, when reflecting upon his considered use of oxygen as a potential guide on Everest has said, "I don't think there's a big difference between danger and not danger, using or not using oxygen."

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Also, to say that Anatoli was not climbing with supplementary oxygen on summit day is to state a fact, but not to offer the whole picture. An emergency reserve of oxygen for Anatoli was on the mountain on summit day -- cached at the South Summit -- in the event he chose to use it. As it turned out, Anatoli did not use the canisters that had been deposited for him, and, undoubtedly, they were used by Mountain Madness clients who did not leave the summit until 3:10 p.m. and were running short of oxygen.

To Peter Hackett, whose experience and contributions to the question of oxygen use at high-altitude I appreciate, I need to say that Anatoli did not "change his style" when he used O's on Everest when climbing with the Indonesian National Team in April 1997. Anatoli, as he explained in "The Climb," chose to use oxygen on that occasion because he did not feel comfortable with his acclimatization or his physical condition, which had been aggravated by some emergency oral surgery he'd had just before summit day.

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And the matter of Boukreev's rapid descent of Everest on May 10, 1996? Yes, this has been a matter of debate since July 31, 1996, when Anatoli wrote to Outside magazine in response to Krakauer's published article, "Into Thin Air." In that letter and another written on Aug. 2, 1996, Boukreev explained, as he had to Krakauer prior to the submission of his article, that his descent had been approved by expedition leader Scott Fischer.

Now, two years later and after Anatoli's tragic death, Krakauer steps out of the shadows and says he is "98 percent convinced" that Anatoli's rapid descent was not authorized. Why wasn't that belief put forward in Krakauer's original article or subsequent book? How courageous and professional -- now -- is it to assail a man who is no longer present to counter the claim?

In defense of his characterizations of Anatoli Boukreev, Krakauer has trotted out a number of people who support his book, "Into Thin Air," but to my mind, celebrity endorsements of his book, "general" agreements with his book's content or behind-the-veil, off-the-record criticisms of "The Climb" are not a substitute for a critical analysis of the manner in which Anatoli was represented in "Into Thin Air," an analysis that Steve Weinberg provoked with the publication of his Columbia Journalism Review article, "Why Books Err So Often."

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Weinberg has begged a question: Was Krakauer's account of Boukreev's actions on Everest distorted? If it was, he argues, "It is a far greater error than simple factual inaccuracy since it undermines a person's reputation."

In the hope that Weinberg will pursue the questions he raised about "Into Thin Air," I have supplied him with an exact duplicate of the more than 70 pages of documents and personal narrative that I delivered to Dwight Garner in support of my opinions that: 1) Boukreev was wrongfully maligned in "Into Thin Air"; and 2) Krakauer, by ignoring Boukreev's explanation for his descent offered more than two years ago, and not discussing it in either his article or his book, foreshortened the field of inquiry and denied his readers the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

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As to the matter of Jane Bromet's testimony -- that Scott Fischer, in April 1996, at the Everest Base Camp, told her that it was his "plan" that, if "there were problems coming down," he would have "Anatoli make a rapid descent and come back up the mountain with oxygen, or whatever" -- I do not consider that testimony (quoted in "The Climb") a red herring. Bromet gave this same information to Krakauer prior to the publication of "Into Thin Air." She has never disavowed her statement and, herself, has wondered why Krakauer did not choose to use it in his book. Reflecting on the potential value of her statement to an understanding of Boukreev's explanation for his descent, Bromet has said, "Anyone, any idiot who has followed the climb, will put two and two together quickly."

The point which I attempted, but perhaps failed, to convey to Dwight Garner, was that, yes, of course, Bromet's statement, in and of itself, does not prove that the "authorizing" conversation took place between Boukreev and Fischer as Boukreev represented it. But, as I told Krakauer when he first became aware that I had the quote and intended to use it: I think it clearly demonstrates that Fischer was predisposed to the idea of a rapid descent; I think it is consistent with Scott's previously expressed reason for having hired Anatoli (to provide back-up and rescue efforts); I think the statement, in the absence of an eyewitness to the Boukreev-Fischer exchange above the Hillary Step, should be seriously considered; I sleep OK at night.

Perhaps the most disturbing of Krakauer's contributions to Garner's piece was his suggestion that Boukreev was "pretty goddamn motivated" to go out into the storm to bring in stranded climbers, because, if "he was having tea when a lot of people died, it wouldn't have looked too good." Boukreev went out into a raging storm for the same reason he had risked his life on previous expeditions: People's lives were in danger. While he was out on the South Col in the early morning hours of May 11 -- in the maw of the storm -- and while he was ascending Everest later that same day in a last-ditch effort to save Scott Fischer, there were climbers sipping tea (or sleeping) who had their chance to contribute to the effort to save lives, to tend to the injured or bring comfort to the dying, but they didn't. That doesn't look so good.

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And, Beck Weathers' characterization of Anatoli as having stepped over his body? I don't know what to make of that, and I hope Beck will elaborate upon that statement. Anatoli has said publicly and in print that, yes, he saw Yasuko Namba when he went onto the South Col in the storm in the early hours of May 11, 1996, but he has always said that he never saw Weathers until later that afternoon when he stumbled into Camp IV. To that I would add that Anatoli to the day of his death, felt remorse over not having been able to save Yasuko Namba's life. His failure to enlist her Adventure Consultants' team members to assist him in a rescue effort he took personally. His inability, after having led three other climbers to safety, to return to her, haunted him -- so much so that the next year on April 28, 1997, while descending Everest with the Indonesian National Team, he constructed a cairn of stones around her body to protect her from scavenging birds. A few days later he sat in a teahouse on the trekking trail to Everest and in tears apologized to Yasuko Namba's husband for not having been able to save his wife's life. Despite the inability of the Adventure Consultants' team to rally and come to Yasuko's aid, Anatoli never blamed her death on her teammates.

And last, the matter of Krakauer's claim that, at the November 1997 Banff Mountain Book Festival, he and Boukreev agreed to disagree about matters relative to the events of Everest. It never happened. After Krakauer's outburst in Banff, which he repeats in Garner's article, but for which he never apologized to Boukreev, he did chase after Anatoli and his girlfriend Linda Wylie and suggest to Anatoli that they agree to disagree. Linda Wylie has said, "Toli didn't agree to disagree. He put his hand on Jon's shoulder and said, 'I am not angry with you, Jon, but you do not understand.'"

Krakauer suggests now that "if he [Boukreev] had only lived, I think we could be sorting this thing out." I would ask Krakauer to remember that in the last paragraph of his first letter to Outside (July 31, 1996), Anatoli said: "I know Mr. Krakauer, like me, grieves and feels profoundly the loss of our fellow climbers. We both wish that events had unfolded in a very different way. What we can do now is contribute to a clearer understanding of what happened that day on Everest in the hope that the lessons to be learned will reduce the risks for others who, like us, take on the challenge of the mountains. I extend my hand to him and encourage that effort."

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Anatoli's hand was not taken. It never happened.


Weston DeWalt

Weston DeWalt is the co-author, with Anatoli Boukreev, of "The Climb."

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