Jon Krakauer responds

Jon Krakauer rebuts Weston DeWalt's response to Dwight Garner's article about the May 10, 1996, Mount Everest tragedy.

Published August 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Here are a few things Weston DeWalt neglected to point out in the comments he sent to Salon:

Of the six professional climbing guides who were caught high on Everest when the storm hit on May 10, 1996, only three survived: Anatoli Boukreev, Michael Groom and Neal Beidleman. A scrupulous journalist intent on describing the tragedy accurately, in its full complexity, would presumably have interviewed each of the surviving guides (as I did for "Into Thin Air"). Inexplicably, DeWalt interviewed Boukreev but never interviewed either Groom or Beidleman.

No less baffling was DeWalt's failure to interview Lopsang Jangbu, Scott Fischer's head climbing Sherpa. Lopsang had one of the most pivotal and controversial roles in the disaster. It was he who short-roped Sandy Hill Pittman. He was with Fischer when the Mountain Madness leader collapsed during the descent; Lopsang was the last person to talk to Fischer before he died. Lopsang was also the last person to see Rob Hall, Andy Harris or Doug Hansen before they died. Yet DeWalt never made any attempt to contact Lopsang, even though the Sherpa spent much of the summer of 1996 in Seattle, and was easy to reach by phone.

The reason for such conspicuous reportorial lapses can only be guessed at. Perhaps it is related to the fact that DeWalt is not a climber and had no prior knowledge of mountaineering, had never visited the mountains of Nepal, and had very limited experience as a print journalist before writing "The Climb." In any case, Beidleman was sufficiently disenchanted when he read the book that in December 1997 he wrote a letter to DeWalt stating, "I think that 'The Climb' is a dishonest account of the May tragedy. [N]either you nor your associates once called to fact-check a single detail with me."

Although DeWalt's failure to interview Groom, Beidleman and Lopsang Jangbu constitute his most puzzling oversights, he also failed to interview any of the other Sherpas involved, three of the eight clients on Boukreev's own team and several other climbers who played crucial roles in the tragedy and/or ensuing rescue. Maybe it is merely coincidence, but most of the key people he neglected to contact have been highly critical of Boukreev's actions on Everest.

As Dwight Garner pointed out in "Coming Down," errors of fact abound in "The Climb," most of which can be attributed to DeWalt's haphazard research. Some of the inaccuracies, however, appear to be deliberate distortions intended to discredit my reporting in "Into Thin Air." For instance, DeWalt reports in "The Climb" that important details in my Outside magazine article weren't fact-checked, even though he was aware that an Outside editor named John Alderman met with Boukreev at length and in person at the magazine's offices in Santa Fe, N.M., to confirm the accuracy of my entire manuscript before publication of the magazine article. Additionally, I, personally, had several conversations over a period of two months with Boukreev in which I made every effort to discern the truth.

The Boukreev/DeWalt version of events does indeed differ from the version that I found to be true, but Outside published what the editors and I believed to be the factual version, rather than Boukreev's version. Over the course of my numerous interviews with Boukreev, I discovered that his account of certain events changed significantly from one telling to the next, forcing me to doubt the accuracy of his memory. And Boukreev's versions of certain important events were subsequently proven to be untrue by other eyewitnesses. In short, I found many of Boukreev's recollections to be singularly unreliable.

Perhaps the most troubling misrepresentation in "The Climb" concerns the conversation between Scott Fischer and Jane Bromet alluded to in the notorious quote by Bromet on pages 222-223 (pages 255-256 in the paperback edition). DeWalt edits Bromet's quote to wrongly suggest that Fischer had a predetermined plan in place for Boukreev to descend quickly after reaching the summit, leaving his clients on the upper reaches of Everest. DeWalt also insinuates that my failure to mention this purported plan in "Into Thin Air" was a nefarious attempt to destroy Boukreev's reputation.

Actually, I didn't mention this so-called plan in "Into Thin Air" because I found compelling evidence that no such plan existed. Beidleman told me that if such a plan were in place, he definitely wasn't aware of it when the Mountain Madness team went to the summit on May 10, and he is certain that Boukreev wasn't aware of it, either. During the year immediately following the tragedy, Boukreev explained his decision to descend ahead of his clients numerous times -- on television, on the Internet, in magazine and newspaper interviews. Yet never during any of those opportunities did he indicate that he had acted according to a predetermined plan. Indeed, in the summer of 1996, Boukreev himself explicitly stated during a videotaped interview for ABC News that there was no plan.

In writing "The Climb," DeWalt chose to ignore the fact that the only evidence to support the existence of a predetermined plan was Bromet's recollection of a single conversation with Fischer. Furthermore, contrary to what DeWalt asserts in his remarks in Salon, Bromet herself emphasized to both DeWalt and me that it would be a huge mistake to assume that Fischer's comments indicated that he had anything resembling an actual plan in place. Well before publication of "The Climb," Bromet sent an angry letter to DeWalt complaining that he had doctored her words in order to make it appear as though the relevant conversation between Bromet and Fischer had occurred several days before the summit assault, when in fact it occurred some three weeks before the summit assault. This is not a minor discrepancy.

As Bromet stated in her letter to DeWalt, the edited version of her quote that appears in "The Climb" is "absolutely wrong!" Bromet wrote: "The distortion will mislead readers into a false conclusion concerning many of the most important factors that led to the accident. Because of the distortion ... the reader may be misled into believing that Boukreev's descent [ahead of his clients] was a firm plan ... As this quote is written, it runs the risk of coming across as (part of) a calculated and distorted analysis of the accident whose sole purpose is to absolve Anatoli Boukreev of fault by attempting to lay blame on others ... Too much credit was given to this quote in constructing the events of the accident ... Scott never once mentioned this plan again. Moreover, Scott was a very communicative person. If it were Scott's 'plan' he would have talked it over with Neal and Anatoli. (In subsequent conversations with Neal, he told me that Scott communicated no such plan.) I feel this quotation as stated is grossly misleading."

What has largely been lost in the debate over whether or not Boukreev acted with Fischer's approval is that Boukreev's decision to guide without bottled oxygen preordained his subsequent decision to leave his clients on the summit ridge and descend quickly. Having elected to climb without gas, Boukreev had painted himself into a corner. Lacking bottled oxygen, his only reasonable choice was to get down fast on summit day -- whatever Fischer did or didn't give him permission to do.

In June 1996, less than two months after the tragedy, David Breashears told me, on the record, "I'm sorry, but it was incredibly irresponsible for Anatoli to climb without gas. No matter how strong you are, you are right at your limit when you climb Everest without oxygen. You aren't in a position to help your clients. Anatoli is dissembling when he says the reason he went down is that Scott sent him down to make tea. There were Sherpas waiting at the South Col to make tea. The only place an Everest guide should be is either with his clients or right behind them, breathing bottled oxygen, ready to provide assistance."

In his comments published in Salon, DeWalt scoffs at the large number of people who have provided what he calls "celebrity endorsements" for "Into Thin Air." I would remind him that many of the widely respected mountaineers who have publicly vouched for the accuracy and integrity of my book are not merely well known, they were actually present on Everest when the tragedy occurred (something that cannot be said for DeWalt).

Moreover, DeWalt himself resorts to a "celebrity endorsement" by suggesting that Reinhold Messner -- the most accomplished and respected mountaineer of the modern era -- approved of Boukreev's actions on Everest in 1996. DeWalt did this in his comments in Salon, he did it on page 231 of "The Climb" (page 265 in the paperback edition) and he has done it numerous times in the course of promoting his book. Like so many other assertions he made in print and elsewhere, however, this is a conscious fabrication.

In February 1998, during a meeting with me in New York, Messner stated into a tape recorder, without equivocation, that he thought Boukreev was wrong to descend ahead of his clients. Messner speculated on the record that had Boukreev remained with his clients, the outcome of the tragedy might have been quite different, then declared, "No one should guide Everest without using bottled oxygen." Messner also said that he thought "Into Thin Air" was "a very honest book" and "a very important book."

I have no doubt that Boukreev's intentions were good on summit day. Even though I have written critically about some of his actions, I have always been quick to emphasize that he performed heroically when disaster struck in the pre-dawn hours of May 11. He saved the lives of Sandy Pittman and Charlotte Fox, at considerable risk to his own safety -- I have said as much on many occasions, in many places. I admire Boukreev immensely for going out alone in the storm, when the rest of us were lying helpless in our tents, and bringing in the lost climbers. But some of the decisions he made earlier in the day and earlier in the expedition are nevertheless troubling, and simply could not be ignored by a journalist committed to writing a thorough account of the disaster.

I was sent to Nepal on assignment specifically to write about guided expeditions on the world's highest mountain. It was my professional obligation to assess the qualifications of the guides and clients, and to provide the reading public with a discriminating, firsthand look at the reality of how Everest is guided. I also believe quite strongly that I had a duty -- to the other survivors, to the grieving families, to the historical record and to my companions who did not come home -- to provide a full report of what happened on Everest in 1996, regardless of how that report would be received. And that's what I did, relying on my extensive experience as a journalist and a mountaineer to provide the most accurate, most honest account possible.

By Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer is the author of "Into Thin Air."

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