Everest debate, Part Two: Weston DeWalt

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

Published August 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I thank Jon Krakauer for his thoughts on my response to Dwight Garner's "Coming Down," and appreciate Salon's invitation to respond to them.

On April 21, 1997, I interviewed Krakauer, and he said, "What I have trouble with -- it seems clear to me that [Anatoli Boukreev's rapid descent] was a mistake. Whether Scott told him to or not, it seems like a mistake and it was a bad idea."

Ignoring Boukreev's explanation, that Mountain Madness expedition leader Scott Fischer had approved his descent, Krakauer -- with great skill -- walked backwards in the traces of the Everest story and created, in his Outside Magazine article and in "Into Thin Air," a scenario that was consistent with his judgment, one that made it appear that Boukreev had acted unilaterally and in his own self-interest. With that act I think Krakauer attempted an assassination of character for which, after the fact, I do not believe there is a justifiable defense.

If I were a single voice, Krakauer could dismiss my words as those of a spoiler, but I'm not the only one these days who's concerned with his rushes to judgment. Even David Breashears, the IMAX film director who led his own team up Everest during the 1996 tragedy, has questioned his seeming penchant for taking people down for questionable purposes. Breashears said in a magazine interview with Jennifer Jordan (in the Improper Bostonian, Sept. 24-Oct. 7, 1997), referring to what he thought in "Into Thin Air" was an unwarranted slashing of Mountain Madness client and journalist Sandy Hill: "It makes me very sad. It's there in print forever. It's part of history. People should be above taking someone else down. And for what? For money and egos people are willing to destroy other people to further their careers."

Now, to Krakauer's rebuttal and his talking points, many of which are a recycling of complaints that have been floated in other forums where they were duly addressed:

Reinhold Messner's opinions: It seems, if Krakauer is accurately reporting his meeting with Reinhold Messner in February 1998, that Messner has had a change of opinion about the guiding of Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen. In Salt Lake City on Jan. 27, 1997, at an Outside/Fila Outdoor-sponsored lecture and slide show, Messner, referring to his own considerations of guiding Everest without oxygen, said, "I don't think there's a big difference between danger and not danger, using or not using oxygen." As to Messner's opinion about Boukreev's rapid descent, I would want to hear the question that was posed to him. Was he responding to Krakauer's characterization of Boukreev's action, that Boukreev had made an independent decision, or to Boukreev's account of his action, that he was authorized to descend rapidly? It would, obviously, make a difference.

Krakauer's perceived differences in Boukreev's accounts of his conversation with Scott Fischer about the need for a rapid descent: On April 21, 1997, Jon Krakauer and I discussed his feeling that Anatoli had offered "conflicting testimony" on the subject of his conversation with Scott Fischer, who approved his rapid descent. Considering the possible source of those "differences," I suggested to Krakauer that Boukreev's English may have contributed, and Krakauer responded, "The language problem admittedly is a real problem here. Anatoli is at a huge disadvantage. His English isn't perfect, and that's a problem." I asked Krakauer if I could "take a look at the interviews," because I wanted to share them with Boukreev and give him an opportunity to address Krakauer's questions, but those interviews were never shared with either me or Boukreev, who was then very much alive and willing to respond.

This lack of interest on Krakauer's part to resolve his questions was a puzzlement not only to me, but also to Linda Wylie, Boukreev's girlfriend, who, in January 1997, had a conversation with Krakauer in Salt Lake City. In the course of their exchange, Wylie asked Krakauer why, before the publication of his original Outside article, he had not double-checked with Boukreev to discuss some of the "facts" of his story that were later proven to be incorrect. Krakauer, according to Wylie, responded, "He's so hard to understand. His English is so bad! It's very frustrating to talk with him."

Inexplicable reasons for not interviewing Mike Groom or Neal Beidleman: Boukreev's intention in "The Climb" was to offer a personal account of his involvement with the Mountain Madness expedition, not a "codex catastrophical" -- an objective that he thought would be presumptuous to take on, like "playing God," he said. Mike Groom, a guide on the Adventure Consultants team, appears just a few times in "The Climb," and the accounts of his activities are consistent with eyewitness testimonies offered by others.

My research coordinator did interview Lou Kasischke of the Adventure Consultants team because: 1) he had turned around on his summit bid and I was interested in getting the perspective of someone who had come down the mountain earlier in the day of May 10, 1996; and 2) I'd heard he had some opinions about Krakauer's characterizations of Boukreev that I was interested in hearing. In the end I went with a quote from Kasischke on the thought process that led to his decision to turn around, but I chose not to discuss Kasischke's disagreement with some of Krakauer's characterizations of Boukreev, because, while interesting to me personally, I felt they were not relevant to the purposes of "The Climb."

And Mountain Madness guide Neal Beidleman? These days Beidleman seems to be something of an ATM, an automated telling machine from which only Krakauer can make quotable withdrawals. Dwight Garner and I both got: "Access Denied." My attempts to interview Beidleman go back to April 1997, three months prior to my submission of the manuscript for "The Climb." Then, to my frustration, Beidleman declined (as he did with Garner in July 1998) to go on the record, to answer the many questions I had for him. Why? I could guess. [Beidleman declined to comment.]

As Krakauer, a friend of Beidleman's, is most probably aware, there are a number of unresolved questions relating to Beidleman's activities on Everest in 1996. Among them are: 1) his role in the decision to have Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa take the SAT phone to Camp IV at the South Col; 2) the delay in his getting Mountain Madness clients off the summit for 40-plus minutes after the last client-climber summited; and 3) the discrepancies that exist between published accounts of Beidleman's actions on May 10 and May 11, 1996, and the accounts of those same actions as they appear in his testimony and that of other Mountain Madness climbers in the audiotaped, May 15, 1996, Mountain Madness debriefing. [Beidleman declined to comment.]

And fact-checking? It was at a particular and critical point of fact-checking with Neal Beidleman on April 17, 1997, that he refused to talk any further with me on the record. Beidleman's assertion that nobody connected with "The Climb" made an attempt to fact-check with him is therefore untrue.

It should also be noted that in October 1997, Beidleman did not respond to my request for changes or corrections that he might want to see made in "The Climb." His claim, made in a letter to me dated Dec. 17, 1997 (11 days after Boukreev won the American Alpine Club's David A. Sowles Memorial Award, 10 days after "The Climb" was favorably reviewed in the New York Times and nine days after an irate Krakauer wrote a letter of complaint to an executive of the American Alpine Club suggesting a conspiracy against him), that "The Climb" was "dishonest" seemed then and seems now suspicious in its timing and indefensible in light of the opportunities Beidleman had to contribute his point of view.

Outside's fact-checking efforts: If Outside did the fact-checking of his article that Krakauer alleges, how does one account for the "facts" that were included in the article that were not included in "Into Thin Air" because they were proven to be untrue?

Failure to interview Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa: It was my plan, stated in writing to potential publishers of "The Climb," that I would interview Lopsang in Nepal in the winter of 1997. As Krakauer knows, Lopsang was killed in an avalanche before I had the opportunity to interview him. Had I been able to do so, I hope that I would have reported his story more objectively than Krakauer did in Outside. After the publication of Krakauer's article, Lopsang wrote a letter to the magazine's editor and complained that Krakauer had misrepresented his actions on Everest and asked why Krakauer had not bothered to fact-check certain details with him.

Jane Bromet's testimony: On April 15, 1997, after my late-March interview with Bromet, who considers herself a friend of Jon Krakauer, she sent me an unsolicited e-mail confirming what she had told me in Seattle: "I know that information I gave you is vital to your story -- the fact that Scott told me that it was his plan to have Anatoli go down ahead of the group, get hydrated, reserve energy cause [sic] if the shit hit the fan, Anatoli would be the one to 'pull the people off the mountain' indeed he [Fischer] said this. I told perhaps 10 people, maybe more, I don't know." (Note: It was Bromet who said, both in March and in April 1997, that Fischer had a plan. "Plan" was her word, not mine.)

In October 1997, shortly after publication of "The Climb," Bromet wrote St. Martin's Press and said she felt that, in the first hardcover edition, the timing of when Fischer made his comment to her -- not the statement she offered to me -- was "absolutely wrong." When it was concluded that the timing had been based on misinformation originally supplied by Bromet, a change was made in "The Climb" to conform to Bromet's latest recollection of that timing.

On Nov. 14, 1997, Boukreev and I gave a lecture and had a book signing at the REI flagship store in Seattle, and Jane Bromet attended. Prior to the start of Boukreev's and my presentation, Bromet took me aside and asked if I was upset about her communication with St. Martin's Press. When I explained that I wasn't, she said, "You understand why I had to write the letter? No hard feelings?" I said, "None, absolutely none; I understand Jon is a friend."

Krakauer's subsequent attempts to devalue Bromet's testimony, the importance and implications of which Bromet clearly understood and communicated to me, are pathetically transparent.

To conclude the matter of the Bromet testimony, I would ask Krakauer, in the midst of his effort to make the Fischer-Boukreev exchange disappear, to consider the testimony of an Adventure Consultants' client who, on May 20, 1996, in Outside Online, expressed an appreciation for the "system" that Fischer and Boukreev employed on Everest in 1996: "Early in the trip, I thought Scott's [Fischer's] system was fucked, and it ended up being better than our system, and that shows you how little I know. I remember thinking Anatoli's this great strong guy, but he's terrible with people. He's never around -- he's always up front with his Sherpa. ... I thought they [the Mountain Madness expedition members] were looking for trouble. ... Some of us [on the Adventure Consultants team] were smug -- that our group was sort of the safest, that it was more conservatively guided. And we worried about Scott's group and his laissez-faire, let people do what they want. And, in the end, all Scott's clients survived. ... Anatoli is who he is. He's going to be always up front. And, as it happened, this time he was down, he just happened to be down and strong enough to save people when the time came." The member of the Adventure Consultants' team who offered this testimony within days of the Everest tragedy and before the media began to seriously hunger for someone to blame? Jon Krakauer.

In closing, I would like to suggest that Krakauer's motivation for continuing to apply creative candlepower to the subject of Anatoli Boukreev may, in part, be motivated by his desire to keep the spotlight from settling on a question that began to loom in the weeks after the Everest tragedy of 1996: Did Krakauer's presence on the Adventure Consultants expedition contribute to the tragedy that unfolded? That question, which has kicked around in pubs and at the crags for more than two years, surfaced three weeks ago in a more than credible forum, the 1998 edition of the American Alpine Journal. In that publication, mountaineer and writer Galen Rowell, who has met in Nepal with several of the players in the Everest tragedy and who favorably reviewed "Into Thin Air" for The Wall Street Journal, says in a review of "The Climb," "The reader senses that the presence of an Outside journalist as a client on the most fatal commercial Everest venture was no coincidence."

It is a matter worth considering, I think -- not for the purpose of placing blame -- but for inquiring into what it means to have a high-profile, participatory media presence in high-risk, extreme sports. Maybe there is something to learn in considering the question. Maybe there are lives to be saved.

By Weston DeWalt

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

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