Everest Debate, Round Two: Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer, the author of "Into Thin Air," disputes Weston DeWalt's recent comments in Salon and reflects on the role of luck and heroism on Everest.

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

Thanks, I guess, for inviting me to respond yet again to Weston DeWalt.

One of DeWalt's primary themes in "The Climb" -- a theme repeated in his most recent comments to Salon -- is that in writing "Into Thin Air" I set out to assassinate the character of Anatoli Boukreev. To support this vile assertion, DeWalt relies on two complaints: 1) I didn't mention a purported conversation above the Hillary Step between Boukreev and Scott Fischer in which Fischer allegedly gave Boukreev permission to descend ahead of his clients; and 2) I covered up the fact that Fischer supposedly had a predetermined plan in place for Boukreev to descend ahead of his clients. This second point has already been addressed in tedious detail in the previous round of this increasingly unpleasant debate, so I will say little more except to reiterate that absolutely nobody involved in the disaster -- most notably Boukreev, the central figure in the supposed plan, who explicitly stated there was no plan -- was aware of any such arrangement.

How does DeWalt explain this away? Jane Bromet, the sole source of evidence for a predetermined plan, has stated (and continues to stand by her statement) that DeWalt distorted her quote in order to "mislead readers into a false conclusion concerning many of the most important factors that led to the accident. Because of this distortion ... the reader may be misled into believing that Boukreev's descent [ahead of his clients] was a firm plan." In the final analysis, it should be obvious even to DeWalt that there was no predetermined plan, regardless of how DeWalt massages quotes or obfuscates to suggest otherwise. So why does he continue to harp on this point, and claim that my failure to report this plan is evidence of intent to sabotage Boukreev's reputation?

Regarding DeWalt's other complaint, this is what I know to be true about the conversation between Fischer and Boukreev atop the Hillary Step: Andy Harris, Martin Adams, Boukreev and I were waiting together above the step when Fischer arrived on his way to the summit. Both Adams and I -- the only witnesses to that conversation who are still alive -- recalled the conversation in exactly the same way: Boukreev clearly told Fischer, "I am going down with Martin," and said nothing more. Much later, Boukreev insisted that a second conversation had occurred after Adams and I left the scene, in which Fischer gave Boukreev permission to descend ahead of his clients. In the weeks and months immediately following the disaster, Adams -- Boukreev's close friend and one of his fiercest defenders -- told me, Neal Beidleman and others that he didn't believe this second conversation actually happened. Adams subsequently changed his mind and now believes that the second conversation did occur. Fair enough. Everyone has the right to change his mind. But I continue to believe that the second conversation didn't occur, for reasons that I have explained to DeWalt on more than one occasion. Apparently because these reasons don't reflect well on Boukreev, DeWalt chose not to mention them in his most recent comments. In that same spirit, I will also refrain from explaining my reasoning here. The fact that I didn't report a conversation that as far as I could determine never happened, however, hardly warrants DeWalt's charge of character assassination.

I find it interesting that DeWalt is so outraged over my failure to report the alleged conversation described above, which is widely disputed, yet in "The Climb" he failed to mention the earlier conversation between Fischer and Boukreev atop the Hillary Step, about which there is no dispute: Boukreev told Fischer he was "going down with Martin." Adams himself agrees this is what was said; yet in DeWalt's version of events this conversation never occurred. It should be noted, moreover, that Boukreev's failure to stay close to Adams during the descent, as he told Fischer he would, almost cost Adams his life.

In his book "Sheer Will," Michael Groom -- the only guide on Rob Hall's team to survive the disaster -- described the moment when he, Yasuko Namba and I encountered Adams as we made our way down toward the Balcony at 27,600 feet. Adams, according to Groom, "was in an uncontrolled tumble off to our left. From where I stood he looked out of control and in no hurry to regain it." Lower down, Groom again encountered Adams, "only just getting to his feet ... veering dangerously close to the wrong side of the mountain in a series of drunken flops into the snow, one of which could end up over the edge in Tibet. I detoured off my path to get close enough to speak with him. I could see that his oxygen mask had slipped off beneath his chin and clumps of ice hung from his eyebrows and chin. Lying half-buried in the snow, he was giggling -- the result of oxygen debt to the brain. I told him to pull his oxygen mask over his mouth. In a fatherly sort of manner I then coaxed him closer and closer to the ridge crest ... 'Now, see those two climbers down there in red? Just follow them,' I said pointing to Jon and Yasuko still visible in the gully below. He stepped off the ridge in such a haphazard manner, I wondered whether he cared if he lived or died. Concerned about his judgement, I decided to stick with him." If Groom hadn't happened upon Adams in the storm, alone without a guide, it seems likely that Adams would have mistakenly descended toward Tibet and died. None of this is mentioned in "The Climb."

To answer DeWalt's questions about Reinhold Messner, Messner couldn't have been clearer when he stated, "No one should guide Everest without using bottled oxygen." He was talking specifically about Boukreev, on the record, and his criticisms were extensive and withering. I did not quote Messner at greater length because I did not wish to hurt Boukreev unnecessarily. If DeWalt doubts any of this, I suggest he contact Messner and actually ask him about it, instead of trying to spin Messner's words into something that is the opposite of what he believes.

Regarding DeWalt's comments about Beidleman, I will simply repeat what Beidleman -- who is widely respected for his quiet humility, his selflessness, his tremendous strength and experience as a climber and his unimpeachable honesty -- wrote to DeWalt upon reading his book: "I think that 'The Climb' is a dishonest account of the May tragedy. [N]either you nor your associates called to fact-check a single detail with me."

Regarding DeWalt's comments about the veracity of my Outside magazine article, I will state once again that the piece was exhaustively fact-checked with Boukreev, face to face, by an editor named John Alderman. I'm not sure what DeWalt means when he says that my article contains certain facts about Boukreev that weren't included in my book. The criticisms I make about Boukreev's actions are substantially the same in both documents, although I will admit that in the book my criticisms are balanced by considerably more praise; I regret that I didn't have space to balance my criticisms as fully in the article.

Regarding DeWalt's comments about Lopsang Jangbu, I'm heartened to hear that DeWalt intended to interview him, and sorry that Lopsang's death precluded such an opportunity (had DeWalt talked to Lopsang, as I did, he would have found the Sherpa's comments about Boukreev to be very enlightening). But this begs a question: Why didn't DeWalt interview Ngima Kale, or Ang Dorje, or any of the other Sherpas who played important roles in the disaster? Their views of Boukreev would have been equally revealing to DeWalt. Concerning Lopsang's criticisms of my Outside article, interested readers will find the Sherpa's comments posted on the Outside Online Web site; they are definitely worth reading.

Regarding DeWalt's assertion about a conversation between Linda Wylie and me in Salt Lake City in January 1997, somebody must be confused. I was in Antarctica in January 1997, and did not go anywhere near Salt Lake for many months after that. Once again, DeWalt would have greater credibility if he checked his facts before going public with them.

Regarding DeWalt's comments about some alleged conspiracy by the American Alpine Club (AAC), I have never used the word "conspiracy" in any letter to DeWalt or the AAC, as copies of my correspondence clearly show. Dwight Garner apparently came up with the term on his own while writing "Coming Down" after I mentioned to him in passing that Jed Williamson -- past president of the AAC and a highly influential member of the three-man committee that gave the Sowles Award to Boukreev -- is a longtime friend of DeWalt's. Indeed, Williamson was the person who first put DeWalt in touch with Boukreev. All of which obscures the fact that, as I told Garner, I happen to agree that Boukreev deserved the Sowles award; my only complaint was that the AAC didn't also see fit to give it to Beidleman, Klev Schoening and Tim Madsen, whose heroism on Everest was equally deserving of the honor.

Near the end of DeWalt's comments, he repeats a quote from an interview with me that was posted on Outside Online. The quote is accurate, but DeWalt seems to have missed the point. I wasn't praising Fischer's "system" or Boukreev's "system." I was praising Boukreev's heroism, and expressing my gratitude that, despite the chaos and confusion, those of us on the mountain benefited from a great stroke of luck when Beidleman and Schoening fought their way back to camp through the storm and managed to tell Boukreev where to find the others -- and that when they did, Boukreev was brave enough and strong enough to go out and rescue Hill and Fox. As I explained in the interview, "as it happened, this time he was down, he just happened to be down and strong enough to save people when the time came." As DeWalt must surely appreciate, if our luck had been just a little different, and Beidleman and Schoening hadn't made it back to camp that bad night -- and they very nearly didn't -- Boukreev would have been unable to save anybody. Instead, a great many more lives would have been lost, and his decision to descend ahead of all his clients would have been considerably more difficult to explain.

Regarding DeWalt's concluding remarks, and contrary to his smug assertion, I remain deeply troubled by the possibility that my presence as a journalist, and Hill's, may have directly contributed to the disaster. I have certainly never tried to steer the debate away from this topic. The fact is, I've brought the subject up myself in numerous interviews, as well as in my book. I suggest that DeWalt read pages 138-139 of "Into Thin Air" (pp. 177-178 in the paperback), where I devote a long passage to this very subject. I have not shied away from admitting the errors I made on Everest, however painful it has been to do so. I only wish that others had reported their versions of the tragedy with equal candor.

To comment further about DeWalt's concluding remarks, my only "motivation for continuing to apply creative candlepower to the subject of Anatoli Boukreev" is to defend my reputation as a journalist, which has been unfairly sullied by DeWalt's spurious and cynical claims. I have no desire to sling mud at Boukreev, or even at DeWalt. I just want the facts to be made known. Personally, I am sick to death of this whole debate, and have been sick of it for many, many months. The competing accounts of the Everest disaster are now out there to be examined by all -- in my book, in DeWalt's book, in Groom's book, in Broughton Coburn's IMAX book, in these recent Salon postings and elsewhere. Perhaps it's time to bring this unsavory phase of the discussion to a close, and let readers decide for themselves where the truth really lies.

By Jon Krakauer

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

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