Everest controversy: Weston DeWalt's latest response

The co-author of "The Climb" responds to Jon Krakauer's most recent comments in Salon about the Everest tragedy of May 10, 1996.

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

My thanks again to Jon Krakauer for contributing his thoughts and to Salon for providing a venue for this dialogue. In keeping with Jon's desire to bring this discussion to a close and because I have an interest in doing the same, I'll restrict myself to those questions and issues that Jon raised in his last posting.

Was there a "plan" for Anatoli Boukreev to descend ahead of clients?

Jane Bromet on two separate occasions volunteered that Scott Fischer had a plan (see previous postings and "The Climb") for Boukreev to descend ahead of his clients in the event of problems on the descent. The fact that Boukreev was not aware of a specific plan prior to summit day is no proof that there was not such a plan. In fact, Boukreev seems not to have been well informed about "what if" alternatives in the event the climb did not go as planned. In "The Climb" (page 159) Boukreev describes -- on summit day -- his falling back on the fixed-ropes above the Balcony in the hope of seeing Fischer, with whom he wanted to discuss his concerns about delays and what actions Fischer might want him to take.

Bromet was a trusted confidant, someone with access to Scott's most closely held concerns and thoughts, and "the plan," according to my March 1997 interview with Bromet, was but one of many things Fischer shared with her but withheld from the other members of the expedition. In saying this, I don't mean to suggest anything duplicitous on Scott's part, but to offer that he was a human being with a tremendous burden on his shoulders, someone who had legitimate concerns about the challenge ahead and who had a need, as anyone would, to discuss those matters with someone with whom he was close and in whom he had confidence.

I understand Jane Bromet's need to send her October 1997 letter to St. Martin's Press and, as I told her in Seattle in November 1997, I have no hard feelings; however, her communications with me, some of which I have quoted in this discussion, have left me with no doubt as to her intentions in offering her testimony, and I remain grateful for her courage in coming forward.

Was there one exchange or two between Boukreev and Fischer above the Hillary Step?

Boukreev has said there were two. Martin Adams has consistently said he heard one, but that there could well have been another. Krakauer has said he is 98 percent certain that only one conversation took place. Let's consider their positions and their substance. (Page references are to the currently available paperback editions of "The Climb" and "Into Thin Air.")

Boukreev's account of his meeting with Fischer and their conversation about his rapid descent appears in "The Climb" (pages 177-178). Krakauer's representation of those same events appears in "Into Thin Air" (pages 8 and 264-265). In the latter of the two accounts -- which is interesting to contrast with that on page 8 -- Krakauer has physically positioned himself (and all of the other climbers present) and timed the comings and goings above the Hillary Step in such a way as to make himself a witness to the first exchange between Fischer, in which Boukreev says to Fischer, "I am going down with Martin," and to virtually preclude the possibility of a second exchange between Fischer and Boukreev.

Adams, with whom I spoke by phone a few days ago, said, "Yes, that's what I told Krakauer when he interviewed me, that Anatoli told Fischer he was going down with me, but Jon and Andy Harris were above Anatoli and me, too far away to hear any of it. The conversation Krakauer reported between Boukreev and Fischer was something he got from me and quoted in his book. He [Krakauer] never said he had heard the conversation."

In Krakauer's Aug. 14, 1998, posting to Salon, he said, about the first Boukreev-Fischer exchange: "Both Adams and I -- the only witnesses to that conversation who are still alive -- recalled the conversation in exactly the same way: Boukreev told Fischer, 'I am going down with Martin,' and said nothing more."

Krakauer's claim -- which Adams says is not true -- to have been a witness to the first of the Boukreev-Fischer exchanges was the same one he made to me when I interviewed him on April 21, 1997. Krakauer offered, "There were five people present for that. Scott and Andy Harris are dead. Anatoli, Martin Adams and I all heard this conversation." As the interview went on, Krakauer backed away from that position and said, "What I do know is what Martin told me."

And the second exchange, the one in which Boukreev said that he and Scott agreed to the need for a rapid descent?

In my April 21, 1997, interview with Krakauer, I asked him if he knew "for a fact" that a second exchange between Boukreev and Fischer had not taken place. Reflecting upon his suspicion that there had not been a second exchange, he said, "I could be wrong about that. I'm not -- I didn't -- I was there. I left the step [Hillary Step] before Anatoli. Now Scott himself -- I thought their conversation had ended by that point. Maybe I'm wrong. I wasn't there. But I'd be surprised if it continued beyond the time after I left, by the nature of -- well, anyway, I don't know that."

Adams' position on the second exchange? Adams, since the tragedy of Everest, has been consistent in his accounting of the scene above the Hillary Step. He has said and continues to say that after the first exchange between Boukreev and Fischer, he (Adams) went to where Krakauer and Andy Harris were waiting -- about 10 to 15 lateral feet from the top of the Hillary Step -- and offered them the chance to be the first to descend, and with "gratitude" they took it. As Krakauer and Harris were descending the Hillary Step, Adams was peering over the edge, following their progress. Behind him were Boukreev and Fischer, doing what, he doesn't know.

As to Krakauer's claim in his Aug. 14, 1998, posting to Salon that Adams has told him and others that "he didn't believe this conversation [the second exchange] actually happened," Adams has said, "I can only recall, other than a general conversation with Jon about my descent, having discussed the Hillary Step business with you and another Mountain Madness team member, and that conversation was on a plane from Kathmandu to Bangkok right after Everest, and he asked me, 'Did you hear Scott tell Anatoli to go down and make tea?' My answer was, 'No,' just like I told you, just like I told [Dwight] Garner [author of the Salon article "Coming Down"]. So, what story is it that I'm changing?"

I would echo Adams' question: What story is it that's being changed -- Krakauer's or Adams'? In the two years that I have known Adams, I have never heard him waver from his explanation of what happened above the Hillary Step. Does Krakauer have any hard proof that Adams has doubled back on himself? And, if Adams is one of Boukreev's "fiercest defenders" -- as Krakauer says -- I would think that he could do a better job of covering for Anatoli than saying that he has no idea what transpired between Boukreev and Fischer after Fischer passed him (Adams) above the Hillary Step.

Why didn't I report the first exchange between Boukreev and Fischer, the one in which Boukreev says, "I am going down with Martin"?

I have never alleged that the first exchange "never occurred." There was no ulterior motive in not reporting that exchange, because Boukreev's position was that Fischer's and his agreement, that Boukreev should descend as rapidly as possible, superceded his comment to Fischer that he was going down with Adams. Boukreev's "failure," as Krakauer has described it, to stay close to Adams, would be an admissible charge only if you believe, as Krakauer apparently does, that the second exchange did not take place.

It should also be remembered that when he did encounter Adams on his descent ("The Climb," page 182) Boukreev saw a climber still on oxygen, in control, making his way down the mountain. As Adams has described it, "I'm going down the ridge, doing fine, and Anatoli comes by, sizes me up, sees I'm doing OK and keeps on going. For me, it was business as usual, Anatoli's going by, and I had no problems with that." (It might be worth remembering here that Krakauer himself was also without an attending guide from somewhere in the vicinity of the Balcony until he returned to his tent at Camp IV.)

Mike Groom's description of Adams (made after
Boukreev had passed him and checked him out) -- as quoted by Krakauer in his last posting -- is something with which Adams takes exception. He said to me in a recent phone conversation, "Well, first, Groom describes me as having my oxygen mask hanging off my face, but fact is, at the point that Groom encountered me, I had already jettisoned my oxygen cannister and put my mask and regulator into my pack. And, second, the description of me in the Groom quote that Jon offered on Salon doesn't sound very much like Groom's description of me that Jon quoted in his book [pages 267-268]. Look, like I said in your book [page 187], I had run out of oxygen and was a little disoriented, and I sat down to try to orient myself and to wait for some other climbers to come along, and Jon walked past me, and then I saw Groom and Yasuko [Namba] behind him, and I followed them to the Balcony, and then Groom pointed me to a couloir [a gully] and I continued down the mountain." To Adams' observation I would add that under his own power, without being on supplementary oxygen, Adams was the first client-climber to return to Camp IV, and I've never heard him suggest for a second that he felt that Boukreev had abandoned him.

Why didn't I fact-check with Neal Beidleman?

As I explained in my previous posting, I did attempt to fact-check with Beidleman. To be more specific about that effort: I spoke with Beidleman on April 17, 1997 -- three months before the submission of the manuscript for "The Climb" -- and in the course of that conversation I asked him about a comment he had made during the audio-taped debriefing of Mountain Madness climbers at the Everest Base Camp on May 15, 1996. Beidleman's comment: "I knew Anatoli had gone down. I had no problem with that. I knew that it would have been nice for him to stay, but at the same time it wouldn't have necessarily facilitated our descent any better. I wasn't aware of his instructions to go down immediately from Scott, but after hearing that, I support that. I think that's a very good idea, and, in fact, had he not gone down, his efforts at the bottom collecting people wouldn't have been possible."

Because Boukreev's descent, in "Into Thin Air," had been made an issue, I wanted to make certain that Neal, who seemed to be waffling in his support of Boukreev, had meant what he'd said. I offered: "I would be more than happy, Neal, in the book, if you want to sit down and have an interview, if you now, after the fact, want to say that you think it was absolutely the wrong thing for Anatoli to have done, I am willing to put that in the book." Beidleman responded, "No, I'm just trying not to pass judgment either way. I think that only Anatoli knows what Anatoli was doing, and it's just not appropriate for me to get involved there. And maybe other people's character lets them or compels them to do so, but not mine." With that statement Beidleman went off the record. Despite a later effort to get him to go on the record, so I could cross-check facts and get his version of events, he refused.

Was there some confusion around the January 1997 date I assigned to the Linda Wylie-Krakauer exchange when Wylie asked Krakauer why Krakauer had not double-checked certain "facts" of his Outside story that were later proven to be untrue?

Yes, Krakauer is quite right. There was some confusion. In preparing my previous posting to Salon, I listened to a taped interview I had made with Wylie and she referred to her conversation with Krakauer as having taken place in Salt Lake City at the Outdoor Retail show. I had recalled that Wylie had attended only one Outdoor Retail show and that one was in January 1997, but, upon checking my notes, I realized she had also attended that same show held in August 1996. In my reliance upon memory, I made a mistake, and I correct it here. The conversation between Wylie and Krakauer took place in August 1996.

What are the "facts" offered by Krakauer that were not repeated in "Into Thin Air"?

If I limit myself to the subjects of Krakauer's last response to Salon, one comes immediately to mind: Krakauer's charge that Anatoli was inadequately dressed on summit day, a charge proven to be untrue after an examination of photographs taken on the summit of Everest on May 10, 1996.

Was I wrong in using the word "conspiracy" when referring to Krakauer's concerns about my relationship to the American Alpine Club and that organization's decision to award Boukreev the David A. Sowles Memorial Award for heroism?

I derived my use of "conspiracy" not so much from Dwight Garner's use of it in "Coming Down," but from a letter that Krakauer wrote -- two days after Boukreev was awarded the David A. Sowles Memorial Award -- to Jed Williamson, a former president of the AAC and a member of the David A. Sowles Memorial Award Committee, a letter in which Krakauer described my relationship with Jed Williamson as being that of a "confederate." In my "Oxford English Dictionary," a confederate is "a conspirator, an accomplice."

To set the record straight on Jed Williamson and my relationship to the American Alpine Club and its granting of the David A. Sowles Memorial Award to Boukreev, I offer this:

Contrary to Krakauer's assertion that it was Williamson "who first put DeWalt in touch with Boukreev," the truth is I did not meet Jed Williamson until Aug. 31, 1996, a full three months after I met Boukreev for the first time. Anyone who has read the Prologue to "The Climb" knows that I met Boukreev on May 28, 1996, in Santa Fe, N.M., in the home of a mutual friend (Linda Wylie). Williamson had absolutely no connection whatsoever to my being put in touch with Boukreev.

The occasion of my meeting Williamson was a social one, and after that meeting, I never shared a word of the manuscript with him, and I never suggested that Boukreev should be a candidate for the David A. Sowles Memorial Award.

And the award? I was not aware that Boukreev was a nominee for the award until after a five-member committee (not three-member, as Krakauer has offered) had unanimously selected Boukreev as a recipient. At the award presentation -- in Seattle on Dec. 6, 1997 -- I stood in for Boukreev, who was then in Nepal preparing for his assault on Annapurna I. To the audience I said that Boukreev was appreciative of their consideration, but that it should not be forgotten that there were others who put themselves on the line on Everest on May 10 and 11, 1996, and I named specifically Klev Schoening, Tim Madsen and Neal Beidleman.

Beyond this, there is more to say, but I will honor Krakauer's desire to end our exchange. Whatever our differences, I appreciate that he was willing to engage. A lesser person would not have come to the table.

By Weston DeWalt

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

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