Controversial account of Mount Everest's worst disaster

2012-01-04 00:00

ON the night of May 10/11, 1996, eight climbers perished while attempting to reach the summit of Everest, in what remains the worst climbing disaster in the mountain’s history.

While the sequence of events leading up to the tragedy has been well documented, most accounts have given the impression that the climbers fell victim to a rogue storm that swept in without any prior warning. British-born climber Graham Ratcliffe, who was on the mountain that fateful night and had witnessed, at first hand, the deteriorating weather conditions, was never completely convinced that this was, in fact, what happened.

Burdened by his own sense of guilt that he and the other members of his team — who were due to make their own summit attempt the following day — could have done more to assist the stricken climbers, had they been made better aware of their plight, he eventually decided to launch his own private investigation to find out what really happened.

Of necessity, this book on the subject covers a lot of his familiar ground, but his final conclusion is likely to spark fresh debate.

According to Ratcliffe’s research, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, the respective leaders of the two teams competing to get to the top of Everest when the disaster occurred, did, in fact, receive extremely accurate weather forecasts beforehand, which indicated that wind speeds were increasing and that conditions were becoming dangerous.

For reasons which remain unclear, they chose to ignore this information and to continue up the mountain, rather than descend to a safer altitude to wait out the storm.

As important and potentially damaging as these findings are, A Day to Die For is, however, spoilt as a read by its rather uncertain format, and with its numerous digressions and diversions, one is never quite certain whether it is being offered up as a climbing memoir or a piece of investigative journalism.

Ratcliffe has a somewhat bread-and-butter style of writing, indulging in some occasional loose poeticisms, but generally failing to generate the sense of visceral immediacy that made Jon Krakauer’s classic account, Into Thin Air (with which Ratcliffe takes issue), such a page-turner.

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