Buy Climbing High
Lene Gammelgaard, who survived the infamous 1996 tragedy on the upper slopes of Mount Everest, was the first to write a book about it. Climbing High was first published in Denmark in 1997, and earlier this year was released in the United States (Seal Press, Seattle, 1999).
Gammelgaard, a writer and psychological counselor, was the first Danish woman to summit Everest and was a member of Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team that year. She told MountainZone.com that she continues to grapple with the trauma of that deadly night on Everest.
"I realized very soon afterward," she said, "that there was no way I was going to get away from this without paying a price. I knew that this was going to cost a lot of years of grieving and mental work to come out on the other end as a stable person again."
But what Gammelgaard did not expect was the unrelenting media attention focused on those events of May 10, 1996. That, Gammelgaard said, was even more difficult to deal with than the fear and pain of the tragedy itself.
"It really did surprise me how this exploded way, way out of proportion," she said. "Read just a few books about the history of the Himalayas and you'll see this is not unusual. Even the most famous mountaineers, like Chris Bonnington, have had people help them into camps where they almost died, yet nobody ever criticized them for that. So what is so special about 1996? Why is this such a big deal?
"So that really surprised me. And I was kind of glad for a time that, as this little Danish person, I was totally forgotten. And that was good for me, because I'm not sure that I would have been able to survive, emotionally, all the beatings that were going on over here."
Gammelgaard was further amazed that the media scrutiny soon turned to finger pointing and criticism. As that reached its zenith in the press, she watched the very humanity of the principle players get lost in the sound and fury as opposing camps put their own view forward.
"Having been around Scott Fischer, I can really appreciate the huge impact a person like that could have on my life. He had that generous, totally unselfish personality that made adventures possible for many people who wouldn't go out there without a person like Scott around. In the media, there was a lot of criticism going on, which is predictable, but it's too bad that what was lost were the positive sides of this human being who made things possible for so many.
"Scott Fischer and Anatoli Boukreev were complex and unique human beings. The tragedy is that now they are gone. I was devastated on Anatoli's behalf by all the criticisms that he got. I couldn't really understand it. Anatoli, to me, was a pure mountaineer. He was extremely strong and he knew what the mountains were all about. Anatoli respected the mountains tremendously."
The events of the afternoon and evening of May 10 remain indelibly etched on Gammelgaard's memory. Most members of Scott Fischer's group, along with clients of New Zealand guide Rob Hall, had reached the summit in mid-afternoon. But as the climbers descended toward their high camp, a storm struck the upper mountain, bringing high winds and whiteout conditions. The teams could not find the way back to Camp IV on the South Col.
"There were very few moments, maybe only one, when I was really afraid," Gammelgaard said. "I was concerned all the way up, but not really frightened. And coming down from the summit and climbing into the storm, which was dumping this weird sort of bottomless snow on us, suddenly I thought 'this is really serious.' But I thought, this is what happens in the mountains, and while I would have preferred that it didn't happen, the storm didn't come as a surprise. Soon, we were hopelessly lost and I knew we probably wouldn't have any chance of finding camp."
By the time Gammelgaard huddled with other members of Fischer's and Hall's groups, the situation had become desperate. She knew that if they somehow could not find Camp IV, they all would die.
"And in the animal kingdom, a sound individual preserves itself first. And all of us up there, or mostly all of us, we did that automatically, which is the healthy thing to do."
But even in that grim situation, Gammelgaard said she had a funny feeling that she would not be one of those who would die that night: "I was filled with a white something - a strange, white feeling - knowing somehow from the inside that my number was not up yet. It was somehow obvious to me that it's not my time, I'm not going to die yet. There is still something I have to accomplish in this world."
That secret intuitive knowledge gave Gammelgaard a sense of calm and confidence that would see her through the next desperate hours as the ragged group of climbers huddled together for warmth and mutual support against the howling winds. Eventually, Klev Schoening, guide Neal Beidleman and Gammelgaard were able to find their way back to the high camp.
"There is a misconception," said Gammelgaard, "that Neal led us back. Neal did a tremendously good job that day, but he didn't actually lead us back. I have to give a lot of credit to Klev Schoening for finding the camp."
Back in the relative safety of the Camp IV tents, Gammelgaard realized she had suffered frostbite injuries from being out in the storm. Exhausted and frostbitten, Gammelgaard knew she could be of no use to her team members Charlotte Fox, Tim Madsen, Sandy Hill Pittman, and the others still stranded out somewhere near the South Col.
Anatoli was able to bring other climbers in from the storm that night, but five others, including Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, perished near the summit. Three other climbers, caught in the same storm on the north side of the mountain, succumbed as well.
"It was such a tragedy, we all were devastated," Gammelgaard said. "I think Scott burned himself out before he even got to the mountain, and then it didn't help the way he conducted himself on the mountain, like personally escorting Dale Kruse down to Base Camp from the higher camp. Anybody else would have let one of the Sherpas do that, but not Scott."
The tragedy on Everest that day became a turning point in Gammelgaard's life, a dividing line between what came before and what comes now.
"I have definitely been suffering from what's called post traumatic stress disorder," she said, "a syndrome from all the psychological reactions from experiencing something totally out of control, something that is bigger than what you ever could expect. So I have had a lot of those reactions and still might have more."
For Gammelgaard, writing about the events on Everest was one way of dealing with it. Making conscious decisions to change her lifeincluding giving up climbingis the other.
"It has completely changed my life," she said. "I want security now. I want a family. I want to settle down. And I have left climbing behind because I have lost so many people to the mountains. But I continue to be in close contact with nature and wilderness, like traveling to Alaska for a sea kayaking expedition. Nature gives me so much that I really do need to be out there, but now I am choosing something that is hopefully almost as beautiful, but less risky. Everest turned out to be a tragedy for me, while it was of course planned to be a triumph. The best I can do is to take whatever positive that can come out of it, to turn it into a little less of a tragedy by using the positive opportunities it creates."
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff