Today will be another solemn one on Everest, even as teams prepare to launch their summit bids. That’s because May 10 marks the 20th anniversary of the terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of eight people back in 1996, which at the time was the most tragic day in the history of the mountain.
The story is a well known one by now, chronicled most famously in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and more recently the big-budget Hollywood film Everest that was released last year. Teams heading to the summit that day included the Adventure Consultants led by Rob Hall and the Mountain Madness squad which was led by Scott Fischer. Both of those men perished in the attempt, as did several of their clients who were caught in massive storm that hit the mountain with an unexpected ferocity. Delays in reaching the summit also played into the tragedy that still haunts the mountain to this day.
Twenty years on, the events of that tragic day back in 1996 have been eclipsed by even darker days over the past two years, and yet somehow the wounds still remain fresh two decades after the event. The decisions made during that infamous summit push have been examined to death, with just about everyone remotely involved with Everest sharing their opinion of what could and should have been done. It is easy to be an armchair mountaineer however, and the days for weighing in on what happened are long past at this point.
Today, Everest is both a very different and very similar place to what it was back in 1996. There are still some guides, Sherpas, and support staff working there that were on the mountain when the tragedy occurred. Those men and women have helped to shape the modern climbing scene there, making it safer. Technology has helped in that area as well, improving communications and providing better weather forecasts that helps climbers avoid getting caught out in inclement weather.
The legacy of the 1996 climbing season on Everest is one of improved safety and cooperation amongst the teams there, which has resulted in greater success amongst those who come to climb. In some ways, that has made Everest a victim of its own success, leading to overcrowding and long summit lines at times.
But perhaps the most lasting impact of the 1996 season can be seen in the media that covered the tragedy than, and continues to watch Everest now. Most of the time it seems that the mainstream media only covers the mountain when something bad there. They know that accidents on Everest make headlines, while hundreds of successful summits are not as alluring. That’s why we’ve seen so much about Everest in the media over the past few years, but this year we’re likely to see very little.
So far, 2016 has been a by-the-books season, with very few issues. There is nothing tragic to report, at least so far. And with the summit pushes now underway, you’ll probably have to get your news about successes and failures from sources that are more invested in the mountaineering community, rather than those who are simply looking for sensational headlines.
The 1996 climbing season will always have an impact on the mountain, and those who lost their lives continue to serve as a reminder to take care when dealing with Mother Nature. I’m sure I won’t be the only one thinking about those people today, even as the next generation of climbers go in search of their own Everest ambitions.
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