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Remembering the Everest Disaster

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May 10, 2001 -- This is the anniversary of the worst-ever climbing disaster on Mount Everest. On May 10th, 1996, a sudden storm engulfed climbers in snow and wind as they descended from the summit. Eight died, and the story has haunted climbing ever since.

Filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears was on Everest during the disaster. He was making an Everest movie in big-screen IMAX, a project he abandoned temporarily to help lead the rescue of survivors.

Last month, he returned to the Himalayas on a pilgrimage to revisit parts of the mountain -- and the past. Alone on a 10-day trek, he carried a recorder and microphone for our National Geographic Radio Expeditions, making field notes and observations as he drew closer to Everest and the lessons of what happened there.

Radio Expeditions is presenting a two part compilation of David's journey, including a moving meditation of the death of his friend, the New Zealand guide Rob Hall.

I want to reacquaint myself with the sights and smells and sounds of the place and try to better understand what was gained and what was lost during those difficult days in May. And also to see the familiar faces of old friends along the way.

It's early in the morning at Thyangboche Monastery at 13,000 feet. I arrived here too late in the evening last night to wander out this ridge. It' a beautiful place, and it's a beautiful morning. About three inches of snow fell overnight, so all the peaks above us are covered with a frosting of snow.

I'm walking out here to a secluded little place, which I always try to visit. Not many people know about this place. Back here in the rhododendrons, in the juniper trees, on the side of the ridge, are memorials to members of the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition.

Thatís Everest: different moods, different weather; a very forgiving place at times, an utterly unforgiving place; a place where you canít make a mistake, a place where you can, sometimes, make a mistake and live to tell about it, to talk about it.

I have no doubt that Rob could have saved his own life that night. He was an immensely experienced Himalayan climber; he was a talented and competent guide. But I just donít think he could bring himself to do it. At his urging, and under his leadership, Doug had been allowed to climb too late in the day. And Robís final responsibility on that mountain was to look after Doug.

And I know - know in my heart that there was a time, for a moment, when Rob knew Doug was finished, that he would never get him down that mountain. But Doug was probably still conscious, and able to talk to Rob, maybe even pleading to be not left behind. And that would have been impossible for Rob to do, to leave Doug behind while there was still one breath of life in him.

David Breashears David Breashears
Photo: Robert Schauer

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