Ken writes: I suppose this post will be a little opaque to people who haven’t treated themselves to ‘Into Thin Air’ and ‘The Climb’ (or any of the pages and pages available online related to this issue), …but I am going to say what I think is the source of the antagonism between John Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev. For my part I didn’t really feel that ‘Into Thin Air’ portrayed Boukreev (B) in such a bad light, but we know that B was sufficiently hurt to want to set the record straight. We also know, from the appendices to ‘The Climb’ in which some of these arguments are detailed that Krakauer (K) pretty adamantly stuck to his account in the face of attempts to correct him. So what’s the story? I think that K feels that even if he’s wrong about particular matters of detail, still his account gets to the heart of the matter, that is, that it reflects a basic truth of the extent of B’s culpability. K accepts his own part in the tragedy. He agonises over the part he played in misreporting what happened to Andy Harris, and about his inability to help the other climbers in his party after he had made it down to the South Col. But from K’s perspective, B was insufficiently remorseful. He didn’t accept that the outcome might have been better if he had acted differently.
So what is the case against B? K doesn’t make the point that B didn’t take Beck Weathers down off the mountain, but that showed a real lack of initiative. This is something that emerges not in ‘Into Thin Air’ but in ‘The Climb.’ B met Beck on the way down, and saw that he needed to be taken down, but he thought he saw another guide, and so left it to them to take him down. Beck was already snow blind and in a bad way and had already spent 8 hours alone. If B was going down, he should have taken Beck with him. One of the things that emerges from both accounts is how differently things might have turned out if the climbers had had a little more time. After B had descended to the South Col, Neal Beidleman was guiding the ‘Mountain Madness’ climbers down and he ‘picked up’ Mike Groom with Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba on the way. But because it was a big group, we’re told, and because he was having to hold on to Yasuko Namba (while Mike guided Beck), he wasn’t able to lead the group from the front and with no clear leader people walked in the direction that seemed right to them. When they reached the bottom of the fixed ropes above camp four they could still just see the lights of the camp, but then it got dark and without a leader to follow they ended up walking away from the camp and nearly off a cliff. If B had been present guiding the group down with Beidleman and Groom, they would have been able to move a bit faster, and they would have been able to stay on course for the camp. That would have saved Namba’s life.
B argued it had always been Scott Fischer’s plan that B would descend quickly to be ready at camp 4 in case anything should go wrong. But surely it is OK to change the plan to deal with the particular conditions. On the day of the ascent, B going down met Scott Fischer coming up, and K makes a lot of B apparently telling Fischer that he was going down (as opposed to Fischer sending B down). But whether there was a plan or not, B should have told Fischer not to carry on up but should have gone back up himself to round up the Mountain Madness clients with Beidleman instead of descending. Whatever the plan was, he should have used his initiative and judged that Scott Fischer was in no state to proceed to the summit.
In summary: The problem with B, is that he had a preconceived notion of what being a guide demanded; a notion he rigidly conformed to as a guide on the 1996 expedition, but one he willingly gave up when guiding an Indonesian team to the summit the next year (Then, three clients attempted the summit and were inidividually managed by three guides). He didn’t change his conception of where his job ended in light of the events on the mountain and as a result, and Scott Fischer and Neal Beidleman ended up taking up the slack between them. It killed Scott. The case against B then is that he was a jobsworth to a cupable degree.
But, having said all that, I think it’s not so hard to understand why B had the attitudes he did. His command of English at the time was really pretty weak, and it is tiring to interact with people in your second language, and particular to discuss important decisions like who should be responsible for what part of the expedition. It’s really much simpler then just to stick to the plan. And, really, the main factors contributing to the disaster on Everest in 1996 were the lack of radios among all the guides, but most seriously, Rob Hall’s decision not to turn climbers back from the attempt at the summit when the agreed deadline past.