ASPEN, Colo. — Neal Beidleman has tried to outrun his association with Everest. But the mountain, he said, was “stapled and tattooed on my forehead.” It was perhaps inevitable, then, that one day he would return.
Beidleman was serving as a guide under Scott Fischer in May 1996 when a raging storm overtook two climbing teams high on the mountain. Five climbers on the teams died, including Fischer, who led one team, and Rob Hall, who led the other. In all, eight climbers died during the storm, a story chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his best-seller “Into Thin Air.”
“It’s not like I dread talking about it; it’s not taboo,” Beidleman, 51, said last month before leaving for Katmandu, Nepal, to begin what he hopes will be a successful climb of Everest. “But when I reflect back, it doesn’t give me a warm feeling. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of.”
Beidleman and the three other members of his team (he is a co-guide for an amateur climber) will make their way from Katmandu to Everest’s South Side base camp. The intended route, via the South Col and the Southeast Ridge, will have Beidleman retracing his steps from 1996. “Hopefully, there’s a closing chapter for me to what happened in ’96, because in returning, the story doesn’t have to be about the past,” he said.
“The story can be about the future. And to me, that’s a significant change and a necessary condition to engage in this.”
Raised among the mountains here, Beidleman is an engineer and designer of things like aircraft autopilot systems and industrial machines. He is also an accomplished backcountry skier and runner, and a married father of two. The two-month expedition means confronting anew the events of ’96, as well as the prospects of another adventure to 29,035 feet.
Beidleman said it took some finesse to warm his family to the idea of returning to Everest, especially his 83-year-old mother, who, he said, “let me know in no uncertain terms how she felt about it.”
His wife, Amy, was more understanding.
“In the end, Amy knows me as a climber,” Beidleman said, noting that they became engaged in 1994 during an expedition to Makalu, located about 14 miles east of Everest and at 27,825 feet, the fifth-tallest mountain in the world. “She knows when things are great out in the mountains, it’s one of the coolest experiences you can have.”
He added: “Still, certainly this trip will bring back a lot of raw emotions. But I have no intentions of not making it back. I don’t view this as something that’s extraordinarily dangerous, if things are done correctly.”
The events of May 10 and 11, 1996, on the Southeast Ridge, the basis for “Into Thin Air,” are not without controversy. Krakauer’s narrative placed a spotlight on the actions of Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on Fischer’s team who was climbing without oxygen and descended from the summit without clients. Krakauer also wrote of blown turnaround times, inexperienced clients, competition among commercial guide outfits and communication failures. Later, Boukreev, who rescued several climbers, rebutted Krakauer’s interpretation of the events in his own account, “The Climb,” written with Weston DeWalt.
Boukreev, one of two climbers from the expedition to return to Everest, died in 1997 in an avalanche on Annapurna, a 26,545-foot peak in the Himalayas.
“My intention is not to come out 15 years later and contradict something Krakauer or Anatoli said,” explained Beidleman, who was portrayed favorably in both books. “It’s very controversial when people start talking about who did what, and I don’t want to go back and re-expose old wounds or try to right any of the wrongs.”
He added: “The truth of it is tough, and it’s ugly. We went to the mountain with high expectations of making the summit and coming home happy. And not everybody did. The angst has to do with the fact that some accounts that came afterward exacerbated issues and drove wedges between people that shouldn’t have been driven. But that’s secondary. The problem was that people didn’t make it off the mountain; people died.”
Ed Viesturs, an American high-altitude mountaineer and longtime friend of Beidleman’s who was with the IMAX film team on Everest in ’96 and participated in the rescue operation, said the “Into Thin Air” episode would never be resolved.
“I probably talk about it and think about it more frequently than any other climb I’ve ever been on,” said Viesturs, who has been to Everest 11 times and climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter (more than 26,000-foot) peaks without oxygen. “Neal certainly wasn’t the cause of what happened,” he said. “He’s a guy that I believe saved some lives.”
Recalling 1996, Beidleman said the storm was harrowing, “roiling up from the jungle.”
He added, “As we headed down into it, people were running out of oxygen; they were staggered, people couldn’t walk, you had to pick them up on your shoulder.
“When we came to the end of the fixed lines, you have to navigate across the South Col, this broad open area. It’s blowing 60 or 70 miles an hour, it’s very cold and you can’t even communicate. We were trying to yell to each other, but you couldn’t hear; just super nasty, way nasty. People getting knocked over, and you’re dragging people along. And I just yelled to everybody that we have to stop and huddle, because somebody was going to get dropped from the pack or walk off an edge.
“Personally, I really believe that I did everything I could, once the day and the situation started to unfold, to help people under the circumstances.”
Beidleman’s only post-Everest trip to the Himalayas was in 2000, with Viesturs; Viesturs’ 8,000-meter partner, Veikka Gustafsson; and Michael Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of Alpinist magazine. They attempted Annapurna but called it off, Beidleman said, after witnessing “huge, biblical-proportion avalanches.”
He added: “It wasn’t appropriate to be climbing there that season and calling it safe. And in failure, it proved to me if you’re careful and cautious enough, you can climb safely and all come back friends to climb another day. You can’t control all the dangers, but you can get it down to something that’s reasonable from a climber’s perspective.”
Kennedy, a longtime friend, said Everest made Beidleman realize how bad things could go on the mountain.
“Ninety-six was sobering for him, eye-opening,” Kennedy said. “But I don’t think it really slowed him down very much, either. Neal likes to push himself, but in a very rational sort of way. I mean, he’s an engineer, but he’s got a supercreative side. It’s a really interesting combination.”
Beidleman acknowledges that ’96 changed him, in certain inexplicable ways. The arc of his life may have been tracking toward that of professional climber, but he eventually eschewed it. And yet he still feels the pull of the big mountains, something that is familiar to Viesturs.
“Neal wants to go back, I think, to have a pleasant experience,” Viesturs said, “go to the top and come back home. And then to be able to say, ‘Yes, we made it — nothing happened.’ Nothing bad has to happen.”
Everest, of course, promises certain unknowns for everyone on the mountain, including Beidleman. And the thought of visiting Fischer’s body on the climbing route halts him.
“Scott’s not coming back, and it’ll be very — I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I walk by his memorial,” Beidleman said, his voice trailing off. “His body is still up there high on the mountain. He’s been pulled to the side a little bit, but I will go and try to seek out where he rests now and pay him my respects. I don’t know how that’s going to be. But hopefully, there will be a bit of closure. Be happy and a good person, enjoy your adventures in life and be successful on the mountain — that’s what Scott would wish for us on our trip.”