‘ A Day to Die For’ Graham Ratcliff

Since the ill-fated Everest guiding season of 1996, there have been numerous books written on the storm that killed eight people on the mountain on May 11, including Kiwi guides Rob Hall and Andy Harris. So my first reaction to Graham Ratcliff’s A Day To Die For was, “Oh no! What more can be said,” and I began reading the book with little interest. But to my surprise, by the time I’d reached the half way page I was completely engrossed.

Ratcliff was a member of another team lead by Henry Todd, which was climbing Everest during the 1996 season. He arrived at the South Col at the time when the survivors of the Adventure Consultants (led by Rob Hall) and Mountain Madness (Scott Fischer) teams, who had summitted that day, were staggering back into camp. In the bad weather and confusion, Ratcliff’s expedition was not aware until the following morning of the five people lying dead on the mountain (three Indians climbing on the north side of the mountain also died that night). Ratcliff, who was attempting to be the first Brit to climb Everest twice, returned home mortified that he hadn’t taken part in a rescue effort and, over time, determined to discover exactly how and why the disaster eventuated.

His findings do not reflect well on either New Zealand guiding company Adventure Consultants, or its direct competition, Mountain Madness, whose then directors/ leaders both perished in the storm. All subsequent written accounts of the disaster, including John Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air,’ and Anatoli Boukreev’s ‘The Climb,’ claim a deadly ‘rogue’ storm hit the mountain without warning on the night of May 10th / 11th. What Ratcliff discovered after years of diligent research, was that both leaders had access to detailed and long ranging weather forecasts courtesy of two other expeditions on the mountain at the time.The storm that killed eight people in total was in fact predicted several days in advance and was expected to climax on May 11th. Ratcliff also claims Hall and Fischer convinced the Henry Todd team to delay their summit push until the 11th so that the two large commercial teams could have free run of the mountain without the threat of a bottleneck. This suggests Hall and Fischer knew about the bad weather arriving on the 11th, he says, and explains why they wanted to go the day before.

Both Hall and Fischer had excellent reputations, Ratcliff claims, but were competing for the same very lucrative business. Hall was guiding Jon Krakauer who was reporting for Outside Magazine, and Fischer had Sandy Hill Pittman, who was co-founder of MTV and reporting for NBC. Clients were paying upward of US$64,000 to climb the mountain. Perhaps money forced morality and sound decision making to take a back seat, he implies.

As Ratcliff takes the reader though a blow by blow account of his research and findings over a five year period, they realises this is pretty serious stuff. Ratcliff is obviously thorough to the point of obsession, although there is no mention of him speaking to the surviving climbers of either expedition, or the Basecamp Managers. He writing is forthright and precise and the book gallops along at a riveting pace.

Fortunately Ratcliff leaves the reader to reach their own conclusions as to why Hall and Fischer decided to take their charges on the summit push on May 10th and why the detailed weather forecasts have never been revealed in the previous accounts of the disaster. It’s this that pulls the book back from the brink of becoming an obsessive rant. Instead it’s a must read for anyone interested in the social and moral implications of 8000m guided climbing.