FOR more than 10 years Graham Ratcliffe shouldered a heavy burden of guilt. Could he have saved lives the fateful night eight climbers perished on Everest? Why did he survive when others died?
That guilt and a constant niggle that the true facts of the tragedy had never been fully revealed led the North East climber on a personal quest for answers.
The result is his new book, A Day to Die For, which is set to rewrite the worst day in Everest’s long history.
There have been numerous accounts of the 1996 disaster over the years. Journalist Jon Krakauer’s international bestseller Into Thin Air sold in excess of four million copies in the US alone while the Imax film Everest, which grossed more than $100m in its first two years, became the highest- grossing non-fiction film up to that time.
The revelations uncovered by Graham do not rest easy with him. He knows relatives of the dead will be deeply upset by what he has discovered, but the 55-year-old believes it is a story that must be told.
“It’s going to create a huge amount of controversy and a huge amount of debate but I think it needs to be told,” says the Newcastle-born mountaineer. “I have had pangs all the way through writing the book of ‘am I doing the right thing’?
“I know it is going to be upsetting for people, especially the relatives, but it would be worse not to understand why it happened and to believe accounts which really don’t paint the full picture.”
On May 11, 1996, eight people died during summit attempts. They included guides Rob Hall, a well-respected and experienced mountaineer, and American climber Scott Fischer. Both ran their own adventure companies offering commercial clients the chance to summit Everest.
It has been widely believed that an unexpected and freak change in the weather on May 11 caused the climbers to get into grave difficulties. They battled against 150mph blizzards and temperatures as low as -40C.
This ultimately led to the deaths of both Hall and Fischer and six of their clients.
A Day to Die For reveals for the first time that the two guides were warned in advance that a storm was forecast. Graham uncovered evidence that both the Met Office in London and authorities in Denmark sent out detailed daily weather forecasts before the teams left for the summit, warning a storm was on the way. This information was shared between the two guides.
Why the guides chose to take the climbers on the final ascent and why the detailed forecasts have never been revealed in the numerous accounts of the disaster, Graham leaves to readers to reach their own conclusion.
“Why people have never moved to correct the facts I can’t say, it would be wrong for me to do that,” says the softly-spoken grandfather from Whitley Bay. “I just put the details and facts out there and leave that difficult question to other people.
“It is not for me to decide what’s right and what’s wrong.
“Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had such excellent reputations and were two really good people but on this occasion they got it terribly wrong and they made decisions which were uncharacteristic.
“It looks highly likely that they were both competing for the same business. Their clients were paying them $64,000 each to go up there. It was very lucrative. Rob had Jon Krakauer, who was reporting for Outside magazine, on his team and Scott had Sandy Hill Pittman, who was co-founder of MTV and reporting for NBC. When the accident happened, NBC had more than one million hits on the website that day and that was in the early days of the internet.
“Those were the stakes they were playing for. Money is a terrible thing when accidents happen.
“What happened is like the Titanic heading towards the iceberg. There was a series of wrong decisions and they made the wrong decisions time after time.”
Graham has his own personal memories of what happened on Everest. He was attempting to reach the summit for the second time when the tragedy unfolded. Unfortunately, poor communication after the climbers went missing meant that his team had no idea about the severity of the disaster.
“We were on the South Col and we were the only team on the mountain that could have put a rescue together,” he says. “We were primed for rescue but we were unaware of what was going on.
“We found out that 21 people were missing. I was told to bring our youngest climber who was only 16 down. The expedition leader said there was a lull in the storm. We didn’t find out what had happened until we got to camp two.
“If we had known, we would have gone to see who we could have found.
“On South Col there was hardened conditions and the storm was coming. There were wind speeds of human force one. On May 11 it was -20 with a medium breeze but the storm had not gone away, it was just a lull.
“By the next morning Rob Hall was found by a doctor very close to death. He was in the last throes of life.”
After the disaster Graham came back to the North East and tried to put the tragedy behind him. For years he ignored the numerous books, films and theories about what happened.
He now realises this was his way of coping.
“It was my way of avoiding what had happened,” he reveals. “It was denial.
“At the time I thought, ‘It has happened, I want to move on’. There was nothing that I could do that was going to change anything. It seemed to have a commerciality about it which was quite difficult after so many people were killed.
“The experience was, in the end, an intensely sad one,” he adds
“It was an overwhelming feeling. People had been killed. Why had fate struck them and not us? There was a feeling of guilt. Why had it happened to them and not me? It was a very empty feeling.”
It was in late 1997 that the mountaineer discovered why Rob Hall and his team had decided to attempt the summit on May 10. It was revealed they had known there was going to be bad weather on May 11.
This shocked Graham to his core. “Rob Hall had asked us to drop back and go out on May 11. It suggests he knew about the bad weather. That explains why they went on May 10 because they knew it was going to be bad the next day.
“That was a bombshell. I could not believe it.”
It meant that it could so easily have been Graham and his team who perished on Everest. “I do not think he would have wanted us to come to any harm but I think he thought we would see the bad weather and we would come down. He played a heck of a risk doing that.”
Graham put the disaster behind him and in 1999 returned to climb Everest from the south side.
The mountaineer says: “There was me and a Spaniard and it was my first attempt from the south side. He came down and left me by myself. The nearest person was 4,000ft away. I got up on the morning and it was exactly the same conditions as on May 11.
“I was the only person there and the whole lot came flooding back. What was so haunting was that I knew that only a few hundred metres away were the dead bodies. They were still there and the whole thing thrust me back three years.
“That was chilling.”
It was years later before Graham put pen to paper and began to write about his own memories of that night.
It started off as a personal diary but soon spiralled after he began to research the different accounts of what happened that night.
“I spent a ludicrous amount of time on it and it became an obsession. I didn’t say I wanted to write a book I just wanted to get the information. It became more than just personal memories,” says Graham.
“I came across reports from Nova Online from Everest baseline that the Imax teams were getting forecasts daily. The report was dated May 5, five days before they had set off for the summit.
“This was a specific forecast. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery. I approached the Met Office in London but they had destroyed their records.”
It was only in October last year when the book was nearing completion that information from the Met Office came in. A man called Bob Arran, who had worked at the UK Met Office but had since retired, confirmed that they had supplied detailed daily forecasts including warnings about a storm.
This was in addition to similar detailed forecasts sent from Denmark.
“It was part of the jigsaw missing and then the final piece came in,” says Graham. “This was an accurate high-altitude forecast that was specific for climbers. It was not a normal weather forecast.
“There was mention of forecasts before but when you read the accounts, the books, the films, it left the readers, left me, convinced that these forecasts were obtained after the accident.
“When people start talking about a rogue storm, no one moved to correct it, no one said they had information there was a storm coming. They never corrected it. Why not? What my book does is change people’s perceptions of what happened that night.”
The book also covers his career as a mountaineer and feats other than Everest. Graham is chairman of the Bentley Beetham Trust, which has a collection of photographs from the 1924 Everest expedition with Mallory and Beetham, who was a schoolmaster at Barnard Castle school, the same school Graham later attended.
The archives held at Durham University shows that a photograph of Graham’s expedition in 1995 is almost identical to one taken on the 1924 expedition. Both groups positioned their tents in the same place at Everest base camp and the landscape had barely changed in 70 years.
Graham has been supported in his endeavours by his family, wife Catherine, daughters Angela, 33, and Amy, 30, and granddaughter Sophia, seven. He also had help from Geoff Scarth, a retired lawyer from Whitley Bay and Olwyn Hocking, the former head of regional and local programmes at BBC North East and Cumbria.
“I have played detective and pieced everything together,” says Graham. “I have given people the right of reply to what I have found. Obviously it is more detailed in the book and I don’t want to give too much away.
“I hope people find it compelling. It had to be written.”
A Day to Die For 1996: Everest’s Worst Disaster by Graham Ratcliffe (Mainstream Publishing) is priced £11.99 and is out now.
For more information on the Bentley Beetham Trust visit www.bentleybeetham.org