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Misunderstandings Beyond the North Ridge

Hiroo Saso

Discussions on the morality of expedition mountaineering usually quote the Financial Times report on what supposedly had happened on Everest North Ridge in May 1996. Millions of readers of Jon Krakauer's Into thin Air have subsequently based their judgment of mountaineering morality onto alleged statements, which had never been made. The Journal of the UIAA cannot change the perception of the public but it can help clearing the situation among interested mountaineers worldwide. Captain M.S. Kohli has already helped to clarify the issue with his article Dead Climbers Walk, which appeared in the Indian Mountaineer, No. 35/1999-2000. At the UIAA Ga in St. Johann the editor met with Hiroo Saso, who proposed to write an article giving the facts from the Fukuoka parties records.

Mountaineers worldwide will never forget the May 1996 events on Mt. Everest. Many documents and books recorded the tragedy on the Nepali side. People may also recall the death of three members of the Indian-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) party on the Chinese side.

Mount Everest.
The Fukuoka party on the ascent.
Photo: Fukuoka Mountain Club.

On 15 May, 1996, according to a Delhi news report, Captain Kohli, an official of the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), denounced Japan's Fukuoka party for abandoning dying Indians on their way to the summit on May 11th. It was claimed that Indian members had reached the summit on May 10th and had become missing during their descent. They had subsequently died because the Fukuoka party had failed to provide help when requested on that day.

An article in the Financial Times of London also supported the Indian allegation (18 May, 1996). These reports became the basis of public knowledge about what had happened at 8,500 m on Everest. Few people outside Japan have heard, however, about developments after May 1996. Fukuoka party members were shocked by the news reports, because they had maintained good relations with the Indian party at the base camp until the reports surfaced and they were confident that they had done nothing wrong.

On returning to Japan the Fukuoka party held a press conference to clarify the facts and sent a letter to Captain Kohli to explain what had happened and to deny the allegations about their party members. In replying Captain Kohli retracted his earlier claim that the Fukuoka party had reported missing Indian party members on the night of May 10th. The ITBP accepted the Fukuoka party statements that they neither abandoned nor refused to help the Indians. This acknowledgement was confirmed by the director general of ITBP at his press conference. He commented that a misunderstanding arose from communication difficulties between Indian attack party members and their Base Camp.

Shigekawa and Hanada have since denied what they were quoted as saying in the Financial Times article; indeed they can hardly speak English and in any case spoke very little during the interview. The Fukuoka party summiteers neither knew about missing Indian party members, until after returning to C6 nor did they abandon them. All high-altitude climbers would agree to help each other when necessary, but it is also common knowledge that climbers can generally only sustain and rely on themselves at altitudes over 8500 m. The following factual record should clarify the issue so that experienced mountaineers may visualize the whole picture.

Record of events (Beijing time)

11 May, 1996

06:15 Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa (Fukuoka first attack party) departed C6 (8,300 m). Three Sherpas had left in advance.
08.45 Radio call to BC to report nearing the ridge. Just below the ridge they met two men coming down a fixed rope. On the ridge another man appeared before the first snowfield. They could not be identified because all were wearing goggles and oxygen masks under hoods. The Fukuoka party, having no knowledge of missing Indians, thought they were Taiwan party members.
11:39 Radio call to BC to report passing the Second Step (8,600). They then saw two men at a distance of about 15 m from the ridge. Again identification was impossible.
15:07 Hanada, Shigekawa and three Sherpas reached the summit.
15:30 Start descent. After passing the triangle snowfield they saw some unidentifiable object above the Second Step. Below the First Step, they saw one person on the fixed rope. Shigekawa stopped, therefore, and radioed BC. As he started moving again he met someone, who had possibly been on the fixed rope, standing nearby. They exchanged greeting, but he was still unable to identify him. Their oxygen was just enough to return to C6.
16:00 (approx) An Indian party member told the Fukuoka ABC that three men were missing. The Fukuoka party attempted to dispatch three Sherpas from C6 to rescue the Indians but disappearing daylight prevented their departure. Their request to Indian party members at C6 to join a rescue was refused. Also their offer of a radio so that the Indian party could talk to their leader in ABC was declined.

12 May, 1996

The C6 parties were all forced to wait due to the strong winds and blizzards.

13 May, 1996

05:45 Fukuoka second attack party began ascent from C6. They told the Indian party that if they found any of the missing Indian members, they would assist in their descent.
09:00 The party saw one body before reaching the First Step and saw another body in the distance after passing the step, but nothing could be done under the life-threatening circumstances.
11:26 reached the summit.
22:45 returned to ABC

14 May, 1996

A few Indian party members came down to BC but they said nothing about their missing colleagues to the Fukuoka party.


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