Steamboat local recalls May 10, 1996, disaster on Mount Everest
Steamboat Springs — Potential unforeseen catastrophes await those attempting to summit one of the highest peaks in the world. But at what point do the unrelenting climbers forsake Mount Everest? At what point is that voice of reason heard?
On May 10, 1996, climbers faced that very question as insidious danger loomed ahead.
Although personal accounts of that disastrous day, which left eight people dead, vary, Steamboat local Dale Kruse remembers the stark reality of both the events and the aftermath.
“In the end, the mountain has the last say,” said Kruse, as he reflected on the 1996 Everest disaster, an expedition he undertook with close friend and seasoned mountaineer guide Scott Fischer. “I walked away with my life that day, but I didn’t summit, and I was pretty disappointed in myself for not getting to the top, because you have to be a pretty motivated person if you are a climber doing Everest. Maybe reckless with your life a little bit.”
Embedded in Kruse’s memory, the experience left a painful reminder he continues to shut out to this day. But what he hasn’t left behind with the majestic peaks of Nepal is the legacy of Fischer, a man Kruse said was far from the character portrayed in the media, especially in the newly released film, “Everest.”
“That movie did not do him justice. It was a terrible portrayal of Scott,” said Kruse, who met Fischer at climbing seminars in Ouray more than 15 years prior to the fateful Everest expedition. “If you met him, you could just see that he was just bigger than life. He had a strong personality and was easy going but not in the way they portrayed him in the film. I never saw him drink any whiskey on the trip, and he didn’t say ‘man’ all the time. He was laid back and talked with his climbers.”
Having trained for the Everest climb since he was a student at Colorado University in Boulder, Kruse partook in a number of technical routes and high-altitude climbing expeditions and was as prepared as anybody could be; perhaps he said, more than most.
At one point in the climb, he slid into a crevasse and had to be pulled out. In another instance, he slid down the lower C face, but luckily, an ice screw caught his fall.
“You just have to get up and get going again,” Kruse said. “That’s what you do in climbing. Sometimes you fall, but that’s what your ropes are for.”
Even so, nothing could have prepared him for the deteriorating effects of climbing above 24,000 feet.
“I had HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema) when I reached Camp 3,” Kruse said. “It was a little scary when I realized it. I was putting my harness on and couldn’t put it on properly. Scott and few of the others had to dress me, and then, he helped me down. It set my course as far as not being able to continue on.
“I felt I could’ve pushed on more, but I also kind of felt something else that stopped me. That was probably a good feeling, you know?”
Fischer helped Kruse climb back down to Base Camp at 17,500 feet for treatment. Fischer then made the 4,000-foot climb the next morning to rejoin his team at Camp 2 at 21,325 feet. After reaching Camp 3 (23,625 feet) and then Camp 4 (26,085 feet), Fischer grew weary as he continued to climb without adequate rest. Reaching the summit (29,035 feet) at 3:30 p.m. May 10, Fischer was well past the 2 p.m. cutoff to safely make it back to Camp IV before dark.
“I was monitoring the radios, and everything was going well,” Kruse said. “They were going from one camp to the next, and then, when they called after the summit, everyone was happy, and it was no big deal. Then, he came down.”
Kruse recalls the clouds of the May 10 storm steadily drifting up the valley and rising toward the summit — there was no thunder, lightening, or dark clouds, as seen in the film — severely limiting visibility due to the horrific winds and blistering cold.
Fischer descended just above the Balcony at 27,559 feet and told his long-time climbing partner, Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, to descend without him and send Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian mountaineer who had ascended 10 of the 14 “eight-thousander peaks” (26,247 feet) without supplemental oxygen. Likely suffering from hypoxia and cerebral edema, Fischer sat down on the route to rest and never got up. By the time Boukreev reached him, it was too late.
“It was really distressing,” said Terry Doherty, Kruse’s wife, who was also friends with Fischer and went on a few expeditions with him in Nepal. “I didn’t sleep well, and the whole time, I was sick to my stomach and was sure I would get that 3 a.m. phone call one night. And I did get it, but it was for Scott. It was Dale telling me they needed phone numbers to get ahold of Scott’s family.”
After communicating with Fischer’s family, Kruse said he packed his pack and literally ran from Base Camp to Namche Bazaar, 38 miles and a three or four day walk out. He did it in a day.
“When I heard what happened to Scott through the radio, I was really angry for some reason that I couldn’t have been there to help, or maybe that I had worn Scott down a little from him taking me down,” Kruse said.
Risking one’s life to become one of the few people in the world to have climbed Mount Everest, Kruse said, is a gnawing hunger some climbers cannot ignore.
“When Rob, from the other expedition team, helped Doug get to the summit, it seemed like it was almost more important to get to the summit than to live,” Kruse said about the guide from the New Zealand expedition team, Adventure Consultants, who also died that day.
“I feel that climbing, sadly enough, is one of the most selfish sports in the world,” Doherty added. “Mentally, they have this goal, and it’s all about summiting, and they think, ‘Something bad may have happened to someone else, but it won’t happen to me.’ There is this invincible mentality. I think there is a certain mind frame for climbers, and unless you are one of those, you don’t understand it.”
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return home, Kruse said he made a few big changes in his life and retired from dentistry in 1998. He had operated a practice in Craig for 30 years. Shortly after retiring, he started a contracting business, Kruse Builders, with his two sons.
“It took awhile,” Kruse said about getting back to reality. “It was made worse by all of the media. If everyone had summited and lived, we would be partying and having reunions. But it wasn’t a good ending, so people like me from the expedition just want to push that out of our mind and forget about it.”
His views about climbing changed forever, Kruse put an end to his climbing career after the Everest expedition when he and a good friend from Seattle tackled the Liberty Ridge route on Mount Rainier. Thoughts of going back to the Everest Base Camp had crossed his mind, but the memories of Fischer would prove unbearable.
But every day, Fischer remains a presence in the Kruse household.
“His picture is on our refrigerator, pictures of him next to Everest and other mountains we’ve climbed,” Kruse said. “He was one of my best friends, and he helped save my life.”
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