Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Day to Die For, by Graham Ratcliffe

A Day to Die For tells the story of Graham Ratcliffe, a member of Henry Todd's team who was also on Mount Everest's South Col on May 10, 1996 during the storm that killed eight people. By a twist of fate, he and his fellow clients arrived on the Col just as the storm was attaining its full force and the first of Scott Fischer's and Rob Hall's expedition members were returning to their tents, and yet knew nothing of the tragedy unfolding right next to them until the next day. Ratcliffe tells the full story of his relationship to Mount Everest, including his 1995 ascent via the North Col / Northeast Ridge, the 1996 disaster, his subsequent South Col attempts from Nepal in 1997, 1998, and 1999, and his later haunting fixation on and research into the events of 1996.

His 1995 ascent sounds like a happy time and hard climb. He makes his summit climb during the pre-monsoon season in great weather along with Anatoli Boukreev and Nikolai Sitnikov under Henry Todd's Himalayan Guides service. He socializes with Tom Whittaker (Higher Purpose) and Alison Hargreaves (Regions of the Heart) and also manages to catch an early ride home with Paul Pfau's American team, that happened to include George Mallory, climbing in memory of his grandfather. During a Christmas climb on Aconcagua, Ratcliffe realizes no Brit had yet climbed Everest from both Tibet and Nepal, and he quickly books a second climb with Henry Todd.

His 1996 climb is an enlightening take on Henry Todd's expedition as well as a mature front-row seat view of the tragedy that killed or injured members of three other teams climbing from Nepal. A previous account from Henry Todd's team was written by Mark Pfetzer (Within Reach), but Pfetzer was quite young at the time, and his narrative gives little information outside his own actions. Brigitte Muir, another teammate, has also written a book about her Seven Summits climbs, Wind in My Hair, but I have not yet read it, and can't comment on it. Cathy O'Dowd and Ian Woodall, the only other outside observers on the South Col to publish a book about their climb (Free to Decide), focus, like Pfetzer, on their own experiences in their writing, but occasionally mention the other teams to take jabs at them. Ratcliffe, though he focuses on his own experiences as well, looks out at what transpires around him, and he explores both his own culpability in the events as they unfold and the interrelation between his team and others on the mountain. It takes him several years of simmering, as well as a chance encounter with some disturbing information, before he realizes that there was likely more to the tragedy than an unexpected storm.

Ratcliffe seems like more of a dedicated than talented researcher. After finding his kernel of information that he believes will change the narrative of the 1996 tragedy, he jumps into the detail work while waiting to get to the readily available books and resources that would later provide him many of the clues to solve his mystery. I'm also not sure why he felt he needed to know all the details before he asked any of his fellow 1996 climbers any questions. Many of the letters and conversations he quotes make him sound more confrontational than curious. It felt to me that he was trying to set up a court case against someone rather than seeking the truth. I would have been loathe to respond to such inquiries as well. His efforts ultimately lead to the truth of the matter, but it seemed to me a grand effort for little consolation. The book kept my interest throughout, and I enjoyed reading it---I just feel bad that his methodology might have actually hampered him or prolonged his travails. If Into Thin Air and The Climb left you unsatisfied, this book is definitely worth your time.


  1. Your blog is really cool! I just became obsessed with Everest for no particular reason, so I have been reading my way through all the books (with emphasis on the May 1996 disaster). Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

    1. You will undoubtedly find the "Climbers We Lost In 2015" sections at the Rock & Ice website to be fascinating. The wide variety of disaster illustrated in that column is simply stupendous.

      One notes that free climbing soloists tend to have a rather short life expectancy.