Editor's Note

Monuments Men

Twenty years later, the fateful 1996 Everest tragedy remains a Seattle story.

By James Ross Gardner April 25, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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In photos he looks like a statue, a monument to another time. Handsome in the chiseled, cleft-chin way 1990s movie stars were handsome—Aaron Eckhart, say, in Erin Brockovich—an era when ponytails by default connoted ruggedness rather than…what is it they connote now exactly? In a clip on YouTube, shot days before he died on Everest, Scott Fischer comes off as a heady mix of late-model hippie, mountaineer, and philosopher.

Yet it’s easy to forget just how much of a Seattle story his fateful 1996 climbing expedition—immortalized in last year’s ensemble film Everest—was, and is. In addition to Fischer, the celebrated climbing guide whose daughter and legacy are at the heart of our feature “Katie Rose on Top of the World,” a number of other locals were on the mountain that day, May 10, 1996. 

Then Seattle-based writer Jon Krakauer was reporting for Outside and later spun his experience into the best-seller Into Thin Air. Seattle climbing legend Ed Viesturs was poised to summit with an IMAX film crew in tow. And Doug Hansen, a postal worker from Renton, was making his second summit attempt in as many years.

Eight climbers died in the blizzard, exactly 20 years ago this month, including Fischer and Hansen, who perished on their way down from the summit. Both have been lost to history in different ways. 

Krakauer describes Hansen as an affable divorced father of two who worked night shifts to pay tens of thousands of dollars, twice, for the privilege of climbing the world’s highest peak. Little else has been written about the mailman since. 

And Fischer, well, as writer Kade Krichko explains in our profile of the climbing guide’s daughter, his image and legacy have been coopted again and again, according to friends and family, to the point of oblivion. In Everest Jake Gyllenhaal plays the mountaineer as if he were a sloppy, hang-loose party bro the audience is led to believe deserved his fate. 

That makes no sense. Throughout his storied 25-year career Fischer marshaled the discipline required to scale the most grueling peaks and technically challenging routes on earth, saving multiple lives along the way. Gyllenhaal portrays as reckless a man who simply wasn’t.

The 1996 Everest disaster is a Seattle story, but it’s one that’s been hijacked. Our version, told through the point of view of Katie Rose Fischer-Price, today a nurse at Harborview, is the first hopeful step toward righting that legacy. 

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