I have climbed Mount Everest three times and summited once. Cumulatively, I have spent seven months on or near the mountain, and, if you count the pre-expedition planning time, thinking about Everest was my full-time job for four years. As I took the final steps to the summit on May 10, 1996, about to realize a goal that had been harder to achieve than anything I’d ever tried before, I was suddenly gripped by a fear of my own success. “Elegance is refusal.” The adage provoked my addled mind, and I played out the possibility of turning back when making it was, at this point, inevitable as long as I continued to put one foot in front of the other.
Prior to that day, if I had projected what life would look like for me if and when I summited Everest, I didn’t envision this ambivalence, but nor did I imagine a moment of triumph. It would simply be a coda to the Seven Summits project in general and, specifically, for my two previous expeditions
there. The first was in the spring of 1993, as a member of a commercial expedition comprised of about a dozen members who were united in their desire to climb Everest, but little else. Several of the clients, of disparate goals and climbing experience, were adversely affected by altitude, which probably taxed the leader to his limits. By the time my shot at the summit came up late in the season, I think he was over it, and I was denied the opportunity to go higher than Camp 3. While deeply disappointed, I have always been ok with the fact that I didn’t make the top that year, because the overall experience lacked the soulfulness I expected to feel on an expedition to the high Himalayas. What I did get in 1993 was hands-on time with Mount Everest, the chance to climb with Alex Lowe and Peter Athans, then guides, but already legendary as mountaineers, and an opportunity to figure out exactly how I could do it differently for myself, next time.
In the summer of 1993, I formed a business partnership with high-altitude filmmaker David Breashears, the purpose of which was to attempt Everest in the spring of 1994 by a route up the Kangshung Face, a 10,000-foot vertical wall of rock and ice. Together, we found sponsorship, which legitimized the effort and added a great deal of responsibility. That trip had it all for me: an exotic and pristine base on the seldom seen Tibet side, extraordinary people (the greatest team of mountaineers who had ever been assembled to climb Everest, including Alex Lowe, Barry Blanchard, and Steve Swenson) with whom I would form lifetime friendships, writing assignments to keep me productively occupied on rest days, and responsibilities for organizing and implementing all aspects of the expedition outside of technical climbing decisions, which fell to the career climbers. That we failed to make the summit, this time due to near-daily life-threatening avalanches, a result of an extremely snowy season, did not disappoint me at all. In fact, I learned that failure can be a far more interesting topic than success.

I was so satisfied after the 1994 trip that I didn’t feel the need to go back. I sat out the 1995 season without any sense of missing out. But David Breashears called that summer and asked me to be a part of a team he was putting together to make a film for IMAX. He wanted me to help find funding, and to appear in the film. “We know how to do this, Sandy,” he said. “After Kangshung,” where we had tested IMAX equipment and filming with it, among our many responsibilities, “we know you can deal with the climb and re-climb routine we need to get a good camera shot. You look good on film. You speak well off-the cuff above 20,000 feet. Come on, let’s do this.” And so I agreed to return, in the spring of 1996, to Everest with him and a team of three other climbers.
In October of 1995, my husband of 17 years told me that he was filing for a divorce. While this news would impact every aspect of my life, it was apparent to me that I had to renege on my commitment to an expensive film project, since I was uncertain how a divorce would affect my son, who was then thirteen years old. While climbing had, by then, become my occupation (I was sponsored to do it and making a living by writing for magazines about my adventures), nothing was worth risking his well-being. Reluctantly, David made other plans for “talent” for the film, but made me promise to call him if I worked my personal situation out. He’d find a way to get me on Everest, even if it was at the last-minute.

And so it was. It became clear that my legal situation, in the painstakingly slow process of resolution, would be unaffected by my absence, and my mother agreed to stay with Bo while I was away; meanwhile, my father could accompany me on the ten-day trek to Base Camp. In January of 1996, David found an empty spot on a climbing permit (only a limited number of these are given out every year). I wavered when he told me that the permit belonged to a commercial expedition, but he assured me that he knew the leader and many of the people who would be a part of it. When he named names, I noticed a few were familiar and one I knew well. “And besides,” David said, “the leader, Scott Fischer, knows that you will be climbing with our team, and he is totally fine with that.” David left for Kathmandu just a few weeks later, and (in the days before reliable cell phones), I would not speak to him again for six weeks.

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By the time I arrived at Base Camp, I was already well bonded with Scott Fischer’s team, experienced and capable climbers all. But I was not relishing the prospect of having to put on a good show for the IMAX camera. On the trek in with my Dad, I had started to see the trip as an opportunity for an interior journey, and, if I reached the summit, a chance to triumph over my sadness and loss. So when I arrived and found the filmmaking well underway, and without me, I was more than a little relieved to be free of that job. (I did honor another work responsibility on that trip: sponsored by NBC Interactive, I posted the first live weblog from Mount Everest, a site which was streamed to elementary-school children around the United States.)

The story of climbing Mount Everest during the spring season of 1996 has been recounted in films, dozens of books, hundreds of magazines and newspapers. My story has always struck me as banal in its many moments of happiness, and for that reason I have not told it since writing the story I had previously committed to Vogue (nor will I here). We were not the first Everest climbers to have been caught overnight in a storm, and understanding that mountain weather is fickle and unpredictable is part of the risk anyone assumes when they decide to climb. Our summit team all survived without injury because we stayed together and worked as a team. Yes, I nearly died, but, as I wrote in the article for Vogue (and republished here), I was so affected by hypoxia that I hallucinated and felt little terror. I am forever indebted to Anatoli Boukreev, who saved my life that night, and who told the story of it in his fine book, “The Climb.” He and I remained very close friends following our return to the U.S., and until he died in 1997 while climbing Annapurna.

The sudden harsh storm and high altitude claimed one member of our expedition: Scott Fischer. He was not climbing with the rest of us on summit day, and I only saw him once on May 10, when I was coming down and he was still, inexplicably, climbing up. While I have always deeply mourned the loss of him, it brought me a connection with his father Gene Fischer and, more recently, with his daughter Katie Rose, for which I will always be grateful.

In the years since 1996, I have returned to the Everest region several times, the first of which was in 1997, to build a memorial to Scott. The last time I visited the Khumbu region was in 2011. I visited some of the Sherpa with whom I have remained in contact for all these years, and found special delight in meeting their children, some of whom were college bound. I stayed for one night at Base Camp with friends on expedition. The peaks were flushed with moonlight, and I spent much of my time there contemplating their heights, where I’d found so much comfort and goodness.

Picture 1: Anatoli Boukreev climbing the Lhotse Face, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 2: The West Ridge, Photographer: Barry Bishop, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli 2011)
Picture 3: Crossing a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall, 19,000’
Picture 4: Oxygen tanks, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 5: Memorial to Scott Fischer, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 6: Map showing the South Col and Kangshung Face Routes
Picture 7: Me and Bo at the summit of Kala Pattar
Picture 8: Me in the Khumbu Icefall
Picture 9: Everest, Photographer: Eric Shipton, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli 2011)
Picture 10: Bo in Namche Bazaar, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 11: Digging a tent platform on the Kangshung Face, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 12: Climbing on the Kangshung Face, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 13: Cooking with Jongbu Sherpa, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 14: Alex Lowe on the Kangshung Face, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 15: On the computer, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 16: Himalayan Blue Sheep, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 17: In Lhasa, Photographer: Alex Lowe
Picture 18: With the kitchen boys in camp, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 19: Making camp, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 20: David Breashears, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 21: The Kangshung Face team: David Breashears, Steve Swenson, Alex Lowe, me, Barry Blanchard, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 22: On a fixed rope, Photographer: David Breashears
Picture 23: At the summit, Photographer: unknown
Picture 24: Celebrating my birthday in camp, Photographer: Scott Fischer
Picture 25: Tibetan prayer flags, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 26: Anatoli Boukreev, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 27: Everest, Photographer: Bill Thompson, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli 2011)
Picture 28: Aerial view of Everest, Photographer: NASA
Picture 29: The 1996 expedition team in Base Camp, Photographer: unknown
Picture 30: “Penumbra,” Photographer: Ed Viesturs, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli 2011)
Picture 31: My father, Bob Hill, and me, Photographer: unknown
Picture 32: At Camp 1, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 33: Memorial to Scott Fischer, Photographer: Sandy Hill