0

Death, betrayal and ego at 29,000 feet

Byron Smith’s ascent of Everest was broadcast live to thousands of Canadians. Why are some people now saying he didn’t actually make it?


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

On a bright morning six years ago, through a wind-chopped audio feed sent from the heart of the Nepalese Himalayas, thousands of Canadians listened in on the most important moment of Byron Smith’s life. “I’m 30 steps from the summit,” he advised in a radio call relayed by satellite to CBC Newsworld. Smith, then 40, was negotiating the famed summit ridge of Mount Everest, and conditions on the climb had by all accounts been vicious: knee-deep snow, cracking cold and an 85-knot wind that peeled sheets of ice crystals from the mountaintop and hurled them across the sky. But Smith and seven accompanying Sherpas pressed on, and 10 minutes later the expedition leader summoned a touch of grandeur for his big announcement: “I can’t take another step,” he said between breaths of -40° C air. “I’m on top of the world.”

The perfect denouement—or so it seemed. For the better part of two months, Newsworld had been airing Smith’s daily expedition updates in what was billed as a slow-building, high-altitude drama. Would he make it? Would weeks of poor weather break in his favour? Would the Goddess of the Sky smile on a blue-eyed car dealer from an Alberta town named Vulcan? Now the audience could go away satisfied. While Smith had failed to achieve his secondary ambition of performing a live TV broadcast from the summit, he and his team would presumably snap a few candids, plant the Maple Leaf on the peak and—barring a catastrophe of Into Thin Air proportions—make a triumphant return to their base camp.

What the viewers didn’t know was that there was nobody in Smith’s base camp. Nobody, at least, who could share the moment in his own language. By the time he spoke his momentous words, his expedition had devolved into such a tempest of backbiting that all but his Nepalese support staff and one very embittered climbing partner had fled for the sanity of Kathmandu. His team physician, Virginia Robinson of Hamilton, Ont., stuck around long enough to patch Smith’s words through a satellite transmitter to CBC. Then she picked up her backpack and left. “I haven’t spoken to him since,” she said in a recent interview. “It was so hard to be there with Byron that I didn’t feel any inclination to stay around. I certainly didn’t want to celebrate with him.”

Most of the complaints revolved around the Albertan’s personality, and his leadership style. “Vain,” “self-centred” and “highhanded” were terms team members threw around throughout those weeks at base camp, though mostly in the privacy of their tents, since all had signed contracts forbidding them from disclosing details about the expedition. By the following summer, however, darker rumours about the trip began circulating within the Canadian alpine community. Mountaineers in Calgary and Canmore heard the tale of a Nepalese porter who died of apparent altitude sickness at Smith’s camp shortly after the Canadians left for home. The porter’s grief-stricken family, it was said, had approached the Canadian team for money after learning their breadwinner had died—only to be rebuffed and sent home empty-handed. Or so went the story.

Then came a bombshell that would upend Smith’s life. When the American Alpine Club published its first-ever database of Himalayan climbs in 2004, his ascent was flagged as “disputed.” That might not sound like much, but in mountaineering circles it’s tantamount to shouting “big fat liar.” It turned out two Canadians who had been on the mountain that year, including Smith’s own climbing partner, Tim Rippel, registered comments on the database suggesting that Smith had outright lied about his May 21 conquest—that he never in fact stood on top of the world. The doubts were based on Smith’s comparatively rapid summit push, and a puzzling lack of photographic evidence on a party known to be carrying several cameras. “Other people in Canada had expressed doubts that Smith actually reached the summit,” read notes recorded by Elizabeth Hawley, an American journalist who lives in Kathmandu and compiles the information contained in the database. “[They are skeptical] because of the lack of pictures and ascent and descent times.”

Smith, who was by then enthusiastically trading on his Himalayan experience, was staggered. He had returned home a media darling and had been cultivating a career as a motivational speaker under the theme “Exploring the Leader From Within.” Customers knew him as the guy who climbed Everest, and pictures from the 2000 expedition adorned the walls of his two Ford dealerships in Vulcan and nearby Strathmore. When news of the dispute made the rounds, he says, both his speaking engagements and his automobile sales dried up. “I’ve got a closed-down business out here,” he now says, referring to the Vulcan outlet, which he shuttered last summer (the Strathmore dealership remains open). “When you get people in a smaller community saying, ‘Well, I’m not buying from him, he’s a liar,’ that doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts my family and my employees.”

So he decided to fight back. In a lawsuit filed last March in U.S. district court in Golden, Colo., he demanded that the alpine club and Hawley remove the disputed designation and pay him undetermined damages. The counterattack silenced his detractors—at least temporarily. Neither Rippel nor Hawley nor the other climber on record, an Ottawa mountaineer named Ben Webster, would comment for this story. But as many a plaintiff has learned, civil action has a way of unleashing the law of unintended consequences. Embarrassing details tumble to light, in many instances aggravating damages the plaintiff hoped to remedy. Smith, for one, speaks confidently of setting the record straight, of clearing his name, of moving on with his life. But to do so he must tell the story of a cursed expedition that was launched for reasons few could fully grasp, and whose events do not reflect well on any of the principal players—least of all himself.

If people who have never met Byron Smith are ready to believe the worst about him, it’s probably because they imagine Mount Everest as a place where virtue takes a back seat to ego. The gentlemen adventurers who romanced the mountain in the first half of the 20th century have long given way to the kind of bloodless commercial operators who sell the idea that anyone with strength and good health can climb to 29,028 feet. Now, with the onset of each spring climbing season, base camp descends into an alpine Coney Island, populated by dilettantes and thrill-seekers who add incalculable dangers to the climb. The risks struck home in 1996, when six people died due to a traffic jam of climbers on the mountain’s notorious summit ridge, a catastrophe that changed the way the world saw Everest (and made a millionaire out of Into Thin Air author/survivor Jon Krakauer). This past spring added another chapter to the legacy of shame: a climbing season that saw an unprecedented 500 people reach the peak was marred by news that dozens of climbers had left a young Briton named David Sharp to perish in the so-called Death Zone above 26,000 feet. Many had reportedly trudged past the ailing Englishman because helping would have cost them their shot at the summit.

The entire spectacle sends purists into despair. “In the world of real climbing, that route on Mount Everest is a low-angle slog,” says Geoff Powter, a veteran climber who is also editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal. “Yes, it’s high. But it’s not a particularly significant achievement. We have certain standards of what constitutes climbing, and attaching a jumar to a fixed rope from the bottom of a mountain to the top, and having other people carry your gear, is not climbing.”

Smith gets lumped in with these pretenders because of the lavish nature of the expedition he staged in 2000. A physically strong but not overly skilled climber, he had attempted Everest in 1998, aborting just 200 vertical feet from the top due to a lack of rope fixed in advance by Sherpas. The next time, he was leaving nothing to chance. Through the fall and winter of 1999, he arranged for an array of generous sponsors, including AGF Mutual Funds and Ford, using the money to retain a contingent of 12 Sherpas to carry food, gear, enough oxygen for four summit attempts, and what everyone agreed was enough rope to string across an ocean.

For climbing partners, he hired Rippel, a respected guide from Nelson, B.C., and Brad Wrobleski, a climber and photographer from Calgary. Both knew their way around a video camera, and both had experience on mountains around the world; Rippel, in particular, was known for his work as a Himalayan guide and commanded a $30,000 price tag for his participation. John and Ann Armstrong, a couple from Penticton, B.C., joined in to coordinate an educational component of the climb, while Smith tabbed Robinson, an emergency room physician, to serve as team doctor. The entire expedition, meanwhile, was to revolve around the demands CBC Newsworld, to whom Smith—ever the salesman—had pitched the idea of daily updates to provide media exposure for his sponsors and himself.

The group had not even reached base camp, though, when things went sideways. Marital problems had robbed Wrobleski of his enthusiasm for the climb—especially for the idea of going through the notorious Khumbu Icefall during the acclimatization phase of the climb (Wrobleski would not comment for this story, citing concern that Smith would sue; other sources have corroborated his role). Smith was irked by Wrobleski’s ambivalence, and suspected others on the expedition were aligning against him. “I had this sense that I was being undermined,” Smith says. “It wasn’t obvious, but it was there.” When Wrobleski chose to acclimatize on a nearby ridge called Kala Patar rather than Camp One above the icefall, Smith concluded that Wrobleski had entirely lost his nerve. He took a stand, and sent the climber home.

Now seriously concerned about the direction of the expedition, the rest of the team members began noticing Smith’s less appealing tendencies, most notably his seemingly obsessive control of the daily television updates, which they attributed to preening self-affection. “He would pose with one leg raised to show how big his thigh muscle was,” says one member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In retrospect, it was kind of funny.” Robinson recalls Smith confronting her one afternoon at base camp after she and Wrobleski taped a segment featuring Sherpas installing ladders on the icefall. “Byron came by when we were editing it and said, I’m not in this footage—if I’m not in it, then we’re not sending it.’ ” Smith ordered her instead to depict a day in the life of base camp, she says, using stock footage of Smith performing mundane daily rituals like brushing his teeth. “Viewers were emailing, saying this was the most boring expedition ever, how can you put this on the air?” she recalls. “I’d just tell them I was sorry.”

But Robinson, like everyone else on the trip, was in no position to act on her discontent. All the Canadian team members had signed contracts drawn up by Smith’s lawyer, giving the leader’s not-for-profit organization exclusive power to organize and conduct the expedition. The pacts defined anything that occurred during the climb as “expedition property” and forbade members from sharing it with the press. Several team members have told Maclean’s that Smith revelled in this power. “Don’t forget I own you,” Robinson recalls him saying one day after she commented on the pleasant weather.

The result was an expedition steeped in fear and loathing, an atmosphere anyone who stopped by the Everest 2000 camp could sense. Mealtimes were fraught with awkward silences. The Armstrongs apparently found the atmosphere too oppressive, and left the same day as Wrobleski. The normally affable Rippel, meanwhile, silently stewed. At night, he could be seen scowling over his tea mug, struggling to suppress his frustration and— presumably—wondering why he’d signed away his right to utter a discouraging word.

On a clear day in Vulcan, you can see the Rocky Mountains. But in spirit, Byron Smith is about as far as you can get from the Birkenstock-and-Nalgene crowd of Canadian alpine sport. His house is not a cedar chalet, but a modest ranch home that he shares with his wife and teenage son. He proudly drives a giant, black pickup, and a recent visitor arrived to find him clad not in synthetic breathables but in black jeans and Hawaiian shirt, his blond hair feathered back à la Andy Travis of WKRP fame. There is a skateboard ramp in the backyard, and a speedboat in the driveway.

Inside, however, arrayed on the dining room table, are the instruments of Smith’s battle to prove his bona fides as a high-altitude mountaineer. His laptop computer sits loaded with emails he believes constitute evidence of the long-standing conspiracy against him, next to an accordian file crammed with court papers and, finally, the man himself, who is settled in a chair professing shock—shock—that anyone should assault his good name. “I’m backed into a corner, and I have to defend myself,” he says, wide-eyed at what he sees as a betrayal by peers and former teammates. Over more than four hours of interviews, Smith’s responses lurch between childlike wonderment and expletive-laden rants. But the man is capable of working a theme, and if put into words, it would go something like this: “I may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But in this matter, I am the victim of a coordinated smear job. They are trying to steal my greatest achievement.”

At no point does he attempt to feign humility, which is merciful given the self-regard that tints practically every topic he touches. “You have to understand, this expedition was to document my ascent,” he says when the accusations of egotism are put to him. “There was no intent for it to be about anything or anyone else. Ever.” On the envy others feel toward his accomplishments: “I knew people who said they were hoping I didn’t ascend [Everest] because virtually everything that I try, I’m able to do.” On his powers as a climber: “I do my training by myself, and you know why? I don’t like people to slow me down.” On being alone: “I don’t need other people to make me feel complete.” On the bruised feelings of his climbing mates: “Look, this wasn’t a friendship centre. This was a business.”

That last argument, while crudely stated, sits at the heart of Smith’s self-defence. As he tells it, his Napoleonic behaviour during the trip was partly an outgrowth of his personality (“I’m not the greatest team player”), partly a way of letting everyone on his team know where they stood (“We’re here to do a job and everybody has their duties and responsibilities”). But a wise man would have treaded softer. By the week of the team’s big summit push, his partner Rippel had contracted a nasty cough and seemed more irritable than ever toward his expedition leader. He was so slow to reach Camp Four, the last stop before the summit, that Smith later said it was clear his partner would be unable to reach the top. For Rippel, that realization would be crushing. He had been on four previous Everest expeditions yet never summited, and now, once again, the credit all Himalayan guides should have on their resumé was slipping from his grasp.

On May 20, when the team left Camp Four for the final leg of the climb at 10:30 p.m., the snow was deep and winds were picking up. According to numerous accounts, including those of Smith’s Sherpas, Smith was moving quickly while Rippel lagged badly. He was carrying one of the team’s two video cameras inside his jacket, and the act of unzipping and zipping up to use the device had badly chilled him. By the time Smith reached the Balcony, a rocky platform located 1,400 feet above Camp Four, Rippel had already radioed to advise he’d turned back. “Good luck,” he told the others from his tent back in Camp Four, while the rest of the group—Smith and seven Sherpas—pressed on. Shortly after sunrise, they reached a penultimate peak called the South Summit, where they waited for Michael Down, a Canadian climber on another expedition. Smith had hoped to proceed to the top with Down, an accomplished mountaineer from Vancouver. But the British Columbian had a malfunctioning oxygen regulator so he, too, was forced to turn back (he would reach the summit a few days later).

The departure of Down would prove pivotal, because it left Smith with no one but people he happened to be paying to back his word. Not that Down has left Smith dangling. In affidavits and interviews, he has said he descended some distance, then turned back to see Smith just below the Hillary Step—a rock face just 45 minutes’ climb from the peak. The group was moving quickly, he says emphatically, and Byron looked particularly strong. “I’ve no reason to think they wouldn’t have made it,” he told Maclean’s in a detailed interview, in which he provided clear and concise recollections of the morning. As for the Sherpas, six have since sworn affidavits confirming that Smith reached the top (the seventh and most experienced, Lhakpa Tsering, died of liver disease in late 2004). One Sherpa named Ang Dorjee, a formidable climber who had summited Everest five times before the expedition, says in his affidavit that Smith arrived 15 minutes behind him on May 21. Mingma Tenji, who was 22 at the time, recalls watching Smith crouch on the peak in a sledgehammer wind, weeping with joy at his accomplishment. “It was kind of funny,” he explains in an interview. “A lot of Sherpas summit, and for them it’s really no big deal. But yes, Byron summited. I was there. It’s very true.”

Why these accounts should carry any less weight than the word of Rippel and Webster isn’t clear. And it must be said that the answers to date bear an undertone of racism. Some critics have suggested the Sherpas feel beholden to a former employer, or were paid extra money to gild the truth. Others note that Smith agreed to pay for the education of one of Lhakpa’s sons after the Sherpa died, and say co-operation from the rest of the crew on the summit story may have been some sort of quid pro quo. Still others point out that Smith also wrote a letter to help Mingma Tenji obtain a visa to Canada, which is seen as an enormous favour.

Mingma, who lives in Calgary as his refugee claim awaits final review, bristles at the visa theory, noting that he twice got into the United States before coming to Canada, and could easily have gone there instead. Sherpas, he added, have a financial interest in maintaining credibility: “This is our livelihood,” he says simply. “We don’t lie.”

Smith, for his part, scoffs at the idea that he bought off the Sherpas—in any manner. “How much money would I need to keep seven Sherpas from letting that slip for six years? I mean, the whole idea is ridiculous. One of them would drink too much chang [a milk-based wine] one night and spill the beans.”

Still, the Sherpas have been caught up in the tempting narrative of a disliked man getting his comeuppance, of an interloper exposed as a fraud by the purists. Initially, this narrative was fed by rumour and conjecture: copies of Hawley’s notes filed in court show Rippel paid her a visit in March 2001 offering little more than the question of whether Smith could have reached the summit when he said he did, then returned to Camp Four by 10:30 a.m., where he rejoined Rippel. Webster’s complaint was based on rumours traded between his own Sherpas and those in Smith’s camp. But the innuendo has morphed into a conspiracy theory, and like all such theories, it hangs on the titillating idea of an elaborate plot. Smith would not only have had to secure the Sherpas’ co-operation, he would have had to fake his radio call to base camp, then stage a show of jubilation, starring an ensemble cast of Sherpas, for anyone he met on his descent. Michael Down, for example, encountered the entire group on its way back to Camp Four, and describes a still-emotional Smith breaking down in tears. “You don’t fake that on the Balcony at 27,000 feet,” he says.

But what really gave the story legs was a glaring and inconceivable omission on Smith’s part: he failed to get a photograph of himself on the peak. Not that the party lacked for cameras. While Rippel had taken the first of two video cameras back to Camp Four, Smith carried the second one in his backpack, yet never took it out. It was far too windy, he says, to obtain tape, never mind perform a live TV broadcast, as planned. At least three members of the party, including the leader, had still cameras in their jackets. Lhakpa was carrying a still camera, but it failed, says Smith, while his own—a Leica 35mm—seized up due to cold just after he left the South Summit. Ang Dorjee says in his affidavit that he took photos, including one of Smith, but has not been able find a print or negative showing his expedition leader. Copies obtained by Maclean’s show the peaks of surrounding mountains behind the Sherpas; Smith, according to members of the summit party, was doing his audio broadcast at the time and is just left of the frame (see photo below).

Understanding the scope of this oversight means remembering Smith’s stated intent to document his own ascent. It also requires a sense of how obsessively he chronicles his own exploits—his me-first approach to the Newsworld broadcasts being just one example. Back in Vulcan, he leads the way to an office just off his living room and opens a cupboard to reveal an astonishing collection—literally thousands—of slides, prints and videotapes of past expeditions, including the one to Everest. Cracking one of these albums on his desk, Smith pushes an eyepiece over a darkened slide he says was his last exposure from the Leica. It is taken near the South Summit, and in it are the barely distinguishable forms of Ang Dorjee, Lhakpa Tsering and Mingma Tenji. The rest of the film, he says, came out black.

And so the conundrum: while several Sherpas, including Ang Dorjee and Mingma, have photos of themselves on the top, no one on the expedition has found one showing Smith. He has hunted high and low. In 2001, desperate and angry over rumours that had begun circulating, he went to Kathmandu hoping to find one among his former Sherpas. But he came up empty. You could call it misfortune, or the kind of snafu that plagues high-altitude missions in hostile weather. But it seems exceedingly odd for a man who had just reached his fondest goal—one who is famously devoted to his own image—not to have that all-important picture proving his achievement.

The keeper of all Himalayan climbing records evidently thought so. At 83, Elizabeth Hawley is a journalist, an alpine historian, and a living-legend to whom all climbers pay fealty on their way through Kathmandu. Since she arrived in Nepal as a young wire service reporter in i960, she has amassed in her wooden filing cabinets an extensive and unique set of records documenting climbs on the great Himalayan peaks dating back to the Kennedy years: Everest, K2, Amadablam, Pumori and the Annapurnas—a treasure trove the American Alpine Club finally put into a database two years ago so it wouldn’t be lost. Hawley is famously gruff. She once shamed Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s premier high-altitude mountaineers, into reclimbing a peak the American had in fact scaled because she wasn’t satisfied with his evidence. But she has also garnered respect among climbers, especially Canadians, who venerate her unflinching resolve in the face of mountaineering’s greatest egos. “As grumpy and cantankerous as Liz can be,” says Francis Kalatzel, a longtime friend, “she is impeccably honest.”

At first, Hawley seemed open to the idea that Rippel and Webster might have led her astray. After hearing out Smith’s protests, and considering accounts of Sherpas who said they had seen him on the mountain, she sent off a message that raised the Albertan’s hopes. “I now have no real doubt about [your summit] myself,” she wrote in a letter dated Aug. 16, 2001. “I am sorry that this question arose at all.” But the matter of the missing photo hung in the air, and the “disputed” designation never disappeared from Smith’s file. In the meantime, accounts of his behaviour began to circulate that further stained Smith’s reputation among fellow climbers. In 2003, mountaineers around the world were infuriated by a story Smith published on Everestnews.com detailing how he evaded authorities in New Guinea to climb Carstensz Pyramid, one of the so-called “seven summits” coveted by globe-trotting climbers. The Indonesian government had been tightly controlling visits to the area because it was trying to mute publicity surrounding a controversial mining operation at the foot of the mountain. Others had sneaked in without permission before Smith. But his Indiana Jones-style account of bribing army officials and smuggling himself past checkpoints was said to have prompted Jakarta to cancel all climbing permits on the mountain. One venerable Spanish mountaineer, Ramón Blanco, claimed he was stopped en route to base camp by officials wielding a full copy of Smith’s 18-page story.

Then, two years later, Smith’s critics discovered a video image on his personal website whose caption seemed to suggest it showed him on the summit of Everest. “Byron Smith Successful Summit, May 21, 2000—'I can’t go any higher,’ ” it read. Editors of the popular site ExplorersWeb.com accused Smith of fraudulently misrepresenting footage that actually showed a Danish climber named Mads Granlien on the summit in May 2000. They backgrounded the story with what they termed “Byron Smith’s bad reputation”—the contracts containing gag orders; the challenge to his summit claim; his threats of lawsuits to those who questioned his integrity. “Mount Everest’s ultimate test is the trial of oneself as a man,” the piece concluded. “Should he ever be able to prove his summit, Byron will still have failed.”

Smith responds to these attacks with shrugs—and with rage. The video issue was an oversight, he says evenly, which he corrected by inserting a disclaimer to his homepage to make it clear that summit images may not actually show him. He had purchased the footage from a Danish expedition for US$4,000, he says, so viewers could at least have an image of Everest at the summit. But the Carstensz Pyramid charges send him into a slow burn. “Absolute bullshit,” he fumes, growing angrier as he considers the issue. “Was it illegal for me to go climb it? You better believe it. Is it ever legal to go climb that mountain? Who ever knows? Am I the only one who’s ever gone and done that?” By the end of the diatribe, he is shouting. “Absolute bullshit! It’s been done many, many times!”

Maybe, but these disputes have served to irk precisely the critics Smith needs to win over, and to whom Hawley is closely connected. This group is often referred to as the “climbing community”—a shorthand label for the loose clique of alpine types around the globe who share stories, climbing advice and gossip online. The Canadian arm is generally understood to revolve around alpine clubs based in Calgary, Canmore and Vancouver, where serious ice climbers and mountaineers rub shoulders. Wrobleski, Rippel, Michael Down and Geoff Powter all belong. So does Pat Morrow, Canada’s second man on Everest and a long-time critic of Smith’s. Smith does not, which you can guess by reading the broadsides against him on sites like Live-the-vision.com, where members trade news. “Maybe if I say I believe him,” said one chat-room participant in a recent thread about Smith’s lawsuit, “I’ll get a good deal on a new truck.”

Smith does, however, have one important advocate—a man with enough pull in the climbing community to make others take notice. Laurie Skreslet is the first Canadian to summit Mount Everest; he reached the peak just ahead of Morrow in 1982. And while he has a reputation for eccentricity, the 56-year-old also possesses the guileless modesty Smith so desperately lacks. His argument for Smith is framed in the tenets of Tibetan spiritualism, which friends say is something of a Skreslet refrain. “There are seven fatal flaws and we all have one,” he explains over coffee in his cabin near Cochrane, Alta. “Byron’s flaw is arrogance. I’ve warned him about it in the past, and I fear it’s come back to haunt him.” Skreslet admits he is driven by a kind of paternal loyalty toward Smith. The two climb together from time to time and Skreslet regards Smith as a “young soul” learning his life lessons. But on the question of honesty, he’s unequivocal. “I don’t believe for one moment that Byron would lie,” he says. “He certainly wouldn’t lie about going to the summit of Mount Everest.”

So last spring, Skreslet played the one card he could for Smith: he appealed directly to Hawley. He and Morrow were in Nepal with a CBC crew retracing his steps into base camp as part of a 25th anniversary documentary celebrating the 1982 expedition. Hawley was glad to see them, Skreslet recalls, but she darkened at the mention of Smith’s name. “There was no room whatsoever for any objectivity or clarity,” he says, shaking his head. “She said, ‘if you pay for the education of someone’s children, they’ll do anything for you.’ I said, ‘Liz, five years, seven people,’ but she just kind of dismissed it.”

Hawley’s response in this account is both intriguing and important, because it contradicts one of the American Alpine Club’s key defences—that neither it nor Hawley has passed judgment on the evidence against Smith. Mark Macy, the club’s lawyer, says his clients have merely documented objections registered by other climbers, and Hawley concurs. “We do not say he failed to reach the summit,” she says from Kathmandu. “But we do say this has been disputed.” And yet, by Skreslet’s recollection, here was Hawley saying she believed Smith’s critics. If the veteran mountaineer’s memory of the conversation is accurate, she has no inclination whatever to restore Smith from purgatory.

Was she influenced by the more recent attacks on Smith’s character? By Hawley’s own admission, yes. She says she was particularly struck by the appearance of the Danish video on his website, asking dryly, “How much integrity is there in doing that?” But on the strict matter of the claims against Smith, there is no new evidence, Hawley acknowledges. Which raises a host of questions the Albertan might ask should the case proceed to court. What recourse is there for a climber whose reputation has been damaged in the event of a dispute? Where is the due process? What, for that matter, is Hawley’s standard of proof of a summit? “There is none,” snaps Smith, “and it’s ridiculous.”

The epilogue to the ill-fated Everest 2000 expedition is a tragedy—one whose shadow lies over the expedition and, while he might not know it, over Smith. It began a couple of days after the summit party returned to base camp, and Mingma Tenji was led to a hollow below the expedition’s tents. There, under a blue tarp, lay the body of a Nepalese porter who had fallen ill the night before. Few had seen the man, a non-Sherpa whom Mingma figured to be in his mid-fifties. Those who did failed to understand the gravity of his condition. He is believed to have died of pulmonary or cerebral edema, an accumulation of water on the lungs or brain brought on by altitude exposure. Robinson, the Hamilton doctor, was gone by then. So Sherpas from several expeditions, including Mingma, took command of the scene, snapping pictures of the corpse in case the police wished to investigate and re-swaddling it for transport. Then, in keeping with local practice, they hoisted the man onto a yak, picked their way across the glacier, and buried him in the Khumbu moraine.

A wrenching scene would follow. Two days after Mingma left base camp, at an airstrip in a village called Chyangboche, the dead man’s widow and stepdaughter confronted a handful of Smith’s team members. “They were crying and asking for money,” recalls Mingma, who saw the women on the runway. “It was very sad.” Traditionally, Western expeditions offer financial assistance to the families of local workers who die on the job. But Smith had flown to Kathmandu the previous day, while Rippel—the ranking member still trekking with the team—had no control over finances. To complicate matters, the man had transported supplies for three different expeditions. So even if the widow was within her rights, which contingent should pay, and how much?

Smith, for his part, gives a puzzled look when asked about the widow. He agrees in principle with the idea of ponying up in such circumstances, yet claims no one ever raised the matter with him. If so, he must be the only one. The story arises again and again in conversations about Smith, among Canadian critics who refer to it as evidence of his me-first attitude, or the venality of modern expeditions. The rap is probably undeserved: Mingma Tenji says the Nepalese company that provided Smith with Sherpas, Asian Trekking, did give the woman an undisclosed amount of cash and she seemed satisfied. And while Smith might not be the most generous benefactor to the Khumbu country, he is not the most parsimonious, either. In addition to sharing with Pat Morrow the cost of educating the late Lhakpa Tsering’s sons, he is active in the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation, which raises money to improve life in the highlands below Everest.

The irony, of course, is that any money Smith sent to the widow would invite more accusations that he’s attempting to buy the co-operation of Sherpas on the expedition. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he says, and it is the first sign that the quixotic climber is learning. Smith long ago entered a realm of zero-sum gains—where the word of seven reputable Sherpas, the judgment of a respected Canadian climber and the support of a renowned mountaineer are not enough to clear his name. He may press on with his legal battle. He may even win. But by now even Smith should see that his story illustrates the enduring paradox of Mount Everest: that the quest for the world’s loftiest height causes so many to sink so low.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 
Filed under:

Sign in to comment.