As night fell over Mount Everest May 10, 1996, the deadliest storm in the mountain's history roared in to take the lives of five climbers near the summit of the world's tallest peak. Almost 12 years to the day later, a new documentary, "Storm Over Everest," set to air tonight on PBS's "Frontline," recounts the horrifying tragedy and chronicles for the first time the revelations of climber Sandy Hill, who was characterized in the media at the time as a spoiled, cappuccino-machine-toting socialite.
"It left a lasting impression on me," said David Breashears, the documentary's Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who was at an Everest camp that night in 1996 shooting an IMAX movie. "Not only because of the fact that good friends were up there and a couple of them died in the storm, but also because when you were down lower on the mountain as we were, to watch that storm just come sweeping up and encompass the mountain, and to hear that wind through the night, it was just a fearsome roar. It was just so unnerving because it was dark and snowing, and it was loud up high. We could tell it was terrible conditions. We knew that people were out in those conditions, but we didn't think it was possible to survive."
Throughout the night, exhausted, oxygen-starved climbers struggled to overcome 80-mile-per-hour winds and minus-35 degree temperatures to descend to the safety of the lower camps.
"Things were not good," Breashears said. "And we didn't hear from anyone until the morning. All through the night we just thought they'd make it back to the camp. These are talented, strong mountaineers. And when we woke up, we were in disbelief. It just couldn't be happening."
The incident was famously chronicled by climber Jon Krakauer in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air." Breashears' new documentary includes interviews with climbers and sherpas, some of whom have never spoken before on American television.
Although Krakauer never got Sandy Hill to speak, in his documentary, Breashears did. Hill, a survivor who wrote a story for Vogue magazine about her experience but has not granted interviews until now, was roundly criticized after the incident and characterized as a spoiled socialite, although she does not speak to this characterization in the film.
"Other people, when they have, when their life is at a difficult spot, turn to drugs or drink or credit cards," she told Breashears. "I go to the mountains. That's always worked for me."
She described her feelings as she ascended Everest.
"When you leave Camp Three on the Lhotse Face, it's the first time that you can actually see the summit. Your goal is visible. And that's very thrilling. What blind faith it's been this whole time climbing this far without having your goal in front of you."
When Hill's team left Camp Three, she immediately noticed the effects of the altitude.
"This was the first time that I remember registering the air is much, much thinner here than anywhere else I've ever been."
Later, as the climb progressed, Hill worried that her team might be behind schedule even before they had departed from Camp Four, the highest camp on the mountain. And by the time the team had reached the summit and started their descent, they had missed their intended turn-around time and the weather had started to deteriorate. Hill's group was almost able to make it back down to their camp despite the storm, but got lost on the South Col, a vast, expansive flat with steep drop-offs on either side.