North-East climber Graham Ratcliffe was camped on Everest the night of its worst disaster in 1996 when eight people died. He tells Steve Pratt, that after five years of research, he’s revealing the untold story in a new book.

AS the storm raged outside on Everest, North-East climber Graham Ratcliffe was huddled in his tent at 26,000ft. Only the next day did the full horror of the night become apparent.

Everest’s worst disaster had left eight climbers dead.

He worried that he could have done something to help and wondered why there was no warning about the storm that engulfed the climbers. He has spent five often-frustrating years searching for the answers, trying to piece together events leading to the disaster.

Feelings of guilt turned to regret that not all the facts were made known, or even sought, in the aftermath. “The press landed on the event in huge numbers because it was Everest. It was a colossal disaster, high-paying clients had died; Rob Hall was on the phone to his pregnant wife in New Zealand when he was dying.

“It was a goldmine for the press and they never questioned anything. I’m not saying anyone necessarily deceived anyone, but they did not move to make clear what had happened.”

Former Barnard Castle School pupil Ratcliffe was the first British climber to reach the summit of Everest twice – once from the north, and again from the south – but is closer to home now, in a house in Whitley Bay, and recalling that night 15 years ago on the eve of publication of A Day To Die For. His book charts his five-year quest for the truth to reveal “the untold true story” of Everest’s worst disaster.

What emerges is a tale of mistakes and wrong decisions taken as two professionallyled parties of high-paying clients attempted to reach the summit against a storm warning.

Ratcliffe himself had been asked by the other team leaders to delay his own attempt on the summit by a day to allow them to go first.

The key, for him, were weather reports received by teams on the mountain, which also include a documentary film crew. He attempted to discover who had received the forecasts.

Some of his emails and queries went unanswered, records had been destroyed or lost. But he gathered evidence to establish the storm was predicted.

The disaster on the world’s highest mountain has been the subject of a bestselling book, Into Thin Air, and the Imax film Everest, which covered aspects of the 1996 disaster. But Ratcliffe digs deeper to reveal events leading to the deaths.

“When I started out, the intention wasn’t to write a book, it was to find out what had gone on because, clearly from my perspective, things didn’t add up from my own experiences at the time,” he explains “So it was more looking for answers and reached a point where I couldn’t actually find what I was looking for. I had snippets but that’s all it was. I said I’m going to write down what I’ve got, memories or whatever, just put it down on paper, and if that’s all it ever is, fine.

“While I was doing that I found the one lead, if you like, which opened the whole thing.

Clearly there was something there that should have been made public more than a decade earlier.

At that point it became a book.”

Researching the book helped him come to terms with his own emotional response to the disaster, although he admits it was difficult with very little to start with but intuition.

“My feelings changed. At first it felt like guilt, but only until I knew the facts could I realise it was never our fault. We couldn’t have done any more than we did. But others I’ve spoken to deeply regret not being able to help as well,” he says.

“For us to understand what went wrong was impossible when we only had half the picture.”

RELIVING events was no more upsetting, he feels, than not knowing what had happened.

“It wasn’t until 2009, only 18 months ago, when I’m actually writing and I had an epiphany sitting there,” he says. “I’d always thought the victims were those who were hurt, injured, killed. People who were thereabouts, I didn’t class as victims. Then the penny dropped, I was searching for answers – anyone not injured but affected by it is in some ways a victim.

“People have said to me ‘Graham you’re obsessed’.

I never questioned why I felt like that.

Knowing the whole story has answered a lot of the feelings I’ve had and hadn’t understood.”

While the book exorcised the particular ghosts around the Everest deaths, he believes readers will connect with other disasters where they have been witnesses.

“I’m sure it will mean things to other people not connected with the story at all and ring a bell with them. And I’m sure they’d also say the overwhelming thing is to know, beyond anything else, what happened and why it happened,”

he says.

He’s prepared for varied reactions to the book. “Some are going to be quite positive and some quite aggressive,” he says. “I don’t know how to put it, but I’ll not be a saint in everyone’s eyes for writing it. I’ve accepted that. I have no regrets in writing it and think it was the right thing to do. Equally, I’ve tried to give a balance view.

“My agent said, ‘Graham, put the story out there and leave the difficult questions to other people.’ Those are very wise words. Otherwise I don’t want to become embroiled in things like that. I’ve reached my final stage in the journey which is getting the answers I’ve been looking for.”

He and his wife are living in France, although he’s looking to buy a property in the UK, possibly in his native North-East. He still climbs in the Alps now and then.

“I’m 56 in April and have to start being sensible and not try to recapture what I did 15 or 16 years ago. There are lots of things I want to do. My wife has been very patient for five years and I’m sure there are lots of places to explore together.”

* A Day To Die For, Mainstream Publishing, £11.99./