Everest Guides Cited for Heroism

Todd Burleson
Anatoli Boukreev, Pete Athans and Todd Burleson are singled out for their South Col rescue efforts during the 1996 Everest Tragedy
Friday, December 12, 1997

High altitude guides Pete Athans, Todd Burleson and Anatoli Boukreev were named recipients of the American Alpine Club's highest award for valor at its annual meeting last weekend in Seattle, WA. The David A. Sowles award was granted to each of the three world-renowned guides for separate incidents in the wake of the May 10, 1996 tragedy on the upper slopes of Mount Everest.

A committee chaired by Jim Wickwire, and including Bill Putnam and Jed Williamson, editor of the popular annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering, determined the actions taken by the three climbers warranted the club's highest award.

According to American Alpine Club bylaws, The David A. Sowles award is given only to climbers who have "distinguished themselves, with unselfish devotion at personal risk or at sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers." It has been conferred only nine times in the past 16 years, and was last granted in 1994 to Ed Viesturs and Ed Webster for separate incidents, one on K2 and another in Nepal.

"All three of this year's recipients are professional mountain guides," said Jim Wickwire, "and as such had to meet an even higher standard for this rare award. And while a number of people acted heroically during the highly publicized Everest tragedy, these three climbers can be justifiably singled out for recognition. Without their direct and forceful action, there almost certainly would have been four more fatalities in that tragedy."

Burleson and Athans received the award for their "willingness to abandon their own summit attempt," and for their "rapid climb to the South Col, where they administered life-saving treatment to the exhausted and horribly frostbitten Beck Weathers." The climbers were further cited for safeguarding Weathers' descent down the upper Lhotse Face, where Ed Viesturs and Dave Breashears of the Everest IMAX team took over the evacuation.

"I appreciate the recognition," Burleson said from his Alpine Ascents International offices in Seattle, "but I don't see our actions as heroic. We go to climb the mountain, and once we're there, we do what has to be done. If it means turning around to help climbers in trouble, then that's what we do."

Boukreev received the award for his "repeated, extraordinary efforts in searching for, then saving the lives of, three exhausted teammates trapped by a storm on the South Col of Mount Everest." Boukreev was further cited for his "valiant attempt, at great personal risk, in going out into the renewed storm in one last-ditch effort to save his friend and expedition leader Scott Fischer."

"I am pleased and honored that my efforts to help the others have been recognized," said Boukreev before leaving for a winter attempt on Annapurna, "and I feel like the American Alpine Club has gone to great effort to understand a man from another culture." [Editor's note: Boukreev was killed a month later on Annapurna. Click for the full story.]

Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff

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