By Claudia Glenn Dowling
May 14, 2001 12:00 PM

The sky was a glorious cobalt blue on the morning of May 10, 1996, but David Breashears watched with trepidation as some 35 climbers from several expeditions snaked their way toward the top of the world. Breashears was making an IMAX documentary about Mount Everest, and he had planned to go to the summit that day in what could be his only window of clear weather. But he decided against it, thinking, “There are too many people up here, people whose skills I can’t trust.” It was the right call. By afternoon, 24 climbers had reached Everest’s 29,028-ft. summit. Then came the storm. When Breashears finally made the ascent nearly two weeks later, he grieved over the frozen corpses of two friends who had led that procession up the mountain.

Five years ago this week, on one terrible day, eight people were killed on Everest. And for the survivors, as well as the loved ones of those who died, the drama has never really ended. The arguments over responsibility continue, as do the sales of books—more than a dozen so far—that deal with the tragedy. Some of the participants have grown rich and famous, others bitter and withdrawn, but all were changed forever by one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

“If a Hollywood scriptwriter wrote the scenario, people would have scoffed at it,” says Breashears, 45, who has five other movies about Everest to his credit, along with three books and four trips to the summit. “That cast of characters!” Ranging from a postal worker to a socialite, the group seemed too perfectly diverse, their backgrounds too intricately entwined. Breashears was an old acquaintance of the main players, expedition leaders Rob Hall, 35, a New Zealander, and Scott Fischer, 40, of Seattle. Both were top-notch mountaineers, guiding clients who had paid as much as $65,000 each to cover costs of permits, camps, food, oxygen and Sherpa porters. Breashears knew two of Hall and Fischer’s clients as well. He had gone rock climbing with author Jon Krakauer, now 47, whose Into Thin Air would become the first and most successful of the post-disaster books, ironically, Krakauer had joined Hall’s team to do a story for Outside magazine about whether big-ticket expeditions were making Everest into a cushy pay-per-view experience. One focus of Krakauer’s reporting was Sandy Hill Pittman, now 46, a stylish Manhattanite. Breashears had climbed with Pittman on Everest before, and his ex-wife, Véronique Choa, is now married to Pittman’s ex-husband, Robert Pittman, the co-chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, PEOPLE’S parent company.

As the string of climbers began to descend that afternoon, a blizzard slammed into Everest’s upper slopes. Many of the climbers made it back to camp, but a few were caught near the peak and a dozen huddled on the South Col at 26,000 ft. As 70-mph gusts lashed the mountain, the temperature plunged to-35°, with triple-digit windchills. Visibility was nil—and nearby was a sheer drop of 7,000 ft. “I was aware that the situation was one of grave danger, but I was unwilling to accept that I was going [to die],” recalls Colorado engineer Neal Beidleman, 41. He and some of the stronger climbers finally found their way to camp, sending help back to those unable to walk.

But there was nothing anyone could do for Hall. He had stayed near the top to try to help his client Doug Hansen, a postal worker from Renton, Wash. Now Hansen was dead, and Hall was weakening. The film team could only listen as Hall was patched through to his pregnant wife in New Zealand on a satellite phone. The couple had climbed Everest together three years before, and Jan Arnold, now 40 and a doctor in Christchurch, knew her husband had no hope. They agreed to name their baby Sarah, and Hall signed off: “Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.”

Awakening after a night in a hypothermic coma to find himself left for dead on the South Col, blind from the effects of altitude on his surgically corrected eyesight, Dallas pathologist Beck Weathers, now 54, was thinking of his wife and children too. Their image drove him to his feet. He knew, he says, “the cavalry was not coming.” In late afternoon he finally staggered, stiff-armed, into camp. Everyone stared in shock: They had already notified his wife, Peach, that he was dead. Climbers swaddled him in sleeping bags and put him in Fischer’s tent. Fischer wouldn’t be needing it. Like Hall, he had been caught too high on the mountain and perished. But the next day Weathers was joking that though the trip was supposed to cost an arm and a leg, he’d gotten a bargain—his legs were fine. As Breashears and his crew guided Weathers, still blind, down to a risky helicopter rescue, Weathers suggested they join in song. “Okay, Beck, what do you want to sing?” asked Breashears. Replied Weathers: “How about ‘Chain of Fools’?”

By the time he got home four days later, Weathers’s sight had returned, but doctors had to amputate his frostbitten right arm below the elbow. He also lost his nose, as well as fingers on his left hand. And though he hadn’t realized it, his wife, distressed by his climbing absences and frequent depressions, was contemplating divorce. But “Weathers got a new nose made of a piece of rib, cartilage from his ears and skin from his neck. He got a new life too. His near-death experience led to a reconciliation with Peach, 51. He has now abandoned climbing’s adrenaline rush for simpler pleasures, like watching videos with his kids Beck II, 22, and Meg, 18, when they’re home from college. “The last five years have been the most compelling of my existence,” he says, adding, “I have not been depressed since I got back.”

The disaster’s aftermath also held challenges for Sandy Hill, as she now calls herself. Although she had become only the second American woman to ascend the highest peaks on every continent, Hill was widely trashed as a spoiled publicity seeker who had to be hauled partway to the top of Everest. She later escaped to London with former futures trader Thomas Dittmer, 59, then last year took over actor James Garner’s 350-acre vineyard near Los Olivos, Calif., across a ridge from Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Hill and Dittmer were married last month, celebrating with 400 guests. “She’s getting this behind her,” reports Breashears, who was in Kathmandu at the time for an anniversary get-together with the Sherpas on his film crew. “She’s happy.”

Breashears’s story has a happy ending too, though he admits to ambivalence. Thirteen days after the disaster, he went to the summit to finish shooting Everest, which would gross more than $100 million. “We had, very sadly, a successful film due to a tragedy,” he says. Breashears climbed the mountain again in 1997 to make Everest: The Death Zone, a Nova documentary, with producer Liesl Clark, 35, now his girlfriend. He also shot surreptitious footage in Tibet for Brad Pitt‘s Seven Years in Tibet. And he is currently making another IMAX film in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro: Mountain of Many Faces.

Another success story is Krakauer, whose Into Thin Air remains a bestseller. But the price has been heavy. A retiring man, Krakauer found himself at the center of controversy—berated for contending that Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev was unable to properly care for clients since he was climbing without oxygen; lambasted for not aiding others himself. Although he had been too incapacitated to help, the criticism shook him deeply. “I went for the wrong reasons,” he told schoolchildren in 1999. “I wish I’d never gone.” Krakauer, who lives in Boulder, Colo., with Linda Moore, 45, his wife of 20 years, refuses to discuss the matter further. But he has not lost his love for the Himalayas: With $500,000 from his book profits, Krakauer established the Everest ’96 Memorial Fund, which, among other things, aids the region’s residents.

Nor has he given up climbing. Krakauer occasionally hits the heights with Beidleman, who lives in nearby Aspen. A designer of climbing gear and other products, Beidleman says wife Amy, 44, and their two children, born since ’96, lend him perspective. “If I start thinking about the people who didn’t make it back, their family and friends,” he says, “that’s really hard.”

The widows of Hall and Fischer, meanwhile, are raising their children without fathers. Sarah Arnold Hall, 4, was born two months after Hall’s death. “I hope she’ll be proud of him,” Arnold said when it was announced that her husband had won the New Zealand Bravery Star posthumously. “The way you die is as critical as the way you live.” Former airline pilot Jeannie Price—now living at her sister’s house in Bellevue, Wash., with son Andy, 13, and daughter Katie Rose, 10—found telling her children their father was dead the most difficult thing she had ever done. But like Arnold, Price, 46, knew the hazards of a climber’s life. “I would feel cheated if Scott had been killed in a car crash,” she said after Fischer’s memorial service. “He deserved to die on Mount Everest.”

Climbers continue to die there every year—19 since 1996—but that doesn’t keep the crowds away. This season, the number of people who have summitted since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first did so in 1953 will likely break 1,400. In fact, the mountain’s enhanced reputation as a killer may be part of the attraction. “Bragging rights have grown immensely,” says Breashears. He and a few friends have formed a group called Everest Anonymous, he jokes grimly; if one feels the tug of the mountain, he lets the others talk him out of it. The punishment for returning is to write “I will not climb Everest ever again” 29,028 times. But plenty of adventurers are eager to take on the highest mountain in the world. Because it is still there.

Claudia Glenn Dowling

Ron Arias in Los Angeles, Vickie Bane in Aspen and Ellise Pierce in Dallas