The Marketing Of A Disaster On Mt. Everest

A lot of money is being made off a tragedy that killed eight people

The moment TV-movie producer Bernie Sofronski read about the May, 1996, Mt. Everest freak storm that killed eight people near the summit in one day, he saw a movie in it. He wasn't the only one. He says that within weeks, 7 of the 17 surviving participants in the ill-fated expedition had contacted him trying to sell their stories.

Sofronski wound up buying film rights from three climbers. And by this May, Sofronski was in Austria to shoot Death on Everest. "From the moment this tragedy happened, everyone involved has been fishing around, trying to make money off it," he admits.

Americans seem to have a huge appetite for tales of the 1996 tragedy that is creating a bonanza for those who survived. Freelance writer Jon Krakauer's chilling eyewitness account of the debacle, Into Thin Air, released May 1, sold 320,000 copies in its first 23 days on the market. Two more books and two movies will soon offer even more details about the expedition.

The media blizzard began almost immediately after two veteran guides and six clients died in a storm near the peak of Everest on May 10, 1996. Socialite Sandy Hill's online accounts of the trip and the tale of adventure writer Krakauer, who had been commissioned by Outside magazine to chronicle the trip, quickly turned the disaster into a macabre phenomenon.

Villard Books, a division of Random House, rushed Krakauer's book to press in time for this year's climbing season. Krakauer is now on a 30-city promotional trek complete with slides. "People came to see the car wreck," says Andrew Burns, an Atlanta teacher and novice climber who went to a Krakauer show. Krakauer declined to comment.

MORE FILMS. Close behind Krakauer on the mountain last year was David Breashears. He stopped filming a movie to help fellow climbers, and now his film is to be released next spring. Meanwhile, TriStar Television will air Death on Everest during the November sweeps week on ABC. And Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on another Everest expedition, is finishing The Climb, a book on his efforts to save climbers during the storm.

The interest in Everest sagas has surprised even adventure-travel pros. "This year, 40,000 people hit our Web site during the week our group summited," says Gordon Janow, whose company has been guiding trips up Everest since 1992.

Given the public's fascination with Everest, it is doubtful those numbers have peaked.