Legendary Letter Carriers - Doug Hansen, the "Mailman" who Conquered Everest
Introducing Legendary Letter Carriers
This article is the first in a hopefully well populated series about letter carriers, or postal workers in general, who have achieved notoriety in the media for doing something positive, something beneficial or inspirational for humanity. You won't find any Postal spree killers here, if that is what you are looking for. In creating this series I will be applying the term "letter carrier" loosely, broadly, and liberally. Any postal worker who has ever, in an official capacity, carried letters to and from one point to another; including clerks, mail handlers, machine operators, postal maintenance men, or actual letter carriers, is qualified to appear here after carrying out a noteworthy deed.
Meet Doug Hansen
I picked Doug Hansen for this maiden voyage of Legendary Letter Carriers after seeing him depicted in the recent movie Everest, the story of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest that killed 8 climbers, one of whom was Doug. In the movie Doug Hansen is identified as a mailman, but I believe this is just a case of Hollywood rewriting the script because, among postal employees, everyone knows that mailmen are by far the most handsome, charming, and charismatic. After reading the book "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, however, I have concluded that Hansen was probably a mail handler or ran a sorting machine. It is mentioned in the book that, in order to build a nest egg to finance the Everest climb, Doug worked the night shift and did construction jobs by day. Actual letter carriers, the postal employees you would identify as your neighborhood "mailmen," do not work night shifts. Finding any specific details on the Internet about Doug's pre-Everest life has been extremely difficult, however, as he seems to have vanished into semi obscurity. He was divorced, as is made plain in the movie, he had two children and a girlfriend he was seriously involved with at the time of his death, but other than this details about his life are sketchy. Perhaps the "Everest" film will help to resurrect his memory, and I hope to also do my humble part here. At any rate, if you are a postal worker who knew or worked with Doug, please supplement this article by providing additional information in the comments below.
In his book "Into Thin Air," written about his personal experience as a part of the ill fated 1996 Adventure Consultants Everest Expedition, author Jon Krakauer describes his own impressions of Doug Hansen, who became his closest friend among the members of the group.
...I didn't have much in common with any of my teammates except Doug. A wiry, hard partying man with a prematurely weathered face that brought to mind an old football, he'd been a postal worker for more than twenty-seven years...Because I'd earned my living as a carpenter for eight years before becoming a writer-and because the tax bracket we shared set us conspicuously apart from the other clients-I already felt comfortable around Doug in a way I didn't with the others.— Jon Krakauer - Into Thin Air
Read More About the 1996 Everest Disaster, as told by a Survivor
1996 Adventure Consultants Expedition
Doug Hansen's first attempt on Mt. Everest came in 1995, as part of an expedition led by an accomplished New Zealand climber Rob Hall, who formed a company called "Adventure Consultants" to guide clients to the summit of notable peaks around the world. Rob Hall's customers paid $65,000 apiece for the privilege, and he had an excellent track record and reputation as a guide who got people to the Everest summit and brought them down safely again. Unfortunately, during the 1995 climb Doug had been turned back just 330 feet short of the summit when Hall judged the conditions too dangerous to continue. Because Hall was fond of Doug, whose easy going personality contributed to the positive atmosphere of his excursions, he offered him a significant discount to return to climb again in 1996. Doug told Jon Krakauer that Hall had called him "a dozen times" from New Zealand to urge him to get on board for a repeat attempt. The postal worker at last accepted, hoping that he could finally get the Everest monkey off his back. His decision would prove to be a fateful one.
The 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition was populated mostly by wealthy lawyers, doctors, and executives, as the healthy price per head of 65K would indicate. Outside of the eight paying clients there were also three guides, two of whom perished in a blinding blizzard that struck the summit on the evening of May 10th. The Adventure Consultants casualty list included guide Rob Hall, guide Andy Harris, Japanese female climber Yasuko Namba, and Doug Hansen. Expedition member Beck Weathers was also left for dead in the blizzard but later made a miraculous return to camp, although his right arm, all the fingers on his left hand, his nose and parts of his feet were later amputated because of frostbite damage. Four other climbers from other expeditions also perished the same day.
Discouragement and Decision
Since oxygen at the summit of Mt. Everest is approximately one third of what it is at sea level, climbing the peak requires a month long acclimatization period at lower elevations of the mountain. As is typical for Everest climbers, during this acclimatization Doug complained of respiratory difficulties, which he reported to team leader Rob Hall. When Jon Krakauer attempted to rouse Doug out of his sleeping bag at Camp Two (21,300 feet) on April 26th, two weeks before the final ascent, Doug complained, "I feel like shit. I think something's wrong with my throat. Man, I'm gettin' too old for this stuff." On that same day Doug also discovered some budding frostbite on his toes, parts of which he had lost during the 1995 trip.
A few weeks before departing for Nepal to start his second Everest attempt, the Kent postal worker had undergone minor throat surgery, and was feeling severe aftereffects from it. Per Krakauer, shortly before the final push Doug told Rob Hall, "I'm fucked!...I can't even talk. The climb is over for me." In response, Hall advised Doug to wait it out a couple of days, telling him he was a "tough bastard" who would bounce back. Doug became extremely discouraged, but eventually agreed to continue. A few days later he told Jon, "I've put too much of myself into the mountain to quit now, without giving it everything I've got." He was probably also inspired by the schoolchildren of Kent, Washington, who had given him a small flag to plant on the mountain's summit.
The Summit and the Tragic Descent
On May 10th, 1996, the day of the final ascent, Doug Hansen did not appear to be in good physical condition. He mentioned to his fellow team members that he had not eaten or slept for a few days, after which he finally told guide Rob Hall that he had decided to head back down. As Krakauer reports "...a brief conversation ensued. Nobody overheard the dialogue, so there is no way of knowing what was said, but the upshot was that Doug got back in line and continued his ascent."
Rob Hall had supposedly set a drop dead deadline of 2 PM, after which all climbers who had not arrived at the summit were to be turned back, out of concerns for severe weather and poor visibility that occur at the upper reaches of the mountain. But because of high climber traffic at the base of the Hillary step, where a delay occurred because fixed ropes had to be installed after Sherpas assisting the expedition failed to put them up, by 2 PM very few climbers had reached the top. Rob Hall then extended the deadline, possibly out of a sense of competition with American guide Scott Fischer's team, who had successfully summited all of his clients. The long and short is that at 2 PM, instead of turning Doug back, Hall put his arm around the struggling climber and assisted him up the slope. They didn't reach the peak until around 4 PM, two hours after the deadline.
Doug Hansen finally achieved his dream of climbing Mt. Everest, but at the cost of his life. After a brief celebratory stay at the top he headed back down with Rob. Because the pair then apparently ran out of supplemental oxygen, Doug became physically and mentally impaired and could not be coaxed onward by Hall. The guide found it impossible to get his client down the face of the steep Hillary step, and refused to leave him there alone. Sometime before 6 PM Rob Hall finally descended alone to a place known as the South Summit, but at this point neither Doug Hansen or Andy Harris, a guide who had risked his life to go to their rescue, were with him anymore. No one is certain what happened to Doug that evening, but it has been conjectured that he lost his footing as Rob struggled to coax him down the mountain, and fell 7,000 feet to his death. His ice axe was later found jammed into the ridge, above the sheer face down which he is speculated to have fallen.
The Movie and the Controversy
The recently released movie "Everest" draws from sources other than Krakauer's pro-Doug Hansen perspective, and doesn't take as favorable a view in depicting the postal worker's role in the 1996 tragedy. A moviegoer is likely to leave the theater believing that if that stubborn mailman would have just turned around when told to, the disaster could have been avoided. Rob Hall's own collusion in hauling Doug's worn out carcass to the top of the peak is glossed over, and the Kiwi climber comes across looking like the heroic guide that stayed and died with his clients despite their belligerence and stupidity.
It seems to me that any finger pointing at all, at anyone, is pointless and counterproductive. Although human decisions certainly played a role, the fickle, unpredictable blizzards on the summit of Everest were ultimately responsible for the deaths of the climbers. The decision of climbing to the "roof of the world" can be a fatal one in itself. Everest is an extremely dangerous enterprise; the massive mountain claiming the lives of more than 250 mountaineers since it was first attempted. Those who summit the peak, both guides and clients, are well aware of the risks in advance and accept them as part of the allure of being able to chalk up Everest as part of their climbing trophy case.
A movie review is beyond the scope of this article, but having read Jon Krakauer's book after the film, I believe "Everest" is an accurate depiction of what went on at and beneath the summit of Mt. Everest on May 10, 1996. As expected, Hollywood takes some liberties, but it is a good entry level lesson for those wishing to learn more about this ill-fated ascent. There don't seem to be any live videos of Doug Hansen available on the Internet for comparison, but in my opinion John Hawkes, the actor who portrays Doug, sets the right tone of good-natured humility that a postal worker lost among the wealthy doctors, lawyers, and business executives on a costly Everest expedition probably would have conducted himself with.
As Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air" and the movie "Everest" both indicate, "Mailman" Doug Hansen also achieved favorable reviews among his teammates in the 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition. He will be remembered as a solid, supportive, friendly companion who didn't back down from one of the most daunting challenges that face mankind - to summit the world's highest mountain while braving blizzards, ice avalanches, and potential death from plunging down deadly, dizzying rock faces; all while under the physical duress brought about by scanty oxygen above 25,000 feet.. Because Doug may be the first and only Postal Worker to achieve this, he deserves a spot in the Legendary Letter Carriers Hall of Fame, as the first to be inducted here into this elite fraternity.