Large as Life

He was almost everything a 14-year-old boy thought he wanted to become.

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  1. The caption identified the man as Scott Fischer, leader of one of the disastrous expeditions on Everest in 1996, but no matter how long I stared at the photo, I couldn’t tell if it was the Fischer I knew. This man had long hair and a three-week mountain beard; my Scott Fischer had been a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor in the summer of 1976 and—at least in my memory—was clean-shaven and close-cropped. He was also just about everything a 14-year-old boy would want to be: strong, handsome, well liked, and outrageously confident. Not only did my old NOLS instructor bear no resemblance to the man in the photo, but it was inconceivable that the Scott Fischer I knew could have died on Everest. To me, he was simply too good at climbing—at everything—to die. I put the magazine back in the rack and walked away.

    A year later I was on a flight from L.A. to New York, reading furiously through Jon Krakauer’s account of the Everest tragedy, Into Thin Air. Fischer was from New Jersey, I read, and had worked for years as a guide and instructor. He took insane risks on climbs and should have died years ago. He left a string of broken hearts a mile long in his wake. I closed the book and looked out the airplane window. We were flying at roughly the height of Mount Everest. It was the same guy, all right, and he was dead.

    My earliest memory of Scott is from a rest break on my first day at NOLS in Wyoming. We were struggling up the flanks of the Wind River Range under a cold rain...

Originally published in Outside, August 1999