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Men's Journal Tops the Mt. Everest Field

July 18, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

And the first to reach newsstands is . . . Men's Journal, followed within days by Vanity Fair and Life.

In an unusually crowded field, the three monthly magazines have put out August issues that offer in-depth accounts of the dramatic ascent of Mt. Everest that proved fatal to eight climbers in early May. Still to come: Outside magazine, whose September issue will feature a much-anticipated piece by Jon Krakauer, a journalist and veteran climber who was among the lucky ones to reach the summit and survive.

Except for the rivalry between Men's Journal and Outside, the four magazines do not compete with one another. At the same time, the efforts to publish quickly one of the great modern tales of man against the elements do reflect competitive imperatives, editorial hustle and the increasing flexibility of production.

"We don't usually do instant cover stories like this," said Life Senior Editor Robert Sullivan, "but the day the tragedy happened, I let [Managing Editor] Dan Okrent know that we had a pretty good network in place."

Life writer Claudia Glenn Dowling scaled Everest to a height of 21,500 feet in 1991. And Sullivan had interviewed Sir Edmund Hillary, who, in 1953, was the first man to conquer Everest, and knew how to reach him.

Hillary, 77 and living in Auckland, New Zealand, says in a sidebar accompanying Life's cover story that he once met a group of clients who had paid guide Rob Hall to lead them up Everest, and one of them had admitted to poor climbing skills. Hall, who perished on Everest in May after making a heartbreaking farewell call by satellite phone to his wife, took what Hillary calls "a big risk, a considerable chance" in agreeing to take on such ill-prepared customers.

In keeping with Life's history of photojournalistic wows, the package includes striking images from a roll of film found on the body of guide Scott Fischer, who captured not only a line of climbers as they neared the snowy peak, but also the darkening skies that would assault them on the descent.

Vanity Fair found its angle in the person of a Fischer client, Sandy Hill Pittman. The New York socialite and adventure seeker climbed to the summit of Everest, then collapsed and nearly died on the stormy descent.

In a withering profile titled "Snow-Blind Ambition," writer Jennet Conant describes how Pittman, 41, went to Nepal with self-absorbed plans to relay accounts of her derring-do to NBC News and other outlets. In addition, Conant writes, "The experience would provide an operatic finale to her book-in-progress . . . and bring her one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a sportswoman with media tie-ins, the Martha Stewart of mountaineering."

Vanity Fair has the means to alter text the day before the presses roll, which is a week before an issue reaches newsstands. Still, getting Conant's piece into the August issue, which went on sale July 10, was "a tight one," according to Executive Editor Elise O'Shaughnessy.

According to publishing sources, Men's Journal pushed to get "The Everest Disaster: What Really Went Wrong" in its August issue because owner and Editor Jann S. Wenner had been pained to see Outside magazine generate so much media attention when the Everest story broke.

Spanning 11 pages, the Men's Journal spread, written by Peter Wilkinson and photographed in large part by guide Neal Beidleman, offers a painstaking recap of the steps and missteps taken on high.

Outside plans to run Krakauer's piece in its September issue. Editor Mark Bryant expects the September issue to be one of the magazine's bigger sellers. And, on Tuesday, Krakauer, who had a bestseller in the spring with "Lost in the Wild" (Villard), agreed to do a book that will expand on his piece in Outside. Villard plans to bring out the book next spring--in time for the next Everest climbing season.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Thursdays.

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