A tale of personal struggle
'The Other Side of Everest: Climbing the North Face Through the Killer Storm'
May 20, 1999
(CNN) -- Each year in May, climbers attempt to scale Mount Everest. The spring of 1996 was no exception. There were 10 teams on the mountain on May 10 when a storm stranded them. The temperatures, normally frigid, fell to 40 degrees below zero and the climbers were in white-out conditions. This is an excerpt from Matt Dickinson's book about his time on the north face of Mount Everest -- others have written about the storm on the south face -- in the mountain's worst recorded weather conditions.
From the Book
Feeling more dead than alive, I staggered the final few steps into Advance Base Camp just as darkness swept across the Tibetan Plateau and chased the last glimmer of light out of the Himalayas. It was 6:35 p.m. on May 20, 1996.
I opened my mouth to reply to Roger but all that came out was a gabble of unintelligible words. Confused by a mixture of euphoria and shock, my brain scrambled by the effect that extreme altitude and dehydration had wrought, I was unable to string two words together.
It didn't even occur to me to wonder where my fellow climber Al Hinkes had disappeared, even though we had descended from the North Col together. As far as I was concerned, he had simply vanished. (In fact, as Roger later told me, he had gone to his tent to sort himself out before searching for food and drink.)
Roger pulled me to my feet, helped me out of my rucksack, and unstrapped my climbing harness. Then he supported me into the unbelievable warmth of the mess tent where our Sherpa team was sitting around two steaming pots of food in a haze of kerosene fumes and cigarette smoke. Excited faces crowded round in a babble of conversation. I was guided onto a seat while Dhorze the cook prepared some sugared tea.
Kippa Sherpa mimed the motion of a saw, cutting across the fingers. "Like this!" he laughed.
"No. No." Ang Chuldim, long experienced in judging the severity of frostbite, turned my hand in his and spoke reassuringly. "First degree. But fingers probably survive OK. No cut!"
As I sipped the drink, the sweetness of the tea mingling with the bitter taste of blood oozing from the blisters on my lips, I felt the tent begin to spin. As the kerosene fumes seemed to engulf me, the familiar rise of nausea in my throat warned me I was about to vomit. I managed to stagger into the cleaner air of our own mess tent where I put my head between my knees and tried to ward off the fainting fit that threatened to black me out.
The cool air and the tea revived me, and it suddenly struck me as strange that Roger was here alone.
"Where is everyone?"
"They've gone down to Base Camp."
Roger's generosity in staying was now all the more apparent. Advance Base was no place to linger and he had waited here for several days even though the rest of the team had evacuated down to the warmer and more hospitable climes of the Rongbuk Valley base sixteen kilometers (ten miles) away. His gesture moved me greatly.
"Thanks for being here."
"Well, I thought there had to be someone to welcome you back to the land of the living."
I finished the tea and walked like a drunk back outside with Roger to the tents. I knew one of them was mine but in my fuddled state I couldn't remember which. Roger pointed out the correct one and I unzipped it and climbed in as he pulled the foam sleeping mat and sleeping bag from my rucksack. He pointed to my feet.
"You can't go to sleep with your boots on."
He unlaced them and pulled them off. I could feel the frozen fabric of the inner socks ripping against the dried blood where blisters had eroded my skin. This was a moment I had been dreading. I hadn't looked at my feet since the day before our summit bid and they were feeling very odd-swollen and numb, just like my fingers.
Roger went to fetch more fluid for me while I gathered the courage to shine the flashlight on my toes.
They were encrusted with blood. At first I was horrified, then, looking closely, I realized the damage was superficial: the blood was from the constant chafing of my plastic boots, and the swelling was from the impact of striking my feet into the ice. There were two small areas of frostnip but nothing more. In my nightmares I had imagined my toes would already be going black and gangrenous.
Roger was back. He took a look at my feet.
"Looks like you've got away with it."
"Yeah. Looks like I have."
Roger gave me a big smile and said, "I'll see you in the morning." He zipped up the tent and I heard his footsteps move away.
Lacking the energy to pull off the down suit, I shoved my feet into the sleeping bag and wrapped the top end of the bag around my upper body. Then I sucked down a full liter of tea, reveling in the warming sensation as the hot fluid ran through my body.
I was desperate for sleep, but my mind had now woken from its frozen state and was scrabbling to catch up with events. Much of what I had seen and experienced had been lived through the distorting haze of altitude, and now my memory banks were trying to make some sense out of a mental filing system in total disarray. The events were there all right, in crystal definition, but their order had been shuffled and, in the case of certain nightmare images, put into a state of suspended animation from where they could not easily be retrieved.
They would flood back soon enough but for now they were under lock and key.
My overriding emotion was one of intense relief at ending the ordeal. Pathetically grateful to have gotten off the mountain alive, one fact played through my mind stronger than any other: that I was one of the lucky ones.
Together with Al Hinkes and the team of three climbing Sherpas, we had all survived the Death Zone and returned intact from the summit of Everest. Now I found myself running a mental check on the state of my body, ticking off the damage.
I estimated I had lost eleven kilograms (about twenty-four pounds) of body weight. My legs were now so completely stripped of fat that I could easily encircle my thigh with my two hands. I had first-degree frostbite on two fingers and a range of superficial injuries that are common at extreme altitude; radiation burns on my ears and lips; and pus-infected fissures on my fingers and toes. Both my eyes had retinal hemorrhages where blood capillaries had burst during the ascent. My kidneys were throbbing with the dull ache of days of fluid deprivation. My bowels were chucking out alarming quantities of blood every time I got up the courage to defecate.
The persistent racking cough, the torn muscles around my rib cage, and the raging sore throat had been with me for so many weeks now that I scarcely noticed them.
But that list of minor ailments was nothing. The mountain had let me off extremely lightly and I knew it. In physical terms, the cost of my Everest summit had been negligible. If Ang Chuldim was right about my fingers, then I wouldn't lose anything. In a couple of months I would be healed and no sign would remain-on my body at least-that I had ever been here at all.
For twelve other climbers in this premonsoon season, the attempt to climb to the summit of Everest had proved fatal. The bodies of ten of them still lay on the high slopes of the mountain. Only two of the corpses had been retrieved. The shock waves of this disaster were still reverberating around the world. The cost in human suffering, for the families, friends, and loved ones of those who died, is incalculable.
Others had escaped from the Death Zone with their lives, but the price of their survival had been painfully high. One American climber and one Taiwanese had each suffered major amputations due to frostbite, losing an arm, fingers, and toes, and suffering facial disfigurement.
In short, this had been a disastrous season on Everest and one that had caught the attention of the world's media in a way that hadn't happened since the blaze of publicity heralding the first ascent in 1953.
Before I lapsed into unconsciousness, my hand moved up instinctively to check the small rectangular container that lay against my skin in the breast pocket of my thermal suit: the tiny digital video tape that contained footage from the summit of the world. My hand was still in the same position, cradling the precious roll of rushes, when I awoke fifteen hours later.
For the next forty-eight hours I lay on my back in the tent, neither moving nor speaking. Occasionally the Sherpas, Al, or Roger would check that I was OK and bring in some tea or food, but basically I just lay there, staring at the canvas interior of the tent.
My mind was in shock, replaying slowly through the events of the last ten days since the storm swept in. Thinking of the place we had been. Thinking of the Death Zone.
The term "Death Zone" was first coined in 1952 by Edouard Wyss-Dunant, a Swiss physician, in a book called The Mountain World. Drawing on the experiences of the Swiss Everest expedition of that year (which had so nearly made the summit), he described with remarkable accuracy the effects of altitude on the human body.
Wyss-Dunant created a series of zones to help his readers understand. At the 6,000-meter (19,685-foot) zone, Wyss-Dunant concluded, it was still possible for the human body to acclimatize in the short term. At the 7,000-meter (22,965-foot) zone no acclimatization was possible.
To the zone above 7,500 meters (24,606 feet), he gave a special name. He called it, in German, Todeszone, or Death Zone. Above that altitude, not only could human life not be sustained, it deteriorated with terrifying rapidity. Even using supplementary oxygen, no one can remain in the Death Zone for long.
The term he invented is a uniquely chilling one, and one that sums up the sheer horror of a place in which every breath signals a deterioration in the human body, where the cells of vital organs are eliminated in their millions each hour, and where no living creature belongs.
Like the "Killing Fields," the "Death Zone," in two simple words, carries with it a sense of unspeakable horror. It conjures up pictures of a place that might only have been imagined in the mind of a writer such as Tolkien; a place of quest in the medieval sense-a battle zone where warriors and dreamers come to fight the darkest forces of nature, and from which some men emerge so shaken by what they have experienced that they never find the strength to speak of it again.
The Death Zone is a place where the mind wanders into strange and dark corners, where insanity and illusions are ever-present traps, and where the corpses, of far stronger warriors than you will ever be, lie in the screaming wind with their skulls gaping from the ripped remains of their battle dress. Ghosts are there in plenty, and their warning cries echo through the night.
Death Zone visas are issued by the gods of the wind. They last just a few days at most, and expire without warning. Get caught on the wrong side of the border when the barrier comes down and you will never return.
On May 10, 1996, the barrier came down on Everest.
There were two very different types of expedition high on the peak making their summit attempts that day: the traditional style of national expedition that raises its funds through sponsorship, and the new-style commercial expedition that raises its funds through paying clients.
In the case of the first, members are normally selected on merit, do not pay for the privilege of joining, and are responsible for their own safety on the mountain. In the case of the second, while clients have to prove they have some climbing experience, their primary qualification for acceptance on an Everest expedition is the ability to pay. High-altitude specialist guides are employed by the companies to assure the safety of their clients. Our own expedition was a commercial one such as this.
The two traditional-style expeditions involved in the events of May 10 were the Indian team on the northern side-organized and staffed by members of the Indo-Tibetan border police led by Mohindor Singh-and the Taiwanese national team on the south, led by "Makalu" Gau.
The two commercial expeditions with paying clients were the Adventure Consultants team led by Rob Hall, and the Mountain Madness team led by Scott Fischer.
Compared to the Indian and Taiwanese teams, the commercial expeditions had managed to get much larger numbers of people, and correspondingly larger amounts of vital oxygen equipment, into position for the summit bid on that day. The Indian team numbered six, with no Sherpas. The Taiwanese team was reduced to just the leader, Makalu Gau, and two Sherpas.
The Adventure Consultants group that set out at about midnight from the South Col included no fewer than fifteen people: three guides, eight clients, and four Sherpas. The Mountain Madness team also had fifteen people on the Southeast Ridge, of which six were clients.
For Rob Hall, leader of the Adventure Consultants team, the midnight departure from the South Col for the summit was business as usual. Hall, more than anyone, had been at the vanguard of commercial guiding on Everest since it began and, as he led his team up through the night, he would have been confident of success. He had reason to be: he had personally summitted Everest four times and had led a total of thirty-nine clients to the top of the world over the previous five years.
As a high-altitude guide with responsibility for the lives of his clients, Hall had impeccable credentials. On a personal level he was an inspirational leader, as his 1996 Base Camp doctor Caroline Mackenzie recalls:
Rob was a very enthusiastic person with an open mind. He was very encouraging to everybody, very forward-thinking, a stimulating person to be around. He was always thinking of the morale of his group, and taking note of individuals' morale.
Rob Hall began his Himalayan climbing career at the age of nineteen when he climbed Ama Dablam, 6,828 meters (22,401 feet), in Nepal, via its difficult North Ridge. He followed that with three summer seasons in Antarctica as a guide and rescue team leader for the American and New Zealand Antarctic programs and then moved on to a series of high-altitude expeditions including Denali, Annapurna, K2, Everest, Lhotse, and the Vinson Massif. During 1990 he climbed the "Seven Summits"-the highest points on each continent-in a record-breaking seven months.
Having established his credentials as New Zealand's most experienced expedition leader, and with an excellent track record at extreme altitude, Rob Hall set up Adventure Consultants with fellow Kiwi Gary Ball, a certified mountain guide, who had shared many of Rob Hall's more ambitious ascents.
Based out of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island, the duo specialized in challenging and expensive guided climbing expeditions. They were one of the first companies to feature Everest in their brochure. With their considerable charm, and a talent for generating publicity, the two climbers quickly established a growing list of clients keen to "bag" the highest summit even if it did cost them $40,000-ex-Kathmandu.
On May 12, 1992, Hall and Ball pulled off an amazing coup. In near-perfect weather conditions they placed an astonishing fourteen climbers (six were clients) on the summit of Everest and got them down safely again. It was an outstanding achievement that, more than any other event, confirmed that Everest had entered a new era: this summit, like the peaks of the Alps and the volcanoes of South America, was now for sale.
By the 1993 season, Adventure Consultants was a company with a multimillion-dollar turnover and a calendar that hardly gave the two partners time to draw breath; in March they were offering Everest, in September Mera Peak. November was Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea, December the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Hall and Ball had not only tapped into a new vogue for "superadventure," they had virtually created it themselves. Now they were reaping the rewards as they shuttled backward and forward across the globe from one adventure to the next, shepherding their high-paying clients, many of whom had built up a fierce loyalty to their charismatic guides.
But no matter how glamorous their other climbing destinations, Everest was the jewel in the Adventure Consultants' crown. That was what justified the huge amount of time and organization getting there required, and that was what justified the risk. Putting clients on the summit of Everest was the very lifeblood of the company. So long as they got down again in one piece.
Yet while Hall and Ball had the golden touch, and the lion's share of the publicity, they did not have an exclusive on the ultimate summit. Other companies, equally ambitious, equally keen to win a slice of the Everest pie, were now competing for permits-and clients.
The British company Himalayan Kingdoms entered the fray in 1993 under the command of Steve Bell, a climber and ex-army officer who had made notable winter ascents of the North Faces of the Eiger and Matterhorn. Bell had trodden Everest's slopes twice before on army expeditions in 1988 and 1992 (but although he had reached 8,400 meters [27,559 feet], he had not previously summitted). Their asking price for the expedition was ú21,000 per head, and as a benchmark of qualification they were unwilling to consider anyone who had not previously been to 23,000 feet. During selection Bell turned down an application from journalist Rebecca Stephens, considering her "too inexperienced," but he did agree to take the fifty-six-year-old actor Brian Blessed, now on his second attempt. Brian's celebrity status in Britain considerably boosted the amount of publicity the expedition could generate but many doubted he was a serious candidate for the summit.
Steve Bell rose to the logistical challenge of Everest with military thoroughness. Although he didn't have the sheer charisma of Hall and Ball, his leadership was every bit as impressive. He led seven paying members of his team to the summit via the South Col route, including Ramon Blanco, a Spanish guitar-maker resident of Venezuela who became, at the age of sixty, the oldest man to reach the top. They also put Ginette Harrison on the summit, the second British woman to get there.
Rebecca Stephens, Himalayan Kingdoms' "reject," had found her way onto another expedition and beat Harrison to the summit by five months. Bell is honest enough to admit that striking Rebecca from his list had been a mistake.
Himalayan Kingdoms had been very lucky in two respects: not only had they encountered an exceptional period of fine weather, they had narrowly avoided a total catastrophe when, by chance, they had no one at Camp Three (7,400 meters [24,278 feet]) on the Lhotse Face when a huge avalanche swept down and destroyed the camp. The company had not been so lucky just a couple of months before on August 4 on Khan Tengri (7,010 meters [22,998 feet]) in the Tien Shan mountains, when a similar avalanche killed two Russian guides and two British clients.
By now, with papers all over the world publishing photographs of relatively inexperienced adventurers queuing on their way to the summit, the global perception of Everest had shifted once and for all. For the media the myth had been conclusively debunked. Everest was as affordable as a Porsche or a Mercedes-and every bit as glamorous. All you had to do was reach for your checkbook, swap your Gucci loafers for a pair of plastic boots, and the summit was as good as yours.
A new perception had emerged almost overnight: that Everest was achievable by any reasonably fit person who had the motivation-and the cash. In just a few years Everest had gone from the ultimate summit-the preserve of elite mountaineers-to a "trophy peak," the stomping ground of a new breed of climbers who, largely ignorant of the dangers they might face, were buying their way to the top. To the press, inevitably, they were "social climbers," people who would pay almost any price to put a summit photograph on a mantelpiece.
Now Everest was back in the news, big time. queue at the top of the world screamed the front-page headline feature in the Observer review on May 16, 1993. Contrast this with the situation back in the late 1980s, when the media had virtually run out of interest in the peak. With all of Everest's major faces climbed, and oxygenless ascents of the southern and northern sides ticked off, the press had grown weary of reporting on it. In September 1988 the death of a Sherpa in an Everest avalanche rated just an eighteen-word report in the London Times. The speed climb of Marc Batard in the same month (he raced to the summit and back again in a lightning twenty-two hours and thirty minutes) was reported in the same paper with just seven words more. In May 1989 the deaths of five Polish climbers in another avalanche were similarly reported in less than a column-inch.
Now, thousands of column-inches were devoted to Everest as the new era of guided expeditions came in.
Out of the whirlwind of publicity, a new debate was spun. The increasing commercialization of Everest was attracting criticism in powerful quarters, not least from Sir Edmund Hillary who, interviewed in a Newsweek article on May 3, 1993-timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Hillary's own first ascent-was quoted as saying, "The change I dislike most is the fact that [climbing the mountain] has become a financial proposition. Everest is too important a mountain and a challenge to be able to buy your way up."
It was by no means the first time Sir Edmund had opened Everest up to public debate. In 1990, the Associated Free Press reported his call for a five-year closure of Everest to all mountaineering activity so that nature could repair the damage caused by the hundreds of climbers who flocked to the slopes.
Copyrightę 1999 by Matt Dickinson.
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