News: Epic Day -- Summit Given Up for Rescues Eric Simonson - Basecamp Thu, May 24, 2001 5:30AM
Today (May 24, 2001) was one of the most frustrating, scary, nerve wracking and inspirational days I can remember for a long time. In many ways it epitomized everything that is best and worst about mountaineering. I have been in the middle of my share of screw-ups over the years, some of them with tragic endings. Today I'm happy to report we were on the helping end of the equation. Hopefully if we ever need assistance, this deposit in the Karma Bank will pay off!
Yesterday our team of Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, Tap Richards, and Jason Tanguay, accompanied by Phu Nuru and Phu Dorge, had pushed from Camp 5 to Camp 6 on the North Ridge of Everest via the REAL North Ridge... only the second ascent since 1938 (two of our climbers, Brent Okita and Jake Norton had made the first climb of this classic route several weeks ago.) After re-discovering the 1924 Camp 6 and doing some more exploration and video work there, they pushed into Camp 6 to get ready for the summit ascent today. Everyone was psyched, strong, and hoping to be on top by about 7am!!
The problems started when one of Russell Brice's guides woke the climbers up at 8:30pm and told them that one of their [Brice’s] guides and one of their clients were bivouacking at the Third Step (8700m). Apparently the client had been overcome with cerebral edema and was unable to continue. The guide had elected to spend the night with him. They were in a dire situation and needed help. There had only once before (post monsoon 1988 by the Spanish, from the South Summit, 8750m) been a rescue higher than this on Everest, and never from above the Second Step on the North Ridge.
Five of our team (Dave, Tap, Jason, Phu Nuru, Phu Dorge) left Camp 6 at about 12:30am. Andy stayed at Camp 6, his plan to spend the day searching some more. By dawn (4:30am) the climbers were at the mushroom rock (Camp 7) between the First and Second Steps. There they were surprised to run into three Russian climbers, huddled together in an open bivouac without oxygen (they had run out many hours before). One of them could stand up, but the other two were so messed up they could barely move. It was clear to our climbers that they had to do something. The first call was to Andy Politz at Camp 6, to get him ready to go up and help. He would leave a bit later with more oxygen. Then the team had to get the Russians on oxygen. Fortunately, our two Sherpas were each carrying an extra bottle, and the team had a spare regulator and a "T" fitting. They had to cut the ends of the Russians oxygen hoses to accommodate the "T", which was then plugged into one of our American cylinders and regulators. At 5 liters per minute the two sickest climbers would have about 6 hours of O2 to share. Then each climber was given 8mg of dexamethasome. After spending an hour with the Russians, during which time the sun came up, the Russians began to move around a bit and look better. The team decided to take Phu Nuru's oxygen bottle, mask and regulator with them and send Phu Nuru down. Off he went, as the Russians started to get ready to go down also. Then our climbers started across the Traverse to the Second Step.
Our team cruised up the Second Step and reached the Third Step, where the next two persons were bivouacked, by 6:50am. There, they took Phu Dorge's oxygen set, and sent him down without any (both Phu Nuru and Phu Dorge made it down OK). The idea was to give Phu Dorge's oxygen to one of the stricken climbers and Phu Nuru's to the other...and hopefully be able to continue themselves to the summit. After a few minutes at the site, however, it became immediately obvious that neither of these climbers were going anywhere without major help. It was obvious that going to the summit, only an hour away, was out of the question for our team. Neither sick climber could even stand up. Both were partially blind from cerebral edema. Both had some frostbite. Walking was impossible. Again, our team administered oxygen and dexamethasome. Then two Columbian climbers came along, on their way to the top, but refused to help. They kept on climbing.
After an hour, the two sick men could barely stand up with help. Trying to get them to walk was agonizing. It took fully another hour to go 50 yards down the ridge. Jason and Tap were with the guide, Dave with the client, all pulling and dragging. The first party of three reached the top of the Second Step at 10am, and took over an hour to lower the sick man down. Dave and the sick client reached the top of the Second Step at 11:15 and took another hour to lower down. It took both groups another hour from the bottom of the Step to reach the mushroom rock, where they met Andy Politz, who arrived with another oxygen bottle. Along the Traverse they were met by Phurba, one of Russell's Sherpas who also came up with another oxygen bottle, and helped Dave and the client across the steep and dangerous Traverse. From the mushroom rock, it took until 2pm for the group to reach the First Step. Along the way they were met by Lobsang, another of Russell's Sherpas, who brought more oxygen and a strong set of arms for hauling and dragging. Near the First Step, the two Columbian climbers, now on their way back from the summit, again passed the rescue team, and continued without helping.
Another lower-down brought everyone off the First Step. Then the long walk across the ridge to the Yellow Band gullies. Along the way both of the patients started to do better and were able to walk. The oxygen and dex were kicking in! Two more of Russell's Sherpas showed up with more oxygen and manpower.
Then tragedy. At the top of the gully, the rescue team came across one of the Russian climbers who had collapsed. Andy administered more dex, but the man died in his arms. The other Russians made it back to Camp 6 OK, but this one guy, who had been in the worse shape of the three, had apparently gone over the line. About the same time we received a radio call from our friend in the Australian group, who said that his tent partner had just died suddenly at Camp 5. What a day!
Eventually, everyone made it back to camp. I was super proud of what Dave, Andy, Tap, and Jason had accomplished. They put their personal goals on the back burner and saved four out of five people, with virtually no assistance. I was also bummed that they didn't get to make the top, knowing how hard they had worked. I guess that's just the way it goes here... if you don't like the uncertainty, you shouldn't be here.
At dusk Dave, Andy, Jason, and Tap headed down to Camp 5, our expedition essentially over. At Base Camp, Jochen and I had a talk and agreed how all this death and destruction really puts in perspective the research objectives of our expedition. We love the history of the early pioneer climbers and are constantly amazed by their exploits... but we just can't forget what a dangerous place this can be. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were the first in what has become a very long list of people who went too far, past the point of no return, and paid the big price.
So... now we are heading home. The Sherpas will haul down the rest of the tents and empty oxygen bottles tomorrow. I think we will get off the big hill having left only one (Dave left a "dead soldier" at the mushroom rock on the way down) cylinder behind. If we can get through the yak rodeo of the next few days unscathed, and make it past the wilds of Zhangmu, we will have succeeded in our primary objective: coming home friends.