Essay: View of High Altitude Rescues from BC Jochen Hemmleb - Basecamp Fri, May 25, 2001 3:30AM
Everything seemed to be going well. The weather was perfect, sunshine, little wind - we could see people summit by the dozen. High hopes for our summit team, ready at Camp 6. The highest mountain in the world apparently had become, in the words of A.F. Mummery, 'an easy day for a lady'.
But things happen when you least expect them...
Down at Base Camp we were just settling down for a leisurely tea time when a startled cry came from behind the telescope, "There are still people up there!". At 80x magnification we could see all the details: One figure was silhouetted against the sky to the left of the 'Mushroom Rock', halfway between the First and Second Steps at 28,100 ft., and there were two other climbers, clad in yellow down suits, still on the snowy part of the traverse from the base of the Second Step. One had apparently slipped and was now some fifteen feet below the tracks, motionless, while the other kept moving back and forth in an effort to help him. But their predicament was still less worse than what was yet to come that evening.
Just before dinner, at 6 p.m., Lee, our doctor, came over to the mess tent. "There are people below the Second Step, all right. But what about those on the Third Step?" With silent incredulity we turned again to the telescope - and indeed, there were two yellow dots, slowly groping their way down the prow of the cliff. At the base of the step, one of the dots finally stopped, then the other, who had been in front, turned around and climbed back up to join him in what was obviously becoming an emergency bivouac. They were at 28,500 ft.
Few had spent a night at this altitude, and fewer had survived. It turned out that the two climbers at the Third Step were a guide and client from Russell Brice's expedition. The client apparently had developed cerebral edema and was neither able to see nor walk. Overhearing the radio conversations, it seemed as if the guide had to face the agonizing decision of abandoning him in order to save his own life.
It is incredible how fast darkness falls on Everest. Immediately after sunset, around 7 p.m., there was still some twilight on the ridge. No movement was discernible near the dark bulk of the Third Step. Neither was any movement in the lone figure still on the traverse from the base of the Second Step. In the time since late afternoon he had managed to drag himself a couple of yards farther on to the rocks. We could see him clearly, a tiny speck crouched on a ledge. Fifteen minutes later the light was gone.
At 8 p.m. I took a last glance through the telescope. The view sent a shiver down my spine: The black ridgeline was barely visible against the star-studded night sky, the snow fields above the Second Step faintly glowing like the sails of a ghost ship. I was staring at a deadly desert of cold and darkness. This was no place for life.
I decide to spend the night in the communications tent to monitor any radio calls coming in during the night. A sleeping bag spread out on a cot and two radios beside my head make up the improvised bedroom. Dave Hahn's crackled radio voice is the last I hear before I fall asleep around 11 p.m. Up at Camp 6, they are making preparations for what will surely be a rescue attempt, and still hoping that they will be able to make a summit bid as well.
1:00 a.m. A brief sleep ends as the radio crackles to life once more. My sleepy brain takes some moments to register - but the content of the message shakes me awake immediately: Someone is talking on Russell Brice's frequency, telling that the guide had NOT left his client but was equally spending the night at the Third Step, apparently exhausted and affected by altitude.
So we have to prepare for two emergencies high on the mountain. Very high. Sleep doesn't come easy for the remainder of the night, and I spend most of the time staring at the tent's ceiling or listening to the wind outside. Morning comes early for me, Eric, Lee and Riley here at Base Camp on this 24th May:
4:45 a.m. The summit team, which had left Camp 6 around midnight, radios from the 'Mushroom Rock', where they have come across three Russian climbers. Two of them are in bad shape after spending a night at over 28,000 ft. without oxygen (cerebral edema, frostbite).
Apparently, the person we had seen below the Second Step yesterday evening was one of them, so must somehow have made his way across the remainder of the traverse during the night. Russell Brice's guide and client are still at the base of the Third Step...
Over the next hour, Dave, Tap and Jason administer oxygen and dexamethasone (a drug that reduces the swelling in the brain associated with cerebral edema) to the Russians, finally stirring them into descending. They leave with them one of their spare oxygen sets, replacing it with Pu Nuru's for the emergencies higher up. Pu Nuru, now without oxygen, returns to the North Col. A radio call from them to Andy Politz at Camp 6 starts Andy getting ready to come up with more oxygen in support of our team.
6:00 a.m. Jason and Pu Dorje continue towards the Second Step, followed by Tap and eventually Dave.
6:30 a.m. Jason and Pu Dorje reach top of the Second Step, followed 10 minutes later by Tap.
6:50 a.m. Jason, Pu Dorje and Tap reach the bivouac site of Russell Brice's guide and client below the Third Step.
Despite now having been in the sun for two hours, the two in their icy refuge have hardly moved. They are reportedly both in bad condition with cerebral edema, experiencing vision and balance problem. They are hardly able to stand up. Again, the rescue team administers dexamethasone and has both climbers alternately breathe from Pu Nuru's oxygen set. Later, Pu Dorje also hands over his oxygen set and descends without.
7:20 a.m. Dave reaches top of Second Step and continues upward. We can see him climbing laboriously, resting frequently, as he is forced to go at reduced oxygen flow in order to save the now depleted reserves.
Half an hour later, as if the mountain was making a statement that day, we receive the news of the death of an Australian at Camp 5. Apparently he had just got out of his tent, keeled over and died.
I am forced to rethink Everest again. Yesterday, when seeing dozens of people summitting with apparent ease on a perfect day, I have seriously considered dedicating myself to a training scheme that would see me climbing high on this mountain in perhaps five years. Now I hear of a young guy, probably my age and fit and healthy, simply dropping dead at 26,000 ft. Need there be more warning signs? This is the death zone up there - and we, as humans, are not supposed to live there...
8:05 a.m. Dave arrives at the Third Step, and together with the others tries to save the two climbers. If they can't get them to walk on their own, they are going to die.
At 8:30 a.m., Dave, Tap and Jason finally decide to abandon their summit bid in order to help Russell Brice's guide and client down - a decision that, at this point, perhaps takes more courage than to carry on over the remaining 500 ft. to the top of the world.
So the names of Dave Hahn, Tap Richards, Jason Tanguay, Pu Dorje and Pu Nuru will not appear in the summit statistics of 2001. But their actions on this day should value more, simply because for what they said about keeping priorities right or just plain humanity. Something that wasn't necessarily in the mind of everyone on the mountain on this 24th May...
Finally, we see one of the climbers at the bivouac - it turned out to be the guide - standing up and moving his limbs to restore circulation. The signs of life are appearing again at 28,500 ft. ...
9:00 a.m. The rescue team starts its descent. Tap and Jason are in front, keeping the guide in between them. The client, however, still appears hardly able to move. Dave stays behind with him, manages to get him walking down a few yards from the snow over a patch of scree to some boulders where they stop again. They don't move for almost half an hour, and it seems as if the client won't be able to move any further. The decision of abandoning him hangs in the air...
It was Dave Hahn's admirable patience and personal dedication to the task that saved another life that day. Sensing that the client, despite his difficulty in walking, was lucid and attentive, Dave tried for over half an hour everything to rekindle life's spark in him. First by talking to him, then moving him from one boulder to the next, inch by inch, resting for minutes in between. Finally, he decides to relieve him of the weight of his oxygen bottle, instead carrying it in his pack in addition to his own - and together they start walking, first tentatively, then more and more steadily, across the snow and gravel of the plateau towards the top of the Second Step...
10:00 a.m. Tap, Jason and the guide are back at the top of the Second Step. They lower him down the Step in two stages; first down the ladder pitch to the snow patch at half height, then over the lower, blocky part to the step' s base.
11:00 a.m. Andy Politz passes one Russian below the First Step, moving steadily down, and shortly after, near the base of the First Step, two more Russians (sharing an American oxygen bottle). One of them is complaining of a bad headache, and Andy administers another 8mg of dexamethasome to him. They continue down, and Andy starts up the First Step.
11:15 a.m. Dave and the client reach the top of the Second Step. Tap, Jason and the guide arrive at the step's base.
12:15 p.m. Dave and the client arrive at the step's base. The others move across the traverse towards the 'Mushroom Rock', assisted by Purba, one of Russell Brice's sherpas, who had climbed up from Camp 5.
12:30 p.m. Tap, Jason and the guide at 'Mushroom Rock', halfway between the First and Second Steps. They are joined by Andy Politz, who had given up his planned research task and climbed up from Camp 6, carrying additional oxygen bottles.
By 2 p.m., both rescue teams - Tap, Jason and the guide; Dave, Purba and the client - reach the base of the First Step. The most difficult part of the route is beyond them.
2:45 p.m. One of the Russians descending from the 'Mushroom Rock' this morning reaches Camp 6. His two partners have trouble descending.
3:05 p.m. The rescue team catches up with the two remaining Russians at the top of the gullies leading through the Yellow Band. One of them is unconscious.
Fifteen minutes of efforts by Andy Politz to revive the Russian fail. He shows no response to injections of dexamethasone, has no detectable pulse, his pupils are dilated and show no reflexes to light - he is dead. His surviving partner refuses oxygen, but eventually resumes his descent.
At 4 p.m., everybody, both rescuers and rescued, are back at Camp 6. Minutes later, witnesses at the camp see a body, clad in a yellow down suit, and a backpack falling down the Yellow Band. As it turns out, the dead Russian had somehow become detached from the rock and slipped into the void. The remaining Russian arrives at Camp 6 later in the afternoon.
There was no need to talk about it - the events of this day marked the end of our expedition. Nobody felt any need or wish to remain on the mountain any longer. In the evening, Jason descended to Camp 5 to spend the night there, while Andy and Tap opted to go all the way to Advance Base Camp. Even Dave, who reached the top of the snow on the North Ridge at nightfall, decided to try and reach ABC - which he did, arriving there around 10 p.m. at the end of a 22-hour day.
This day, 24th May, 2001, saw the second-highest rescue ever undertaken on Mount Everest. Only 1988 had seen a higher rescue, when Spaniard Sergei Martinez was dragged and lowered from the South Summit at 28,740 ft. But there is a world of difference between the predominantly snowy terrain of the South-east Ridge and the North-east Ridge, which involves two 100 ft. steps of near-vertical rock and a 200 yard-long traverse over steep downsloping shale in between, not to mention the staircase of cliffs and ledges of the Yellow Band. At the end of the day, there were two victims (1 unrelated to the events on the summit ridge), but no less than four lives saved.
Summits or searches, or any other of our self-imposed goals and tasks on which we often tend to place a little too much importance - in the light of the events of 24th May, 2001, they suddenly seemed pretty insignificant...