Everest: Emotional Rescue
by Dave Hahn
Note: In May of 2001, on the 2nd Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, Dave Hahn was leading a team of climbers and sherpas all of whom were well positioned to reach the summit. All of whom gave up their summit bids to try and save the lives of multiple climbers who'd gotten into big trouble high on the Northeast Ridge. The most desperate had spent the night out just below the summit pyramid, which is where Hahn's team surrendered their climb and began working on the highest rescue in Everest history.
I've said it a thousand times; emotions have no place above 8,000 meters. And I've mostly lived true to my words. Rarely have I indulged in fear or elation or thoughts of love, envy, greed, hatred or that other stuff up on high mountains. In such places, I've always contended that us clumsy, average folks need to keep our minds firmly focused on where our feet are hitting the rock and snow. So what was that fogging up my sunglasses at the Third Step of Everest's North Ridge last May?
Tears at 8700 meters? Clearly a violation of Rule #1. Perhaps there was some good excuse for them when Eric Simonson, down at base camp, had radioed up a moment before asking finally if there wasn't some way we could still carry on to the summit and I'd replied throatily that there wasn't a chance that we'd go on. Let's just hope the tears weren't simply for a missed summit.
People already think I'm an idiot for having been on Everest's top three times; nobody would believe I had a compelling reason to be there a fourth. And though I looked around through my tears at my partners and remembered that Tap Richards and Jason Tanguay and Phu Dorje had not yet been to the top of the "big E" despite being strong and ready at 7am on a nice day to easily go the last hour. Well, I wasn't crying for them. They were young, they'd be there some day if they continued to want it bad enough.
Sure, I was conscious that after months of hard work on the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition we were going to finally come up empty. No camera from 1924, no more knowledge of where Andrew "Sandy" Irvine had finished up, no answer to the great mystery of how high up George and Sandy had gotten, and lastly, no summit after our team had fixed nearly every inch of the fixed rope for the route. But none of that made me weepy.
It was Andy Lapkass and Jaime Vinals sitting there on the rocks with a few empty oxygen bottles and some shreds of a space blanket. Two nice guys who'd spent the night out after making the top the previous day. Just sitting up where jets fly and people die and where I've now cried.
Phu Dorje summed things up nicely when he'd given up his oxygen bottles for the cause and was starting down, shaking his head in disbelief. "Bad luck!" he kept saying to me, "Bad luck!" while pointing back at the summit pyramid, painfully up close and personal.
Despite the succinctness and truthful nature of his assessment, I still needed to check something with Tap and Jason. We'd just tried, after an hour or so of poking and prodding and feeding and administering drugs and O's to combat cerebral edema, to get Jaime and Andy on their feet. The results were deeply discouraging and were most likely the cause of my fogged glasses. But I needed to know how Tap and Jason saw things since such decisive moments could potentially come back to haunt us all.
"You guys realize that there is absolutely no way we can do what Eric is suggesting, don't you?" Their answers came back through tight throats that made me aware that they had some tears of their own.
No. Not a chance of doing what we'd already been able to do before sunrise a few hours earlier when we'd come across three Russians at the Mushroom Rock. There, despite the fact that we'd found them lying about, feebly kicking their feet, out of oxygen, inappropriately dressed and speaking in an unfamiliar tongue about their predicament at 28,300 feet, we'd been able to revive them somewhat and send them down on their own. It hadn't been easy.
Phu Nuru had surrendered his own oxygen and any hopes of the summit then. We'd given out Decadron pills as if they were candy at a Halloween doorstep. We'd parted with a fair amount of our precious food and water. We'd wrestled to get the Russians up and dressed against the cold. But sure enough, as Eric had suggested might be possible then, they'd come around and were once again taking care of themselves while we were going higher. That was important since, in our communications regarding the Russians we'd become fully aware that both Andy and Jaime had spent the night out even higher. We didn't know if they were alive or dead when we left the Russians.
It probably sounds terrible to say that we were prepared for them to be dead, in which case our response would have been to go on to the summit. Get your head around it if you can, because we would have. And if they weren't so bad off, we'd have helped them to their feet, patted them on their backs as they proceeded down and we'd have still pressed on for the top. After all, they had their expedition goals, we had ours. The two were separate.
But when Tap and Jason and I were getting all misty eyed, it had become apparent that we were into something far worse. The summit no longer existed. In fact, even the chance of getting these two climbers down alive no longer existed. We had each been horrified to watch them trying to stand and walk. Without those abilities, it was simply "game over" for these two.
In our heads swam visions of the vertical Second Step, the ridiculous traverse back to the Mushroom Rock, the even more ridiculous traverse back to the First Step, the vertical descent of that feature, the treacherous hop down the rocks and gullies of the Yellow Band. And what would it get you if you could somehow carry somebody over all of that? Well, then you'd have a critically ill person at 27,000 feet instead of 28,500 feet. Big deal.
Watching Jaime and Andy collapse back to the rock, Tap and Jason and I knew what nobody watching through a telescope from below could know, not only were these men going to die, but they were going to do it with us as companions. And I think that was what made us emotional. To make matters worse, to really choke us up, they were far from dead at the moment, in fact they were very much alive.
Andy Lapkass was, despite a night fighting to keep his client warm and frostbite free, despite the impaired vision and slurred words caused by the swelling of his brain in his skull, still the kind of guy you look up to for his generosity and strength and experience. Jaime was so alive that it scared us; utterly cheerful and seemingly unconcerned about his predicament.
But both were pitifully unable to walk. Without choices, we simply gave them a little more of everything and kept trying to get them to rally. After a time, Tap and Jason had Andy moving. But it took both of them to support him and keep his feet going in the right directions. That left me and Jaime and my emotions.
I decided then that I'd been wrong about emotions in the "death zone." Everybody probably should have a set. The fact that Jaime was devoid of them struck me as just plain wrong and I set about changing that.
"Jaime, you have a family, don't you?" He cheerfully replied, "Oh yes, my wife is pregnant." My big brainstorm had backfired. I was choking up again and Jaime was merely happy to have his attention diverted to warm, fuzzy thoughts from the cold hell of the Third Step.
"You want to see them again, don't you?" "Oh yes!" So I started trying to shock him with "Then you better start walking. You HAVE to survive this." But I just got back a cheerful, "Oh, yes."
Even so, we began making slow progress back toward the Second Step. Jaime was only able to go a few steps at a time and then I'd feel him tapping me on the pack to stop and sit down. We walked about two feet apart since I had his oxygen bottle in my pack and just the rubber hose connecting us. The terrain between the Second and Third Steps of Everest's North Ridge is by far the easiest ground of that particular climb. Even so, when we'd get walking along, I half expected to just hear a little "pop" of that rubber hose separating as Jaime tumbled off the Kangshung Face a few feet to our right.
In fact, at one point I considered momentarily that Jaime might step off that face on purpose to save me from an unworkable future. But what emotion immediately chased that thought? That was guilt, for sure. I wanted Jaime to live, but I still just didn't have a clue as to how he would live with just my help and 20 feet of progress between protracted sit-down rests. I started telling him that he needed to get it together before the Second Step or he'd die. This information was still getting tangled up in Jaime's struggle to deal with a poorly fitting oxygen mask and glasses that wouldn't stay clear and in place. He was still too happy to be alive to truly think of death.
We'd fallen so far behind Tap and Jason and Andy that I'd lost track of them completely. My world was down to Jaime and my bad thoughts. The Second Step was filling my head with feelings of inadequacy. That's what you get up that way when you legalize emotions.
I've known people who would have been perfectly able, in the same circumstance, to have left Jaime at the top of the Step, rappelled down and found a half-rotten length of rope, cut it out from the climbing route, climbed back up the Step with it, anchored it, lowered Jaime down and gone about their rescue business. But I knew I didn't have all that in me then and there.
My friends and acquaintances down below must have known it too because they started suggesting over the radio that I was going to have to consider leaving Jaime and saving my own bacon. Finally, running out of options and nearing the top of the Step, I heard Eric winding up for a direct order via the radio. I pulled it from the muffling effect of my down suit and held it out a few inches from Jaime's face. Eric didn't sugarcoat it, "Dave, if Jaime can't do any better than he's doing now, you'll have to leave him up there." I watched Jaime's eyes get pretty wide then, as emotion flooded back into him. Anger. That is what he later told me he felt. It was actually the first part of that morning that he was able to fully recall afterward. Not a moment too soon, since we'd arrived at the step. And then it was all Jaime.
He found some deep and as yet untapped source of strength and determination, clipped in and rappelled the Second Step without oxygen. Not bad for a dead man, I thought as I accompanied him. Upon reaching the lower rappel of the step, I preceded Jaime and was thus just below him when he neared the bottom of it all and got hung up in ropes just six or eight feet above me. I was mighty tired then and reaching up to scratch my head kind of uselessly when Phurba Sherpa jumped in like Superman.
Phurba, a member of Jaime's team who had summited the day before and then gone all the way down to Camp V at 25,700 feet had now returned with a vengeance. He jumped up past me, placed his own goggles and oxygen mask and oxygen on Jaime and disentangled him from the ropes in about two minutes flat.
"Now why didn't I do that?" I wondered. "Oh yeah, because I'm getting wasted." But I rallied some, out of shame (a timely emotion) and with Phurba and a steadily stronger Jaime, we got our man back across the first ridiculous traverses to the Mushroom Rock. And there was Andy Politz from our own expedition, who'd come up to swing it all in our favor.
Andy, my tentmate at high camp, had decided not to go for the summit that day. Instead, he wanted one last day of searching for Sandy Irvine, despite the new snow still hanging around our search area. Andy had some hunch he wanted to pursue. But on hearing of all our trials and tribulations with errant campers that morning, Andy had grabbed all the oxygen he could and had bolted up to fight the good fight. And when I saw him, I believed we had won the battle.
Joy, a most welcome emotion, started flooding into me there at the Shroom, even as strength was evaporating. I'd given away my food and water and had now been about 12 hours without the stuff, a bad idea for a guy like me. The rescue proceeded then with me kind of tagging along. Andy Lapkass and Jaime were gathering speed as yet another of their Sherpa team, Lobsang, got up to help. That left Tap and Jason and Andy Politz and myself following and decompressing. But when we started into the Yellow Band, Andy and Tap and Jason encountered a pair of the Russians we'd tried so hard to help that morning.
One of them collapsed then and sitting just up the slope I myself sat down in defeat. Watching the guys struggle with injectible drugs, with their radio calll to our doc, Lee Meyers, and with searches for some signs of life. I can't quite say what my emotions boiled down to. There I was, with all my rescue training, a ski patroller and all that, just watching.
I told myself that it was because I would not be able to climb down the 40-degree slope directly above this operation and onto the crowded slope without kicking rock and ice onto the victim. I told myself that the poor man was dead and that we could do no more. I told myself that it just didn't matter what any of us ever did anyway. But Politz was not encumbered by such useless, nameless emotions, as he worked furiously there at 28,000 feet finally determining beyond all doubt that the Russian, Alexei, had died.
I came down to join my partners then and together we did our best to deal with what seemed to be the end of a bad day. Back at high camp finally, Politz, Tap and Jason decided that they were not sticking around for more epics and a night of thin air. Since Jaime, Andy Lapkass and the surviving Russians were all in the care of their various teammates, my partners hightailed it down the mountain to make their own lives better.
I lay back in one of our remaining tents, exhausted. Our Sherpa team had taken away much of high camp that day and it was with only dull concern that I noted that they had pulled all of the odd food that I survive on. I had to go down as well. But I just lay there uselessly, drained of emotion, brains and strength. It crossed my dull mind that this whole saga would be used to further the "Everest Bashing" popular in some circles; the people who drone on to say that us accident-prone riffraff should not be allowed onto such hallowed ground. Save it all for the Ivy League climbing clubs.
There would certainly be much depressing ado made of those who didn't, couldn't or wouldn't help out today, I thought glumly. And there was death and what a dead climber looks and feels like crowding my brain with darkness.
So I was wallowing in bad feelings and exhaustion when the procession of climbers from the team we'd helped started down past my tent. Andy Lapkass, the accomplished and friendly man I look up to and admire was obviously in great pain from his frostbite and continuing ordeal when he stopped and leaned in to say thanks and that he was sorry we had to miss out on an Everest summit to help him.
Coming to my senses again, I sat up and told him what I'd just realized with his words, that the day would be far more important to all of us than any summit could ever have been. As he moved away, I saw through the tent door the final pyramid of Everest glowing magically in the late afternoon sun. Still a beautiful and worthy mountain. Leaning out, I saw what I'd been missing all day in my frenzy, Tibet and Nepal and a million mountains and cloud tops. I found a little strength of my own then and got my tired body out of high camp and down lower.
I walked on after darkness, rappelling this and traversing that under shimmering stars until I plodded into Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 ft. It was dark and quiet as one would expect at 11:30pm, but to my amazement and everlasting gratitude, Kami Sherpa climbed out of bed and started fixing me a plate of fried rice. He went back to bed after setting it in front of me, and I did my best to get it down my neck. Even so, I woke up several times in the next hour, with my face progressively closer to the rice. Passing out with your face in a plate of food after a big day is not an emotion, but it should be. A good one.