Tales from the grave: Rescues at Altitude

Tales from the grave: Rescues at Altitude

Posted: May 25, 2006 09:35 pm EDT

Yesterday, Mark Inglis got some cred for at least speaking up in the hushed events surrounding the death of British climber David Sharp. "Mark Inglis was the only one among 40 climbers who spoke up; the rest - the ones with both legs intact - remain silent," wrote ExplorersWeb.

Today APP reports that Mark Inglis now wants to talk in private to Sir Edmund Hillary. Mark said he was disappointed by the debate that has been raging since it was revealed his party walked past David Sharp, who later died. Inglis blamed altitude, and said that people were judging without facts. "I would like to speak to Sir Ed personally, because I think that is better than it being played out in the public forum."

Details - a byline in summit interview

The initial criticism came when a surprising lack of details surrounded David's death. David Sharp died on May 15, but the first facts were not known until May 23, coming almost as a byline in an interview with Mark regarding his own climb.

The criticism was expanded, when it became known how the climber had perished: left to die by 40 other climbers, all strong enough to continue up to the summit.

Climbers' criticism

"We would never just have left him to die," commented Edmund Hillary and other climbers chimed in.

In an interview with ExWeb yesterday, veteran Juan Juanito Oiarzabal who has the world record of 8000+ summit climbs said Its a classic [on Everest] - someone is in trouble, and people pass by, not even taking a quick look at him.

"He wasn't a member of our expedition"

David Sharp, 34, was still alive at 28,000 feet. Mark told a news source: "He was in a very poor condition, near death. We talked about [what to do for him] for quite a lot at the time and it was a very hard decision. About 40 people passed him that day, and no one else helped him apart from our expedition. Our Sherpas gave him oxygen. He wasn't a member of our expedition; he was a member of another, far less professional one."

Later, Mark Inglis told television New Zealand, "And it was like, what do we do? You know, we couldn't do anything. That's, he had no oxygen, he had no proper gloves, things like that. I believe I've copped a wee bit of"

"Effectively dead"

The Television New Zealand reporter asked Mark: "Well, yes. Someone has suggested that maybe you should have stopped the ascent and rescued this man."

Mark: "Absolutely. Yep. It's a very fair point. Trouble is at 8,500 meters it's extremely difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keeping anyone else alive. On that morning over 40 people went past this young Briton. I was one of the first, radioed, and Russ said, look mate, you can't do anything. You know, he's been there X number of hours, been there without oxygen, you know, he's effectively dead."

One Sherpa tried

But many veteran 8000+ climbers don't buy that. In my opinion, solidarity doesnt exist on Everest. And the reason is, that most of the climbers attempting that mountain are not experienced Himalaya mountaineers," Juan Oiarzabal said. "I wouldnt even consider many of them climbers.

Jamie McGuiness reported yesterday that another Sherpa had tried to help David Sharp, "Dawa from Arun Treks also gave oxygen to David and tried to help him move, repeatedly, for perhaps an hour. But he could not get David to stand alone or even stand resting on his shoulders, and crying, Dawa had to leave him too. Even with two Sherpas it was not going to be possible to get David down the tricky sections below. Dawa did not summit because of giving his oxygen to David."

Near dead climber, talking climber

According to other reports now coming in, the Brit was very much alive when the large group of 40 climbers passed him. In the EverestMax debrief today, it says that the expedition overheard communication between BC and the climbers, "they had come across a near-dead climber with severe frostbite of his face and all 4 limbs. He had been at 8500m for at least 24 hours and all he said was that he wanted to sleep."

Altitude is put to blame, but Juanito has another view, Too often people go to Everest without knowing what it is like above 8000m. They pay huge amounts of money and they dont pay for a climb, but for a summit. Thus, reaching the summit becomes their first and only priority. In order to get the summit, they will use all the resources they can afford: Sherpas, bottled O2, camps and ropes previously fixed, etc Up there, everybody focus on their own progress only, selfishly pursuing their goal. They dont care for the rest.

"Chatting away on their radios"

Juanito has been rescued a number of times, including at 8000+ on K2 last year. Other veteran climbers also point out that although difficult, it's far from impossible to save people in the death zone and it has been routinely done.

"We helped two climbers at around 8500 meters in 1998," said one. "Lucky enough, they were revived when we gave them oxygen. The scary part was, that other climbers just passed them, some chatting away on their radios."

No one just left him

There are many examples of high altitude rescues, although far from all end up well. It's not a matter of succeeding but of trying. Aussie climber and polar skier Damien Gildea offers some examples:

In 1953 Art Gilkey's friends tried to rescue him from just below the Shoulder on K2 (all the technical ground still below them). They fell, Schoenig held them on one ice axe, but Gilkey eventually died. But they made the effort.

In 1992 Gary Ball collapsed at 8300m on K2. Rob Hall helped him down to the high camp and then other climbers helped them further, down all the technical ground, steeper than Everest. Others came up to help and eventually carried him down - he could not walk. Ball was at death's door while still up on the mountain but no one just left him.

In 1993 Roger Payne and Julie-Anne Clyma rescued Rafael Jensen from high on K2. His partner (Daniel Bidner) had died and Jensen was on the way out. Roger and Julie were helping him down, they had a little epic with a fixed rope that broke, but they did it. They lost their chance of a summit, as did Victor Saunders who was with them (Victor summited Everest again this year).

"It's got more to do with the people than the situation"

Damien Gildea offered another rescue, one involving the legendary climbers Rob Hall, Gary Ball and Artur Hajzer. That rescue was done at 6100 meters, but it began in Kathmandu and shows it could pay to not give up easily on a fellow climber. Here's the report (also fact checked by Artur today):

"A comparison. In late May 1989 Rob Hall and Gary Ball came down to Kathmandu, exhausted, after a failed expedition to Everest via the South Col route and Artur Hajzer came down from Messner expedition on Lhotse South Face. They got a note that some Poles had been avalanched on Everest West ridge - 5 were killed but Andrzej Marciniak was alive, badly smashed up, blind, stranded near the Lho La and about to die.

Hall, Ball and Artur Hajzer tried to have a heli but it failed, so they immediately sorted a jeep and permission to enter Tibet (the border was closed because of the Tiananmen Square protests), drove to Zhangmu, swapped into a truck and drove to Everest BC. They did this trip pretty much in a day or so, though it is breathlessly recounted as some great and interesting intrepid adventure by most Everest 'climbers' on their websites nowadays.

They then immediately hiked up the central Rongbuk, into the basin and up to the Lho La from the north, where they found Marciniak (camp II on 6100m), treated him, carried him down and out to EBC and back to KTM. The whole thing took 4 days (100 hours)."

Damien ends, "It's got more to do with the people than the situation."

Human weakness

Only today, we have seen two more climbers lost on Everest. Thomas Weber and veteran Lincoln Hall (Norton Couloir) succumbed to altitude above 8000 meters. The difference however to the night David died, was that a detailed, official report was provided within 24 hours of the accidents, and it showed a battle for both climbers to the very end.

Everest and Himalaya are tough places and people die there, but this season the biggest debate was not about that. This year, Everest displayed a weakness much more dangerous than death to human kind: Lack of compassion, selfish ambition, and silence. In their private discussion, out of the public eye, Mark Inglis and Edmund Hillary might want to discuss just that.

Gary Ball died of Cerebral Edema on Dhaulagiri in October 1993 in the arms of his mate, Rob Hall.

Rob Hall died on Mount Everest South Summit in 1996 after refusing to leave his dying client.

Lincoln Hall was on the team that made the 1984 first ascent of the Great (Norton) Couloir (written up in the book 'White Limbo'), where Swedish Tomas Olsson lost his life last week. In 1984, Lincoln turned back on Everest at 8300m with cold feet. On the last page of White Limbo he wrote, "Though I shall never see the summit panorama other than through the eyes and hearts of Tim and Greg, I know that no view is worth that price."

Artur Hajzer made a number of incredible climbs with the late legend Jerzy Kukuzcka. Janusz Majer, the leader of the fateful 1989 Everest West Ridge expedition (starting from Nepal side via Khumbutse and Lo Lha, 2 summits, 5 deaths) is Artur's business partner today.


Image of Rob Hall on the glacier in the resque mission: May 1989 Rob Hall and Gary Ball came down to Kathmandu, exhausted, after a failed expedition to Eveverst and Artur Hajzer came down from Lhotse South Face. They got a note that some Poles had been avalanched on Everest West ridge - 5 were killed but Andrzej Marciniak was alive, near the Lho La and about to die.
Rob Hall (left) and Gary Ball on the truck from Kodari to EBC on the resque mission.
To the rescue, Artur Hajzer on the truck to EBC.
Artur (middle) organized a "thunderbolt" rescue operation on Everest's West Ridge for Andrzej Marciniak in 1989. The rescue team back in Kodari from left: 2 sherpas , Artur Hajzer, Gary Ball, and Rob Hall (injured Andrzej Marciniak is in the bus). Check for the story "Tales from the grave" in the links section. (Click to enlarge.)
The climbers were exhausted, but went straight back to Everest. Rob Hall on the truck to EBC. All images courtesy of Artur Hajzer.