I thought I would take you on a climb up Mt. Everest. And show you what it was like when Everest had the worst disaster in history, a two day storm that raged on and on. I was the only doctor on the mountain.
Mt. Everest is 29,035 feet high – the cruising altitude of a jet. At the summit only 1/3 altitude above sea level. The kind of condition you would find on a summer day on Mars. Climbers are exposed to these severe conditions 16-20 hours a day.
On the occasion I’m going to speak about it was so cold when I went to reach for my water bottle, which was near my chest, and it had frozen completely. I set up a medical basecamp. We were one of three expeditions on the mountain, run by the National Geographic but organized by the Explorers Club.
When your climbing the ice floors, it’s like a rat in a maze, you can’t see where you are going. During the night it is the coldest time but also the least likely for ice shifts. We cross cravases, many are ten stories deep or more, on aluminum ladders bolted together, with harnesses on.
Sometimes we say we climb at night so we can’t see how far we could possibly fall.
The winds are constantly scowling the summit of Everest. We climb in the thin air up toward the clouds. On the way up, climbers rest at the camps on oxygen masks, catching up and then evaluating if conditions are good enough to keep going.
What happened that fateful season, the storm picked up. Climbers were already up on near the summit when the storm hit.
[Image] Climbers with face masks and re-breathers, climbers with oxygen tanks.
[Image] Climbers walking on a sheer drop off . 8,000 feet to the left you fall into Nepal. 12,000 feet to the right and you fall to Tibet. No ropes because it’s so sheer, you’ll likely just pull the other climbers down with you. So you’re on your own in these treacherous zones.
When the storm hit 2 climbers were stuck and could not descend. Another climber had collapsed in the snow, others had passed and had left him for dead. There were 18 other climbers that were unaccounted for.
2 basecamp climbers decided to go for a rescue mission. Their first comment was not SHOULD we go but How fast can we get ready?
Rob and Doug were stuck too far up on the mountain for rescue to reach them. Rob was a strong climber but Doug was weak, and rescue informed Rob over radio that he should climb down and leave Doug. That the conditions were so severe if he didn’t they would both die, so he should come down and save himself. Rob replied: “We’re both listening.”
Rob wanted to speak to his wife via radio. She was in New Zealand 7 months pregnant with their baby. They named their child and Rob signed off. That was the last we heard of Rob.
Effects: snowblindness, frost-bitten body parts, hypothermia.
Beth, who we had assumed was dead, eventually stumbled into the medical camp (with some help). He was severely frostbitten and hypothermic. As we nursed him back to humanity, he began to tell us the story of what happened to him. He got disoriented in the storm, lost and then collapsed. He laid in the snow day and night and another day. Other climbers had passed him, he was aware of them, but was powerless to even call for help, motion for help – give any indication that he was still alive. And during that time he realized he did not want to die.And he thought of his family… and powered himself to get up, and stumble down for help.
The human brain is the most complex machine in the universe.
What was the highest helicopter rescue in history – the pilot risked his life to fly above the helicopter cap to reach the camps. When we all reached the bottom, we had a memorial. Many climbers had died and respects were given.
12 climbers died on Everest that year: Scott Fischer was leading the American Expedition. Rob Hall, most experienced mountaineer in history died because he refused to abandon a climber who was weaker than he. I would expect nothing less from him. And others.
The Tibetans feel that the prayer flags (where prayers of safety are written) are carried by the wind to the gods. That year, for those climbers, the conditions were so extreme, the gods were unfortunately not listening.