Newsletter 2523 May 2001
Trouble Up High
By the time I got to the top of the Exit Cracks, two Sherpas were trying to help the Spaniard down. Naoki was was being pulled by Karsang, his speed and energy had rapidly diminished. I was becoming hypothermic after more three hours without Oxygen. Russ was constantly on the radio, first helping me deal with the Spaniard and then encouraging Andy, Asmuss and Jaime to keep moving.
Before departing the ridge crest for high camp, I found the bottle with the least amount of Oxygen and began to suck O's. I made it back to the safety of high camp at about 3 pm. Naoki was the only client in sight. By this time Owen was safely at ABC, Evelyne, Robert and Marco also arrived for dinner. Keiron and Ellen slept at Camp 2. Naoki and Karsang made it to Camp 3 by dark.
The last of our team (Andy, Asmuss and Jaime) had summited at 2:30. There were still climbers from the south side up there at the time. With the North Ridge in daylight until 7pm, there was still plenty of time to get down. Unfortunately, the oxygen was draining from the cylinders and cerebral edema was setting in. Jaime started to complain of fogginess in his contact lenses. Actually, his brain was shutting off his eyesight. With little to no vision he could barely walk. The descent of the summit pyramid became a crawl. Andy's eyes became to fog as well. Asmuss guided them to the top of the Third Step.
Russ knew there was a stash of Oxygen at the top of the Second Step. Asmuss left to find it, a remarkable feat when you think of being Oxygen deprived, climbing downwards, collecting the 4 bottles, adding that weight to your pack, then climbing all the way back up to your friends who had by now made it down to the bottom of the third step.
It was now obvious that Jaime could not descend any further without fresh help. I pleaded with Russ to have Andy and Asmuss secure Jaime and get out of there alive. We could go back in the morning and see if Jaime were still living and then worry about rescuing him. We knew that almost no one could survive a night out at that altitude. There were dead bodies all over the ridge and a few corpses were only meters away. Our friend Mark Whetu had lost all of his toes, but his partner froze to death only 60 meters higher. Rob Hall had died clinging to a client a few feet lower on the South Side. Scot Fisher...the list goes on.
Of course, Russ was steps ahead of me. During his 11 trips on Everest he had helped with 14 extreme altitude rescues. In his mind, the details were unfolding. He knew just which teams to go to for help: who to ask for labor, who to ask for Oxygen and who to keep out of the way.
Please come down. We can go back for Jaime.
Asmuss was the first to realize that Andy, too, was fading. While he dug a nice hole in a wind protected spot, Andy and Jaime were bedding down in a windy notch. Asmuss climbed up to them with the Oxygen, placing three bottles among them. He then headed towards Camp 4. Chuldim, Dawa and I were the only ones left at Camp 4.
I was convinced that Asmuss and Andy were descending in the dark. All of our Oxygen was depleted at the high camp, however Russ had the climbing Sherpas stop at Camp 3, where there were reserves of oxygen. Russ also had the reserve Sherpas climbing down to the North Col, in the night, to grab more bottles and shuttle them upwards. By dawn these bottles were at Camp 2, at 7am, they were at Camp 3, and by 9 am, the bottles started to arrive at high camp.
Few expeditions put stand-by Sherpas and oxygen in position for emergencies like this. In the past we've used these reserves to rescue other teams' members. Now we were putting all of our reserves and communications resources to the test.
Around 8:45 pm, on the 23rd, I went to the Americans and woke Dave Hahn. Between gasps of breath, and fighting back tears, I told him about our epic. Dave is a powerful person, and his climbing partners (Tap, Jason and Andy Politz) are equally gracious. He rallied from the fitful sleep of super high altitude and asked about our plans, fears and hopes.
At that point, we thought that only Jamie would be there in the morning and that if the Americans could give him fresh Oxygen and a few other supplies, Jaime could wait there for Lopsang and Phurba to climb back up and rescue him.
I slipped into my sleeping bag about 9:30 and called Russ to confirm the American's help. Two hours later Asmuss shows up, after a harrowing, hallucination filled descent. "You'll sleep with Chuldim and Andy will sleep with us." "Oh, Andy's not coming down."
As absurd as it sounds, Asmuss' arrival made me aware that gas was leaking in our tent. I tried to rouse Dawa, but he was passed out. I dug through all of the tent, and there in my back pack was a compressed gas cartridge that was slowly fizzing out iso-butane. We were lucky to not be asphyxiated.
I fell back into a fitfull sleep. At dawn the radios were crackling. Russ was trying to contact Andy. Eric was trying to contact his team. Asmuss was nearly comatose with exhaustion. Sherpas were pushing upwards with Oxygen cylinders. Our clients were waking up, first to the satisfaction of summiting, but soon to the realization that a drama was unfolding above them.
Andy and Jaime actually picked themselves up and found a more sheltered spot just as the sun was setting. They weren't the only two climbers sleeping on the ridge. A couple of hundred meters below, three Russians were huddled under the "mushroom" rock. Andy pulled his "emergency space blanket" out of his pack, but its thinness made it impossible to unfurl with mittens on. Taking off his heavy mitts, the first attack of frost bite hit. Later, trying to change his radio batteries, gave frost bite its second chance. Within minutes he was unable to rezip his jacket.
Andy and Jaime hugged each other through the night. They knew that sleep was death and so became each other's guardian: shaking, pleading, creating incoherent conversations.
Shortly before dawn the Americans came across the Russians. Despite the cold, each Russian had their parkas unzipped (a bizarre and often cited Everest dead person phenomona). They gave the Russians dexamethasone to treat the likely cerebral edema. They also reported, although apparently lucid, the Russians did not acknowledge the approach of the Americans.
Later, when approaching Andy and Jaime, they noticed the same things: no acknowledgement, appearence of lucidity, jackets unzipped. In fact, on the surface, Andy and Jaime were fine. They could answer questions, but they were conscious on a superficial level. The first order of business was drugging them up with Dexamethasone. Oxygen cylinders were switched. But neither climber could stand up. When the drugs finally kicked in, Jaime had a small seizure, as if his engine was restarted.
The descent was slow. The Americans decided to forgo their summit, showing true heroism by guiding Andy and Jaime downwards.
Phurba and Lopsang, who had summited on the 23rd, rushed up again on the 24th. Now the quickest ever turn around has been 5 days, on the north side by the legendary Ang Babu Chirri (who died this year on the south side). Both of these amazing Sherpas had the reserves to go back up. By the time they reached the Americans, additional help was needed.