NEWSLETTERS - Everest Expedition 2006

Newsletter 109 June 2006

Reflections on Everest 2006

When our team first met in Kathmandu at the end of March, there was a spectacular partial eclipse of the sun. At the time I was asked if this was a good or bad omen, my reply was that it was good, but at the time my heart suggested that it was not to be. My inner instincts were to be true.

The China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) had asked me to again fix the ropes on the North side of Everest. We had tried to do this the previous year, but the season was very bad, and the joint agreements between other Sherpas did not work. There was much criticism, so I and my Sherpa team were keen to prove that one team with good direction could fix the ropes to a high standard, and on time for all the teams to use. However just as I was arriving in Nepal mid March the CTMA withdrew their support saying that they had complaints that we should not be allowed to fix the rope, therefore they did not want to be involved with the collection of $100 per climber. As I was already committed with staff and equipment I was allowed to do the work of fixing the ropes, but I was not allowed to cause “any problems” at BC.

My Sherpa team arrived in BC mid March and started to fix the ropes early so as we would not be holding up any of the other teams progress. However, Tuk Bahadur Thapa Sherpa became ill after his second trip to North Col. He was sent back down to BC along with supporting local yak men who we work with regularly. Tuk reported from Interim camp that he was feeling strong and better, but then later collapsed and then subsequently died of Pulmonary Oedema. The CTMA Liaison Officer called me in Tingri very late at night to tell me of this shocking news. I arrived at BC the following morning to pick up Tuk’s body and to make the required arrangements to contact his family and to have his body cremated at the Rongbuk Monastery.

Tuk was new on our team, however all of my Sherpas are personal friends and are like family, most of whom have been on several expeditions with us, and some have been working with us for over 20 expeditions. It was always inevitable that we would have a fatality during expedition time, and so my worst nightmare arrived this year. We have always worked very hard to run safe trips, and so after 23 commercial expeditions and 270 people on the summits of 8,000m peaks we had our second fatality, the first being good friend Marco Siffredi who disappeared as he was attempting his second snowboard descent from the summit of Everest.

Our Sherpa team and guides were despondent but also realised that many people were now relying on the fact that we had promised to fix the ropes to the summit, so we got on with this job. Assisted by extremely good weather this strong team of Sherpas finished fixing the 5,400m of rope, to the summit on 30 April. This was a complicated job taking 40 days, 30 cylinders of oxygen, many yaks and associated support logistics. The total cost was $32,160, and I would like to thank those who willingly contributed $100 per climber.

Himalayan Experience 1,800
Seven Summits Club 3,000
Ecuador Al Everest 400
Everest Max 1,200
Everest Peace Project 800
Scott Willins 1,300
Adventure Peaks 700
Blair Falahey 100
Freddy Jeubert 100
Arun Trek – Turkish team 1,000
Arun Trek – International team 400
Arun Trek – Ski team 200
Nima Tshering – Chinese team 800
Monta Rosa – French, Spanish, Canadian teams 1,100
Indian team 1,500
Tochigi Japanese team 400

TOTAL US$14,800

If all the climbers had contributed then this would have worked out to be a fair and reasonable price for all to pay, and cover the costs involved. I was somewhat disappointed that none of the Korean teams contributed after they said that as there were so many members that they would put their own ropes in. Well they did put rope to the North Col, but no higher.

My Sherpas were proud of their work, and I think that most would agree that this was the best fixed rope that we have ever had on the north side. However, having this rope all the way from the bottom to the top enabled many people with limited ability to get very high on the mountain to where the technical difficulty increases on summit days.

I want to be clear and upfront and mention that during the season I willingly helped many teams in various ways:

* The Ecuador team who had their technical climbing equipment stolen, and I loaned them a complete set of equipment for the duration of their expedition.

* Bikram Pandy’s team that borrowed my gas heaters for the duration of their expedition.

* The laying of over 800m of hose pipe so that our expedition plus 9 other teams could have clean drinking water.

* Mr Pak’s Korean team that I supplied free power to for most of their expedition.

* Everest Max requested help when one of their members was having difficulty on summit day, and I offered access to my high camp complete with oxygen, gas and medicine.

* The Turkish team requested help when one of their members was having difficulty on summit day, and I offered access to my high camp complete with oxygen, gas and medicine.

* When Tomas from the Swedish ski team fell in the Norton Couloir I supplied the glacier travel equipment and telephone so as his body could be located and arrangements were made for his removal.

* The Indian team who had one member who collapsed at North Col. My doctor and my guides immediately administered medicine and built a stretcher and I diverted 6 of my strongest Sherpas to lowering this man and carrying him back to ABC where he spent the night in my medical tent. I then diverted 3 of my local staff to carry the Indian to BC the following day.

* The Tibet Sherpa from Dan Mazur’s team who fell and seriously lacerated his head. My doctor and I spent about 2 hours administering 15 sutures and then I supplied 4 other Tibet Sherpas to escort him to BC.

* The Seven Summits team who I offered Sherpa assistance for the rescue of Lincoln Hall.

* And the numerous visits to my doctor from other teams for medical treatment. On my final night at ABC we dealt with 18 cases of frostbite, 5 of these were from my own team.

* The $1,000 donated to the local school that we support, along with the new sky lights that were donated and will be installed later this summer.

* The donation of artificial legs, and the hours of teaching Tilly from Tingri to walk again.

Over the years since 1994 I have initiated, or been involved with about 15 major rescue situations on Everest. I have always been willing to supply equipment, oxygen, manpower or what ever it takes to be of assistance. Also during this time I have been responsible for the unenviable job of removal of about 10 bodies from the mountain, something that we never mention.

Rescues are always a traumatic time for my team members, guides and Sherpas, and we often come back physically and mentally exhausted. But also rescues must be undertaken with the greatest of care so as not to endanger the lives of rescuers. I have been very involved with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) sitting on the High Altitude Sub Commission trying to improve the standards of high altitude guiding and the training of local guides. So I am acutely aware of situations that can arise whilst guiding at high altitude.

Concerning the Himalayan Experience ascent on the 15th of May I want to convey my situation. I stay at the North Col camp during my summit attempts as I have better radio communications and can look at the entire route via telescope.

Because of the crowds on the route the day before, our team decided to leave camp 4 at 23.00 which is much earlier that we would normally. During the evening I had mistakenly taken the wrong radio to my sleeping bag, so I was not receiving any calls and it was not until 00.17 that I found this problem and made my initial contact with Mark Woodward for the day. He told me that he had left camp 4 (8,250m) at 23.10. Most of the team reached the top of the Exit Cracks between 00.28 and 00.35.

Sherpa Phurba Tashi my Sidar called me at 01.41 to say that he was at Green Boots, but there was no mention that David Sharp was also at this location. Recordings being done in a separate tent from mine confirm this. The next conversation was with Woodard at 01.50 when the main group were on top of the First Step. At no stage during the ascent did I know that there was a man in trouble. There were never any radio conversations concerning the sighting of David Sharp between my team members and myself during the ascent.

My first member reached the summit at 06.15, and the bulk of the team reached the summit at 07.03.

It was at this stage that I noticed clients Gerard and Tim were moving too slowly, so at 07.05 I asked them to turn around, but they refused. Tim asked for ½ an hour more time to prove that he could reach the top of the snow slope. At 07.25 I again asked Tim and Gerard to please come back. At 07.45 Tim did reach the top of the snow slope, and Gerard was still half way up the snow slope. Tim and Gerard met with our main team coming down from the summit at the top of the snow slope, and it was not until 08.00 that another client Wayne managed to convince Tim and Gerard to turn around. Both of these members immediately required a considerable amount of assistance to get them down from this location. Tim was moving extremely slowly, and Gerard was sitting which required one Sherpa to pull and one to push him, so in fact I was having a hard time to get these two members down the mountain. Behind them was Inglis who reached the bottom of the Third Step at 09.15.

It was not until 09.30 that I first became aware of the existence of David Sharp (although I did not know his name at that stage) when one of the climbers called me to say that there was a big man about to die. I established that the climber was in the same location as Green Boots the name (for obvious reasons) that we have given the dead Indian who has been in this location in a small cave (8,500m) since 1996. I established that David was still alive but unconscious and that his arms were frozen to the elbow and his legs were frozen to the knee, and that he had frost bite to the nose. The climber said that David had an oxygen system with him but was not wearing it, and was trying to assist with getting the mask back onto David. We discussed what assistance that we could offer, as there was only one climber and one Sherpa there at that time, who had been out of camp for over 10 hours, and were now getting low on their own oxygen with about 1 ½ hours of oxygen left. I was also acutely aware of the struggle that we were having higher up the mountain with 3 climbers all of whom were moving extremely slowly along with all my Sherpa support, one Sherpa per member. I told the climber who encountered David to continue down the mountain as at this altitude and with this terrain it is not possible to carry an unconscious person with only the people that I had on the mountain at that time.

I never spoke to Phurba, but at about 11.45 he along with Lakpa from Arun Trek and one of the Turkish members reached David and tried to help him. Phurba found some oxygen and gave this to David, and they attempted to get David to his feet, but he kept collapsing, so they shifted David just a few feet into the sun.

The fact that Phurba did not ask for assistance confirmed to me that it was not possible to rescue David. I have worked with Phurba for many years, and he is one of the strongest Sherpas on the North side of Everest. We have been involved in many self rescue and the rescue of others over the years, so I know that if there was a chance to help he would willingly do so, and would have immediately called me to start the logistics that would be required. His silence was ominous.

Each climber took between 11 ½ hours and the latest 13 ½ hours, so as can be imagined everyone was in a pretty exhausted state, and with little oxygen left. I do not consider camp 4 a safe place to stay when returning from the summit (unless in an emergency) so after resting I forced everyone to start proceeding to camp 3 (7,806m).

I was still at North Col at this stage, and when I knew that everyone had made it to camp 3 I then returned to ABC in the early evening. Later that evening some of the Sherpas including Phurba also returned to ABC.

The following morning I was still concerned about this missing man. Had he died during the night? Who was he? What team was he on? I knew nothing of this. Phurba and I went to a Korean team, and managed to make contact with a Sherpa from that team who was going to the summit that day. The Sherpa later confirmed that David was still in the same place that Phurba had left him the day before and that he was no longer alive. Although it is not my job I then set about trying to find out who this person was. The member who first encountered David had suggested that he was Russian. I went to the Asian Trek camp and meet with George Dijmaresch who shared this camp with David. Upon describing the clothing and pack that the missing person was wearing, I found out that in fact this was David Sharp. I had never met or talked with David, so he was a complete stranger to me. I knew that his next of kin needed to be informed immediately as I know how much Everest information web sites like to send out information, even before they know the facts. I suggested that George should inform Asian Trekking, so as they could inform the parents, but he did not want to be involved saying that he was not part of David’s team, so I took it upon myself to call Ang Tshering at Asian Trekking. Ang Tshering asked if I would inform the parents, so I made my first contact with David’s parents by telephone. I told them that we had seen David the day before, and that we had left him even though he was still alive, but in an unrecoverable state, and that he was confirmed dead that morning. This was a very hard call to make but something that I felt had to be done. As I was going to BC the following day I gave David’s parents my BC phone number where they called me and we had a subsequent phone call where we again discussed the whole incident, and they gave me directions to deal with his equipment.

I explained that although my summit clients were returning home immediately, that I still had North Col clients, and that I would not return to Chamonix via London until early June, and that I would be happy to meet them at that stage.

I meet with the family this last Monday 5 June. They have no interest in the release of recorded materials. I returned to my home in Chamonix on the 6th of June and eventually returned to my office for the first time in 3 months on the 7th.

As to David’s movements on 14/15 May, I have absolutely no idea. I was at North Col concentrating on getting my clients successfully to the summit and back again. When there are so many people on the mountain it is impossible to know who is who from a distance. I did notice that there were a couple of very slow moving people heading to the summit as our team was coming down, but who they were I have no idea. Certainly nobody from my team reported seeing anyone in distress.

I can not comment on my members movements high on the mountain, I can only report about what I could see and hear. However, I can only assume that:

Either people did not see David on the way to the summit. This is very easy to understand. It was a cold day, people would have had their down hoods up and around their faces, it was dark and a head lamp only transmits a certain amount of light in a focused area, people are wearing oxygen masks which restricts the viewing area. All of these things combined together severely restricts vision.

Or people saw David, but assumed that this was the body of the Indian who died in exactly the same place in 1996, and whose body I had told members to expect to see. In fact David was lying right on top of the Indian when Phurba found him on the descent.

Or people saw David and assumed that he was already dead.

David was inside a small cave, so would not have made it easy for people to see him, which is probably why so many people that day passed him. He certainly can not have attracted attention to himself otherwise we would have known.

If I had known there was a problem on the way up I am sure the structure of the day would have been very different, and most certainly I would have investigated the chance of a rescue. At that stage we would have had fresh Sherpas guides and members, and ample oxygen as opposed to exhausted people and very little oxygen when we were returning. It was still early in the season, and so if we had carried out a rescue we could have all returned for another summit attempt later in the season with remaining oxygen, food and resources.

I am pleased for those of my members who reached the summit, but sorry that their achievement has been overshadowed by the numerous deaths on Everest this year. I am sorry for the amount of frost bite that my members incurred this year, never before did we have this much frost bite. It is somewhat frustrating to know that our team went to a lot of effort to install the fixed ropes, and the ladder on the second step several years ago, but had to wait for long periods of time to get access to the ropes which contributed to their frost bite.

I am happy for Mark Inglis, that he reached the summit, his personal ambition, but I am sad that the media has not recognised his other goal, and that was to make people aware of the sad situation of people in Cambodia who through no fault of their own have stood on mines and have ended up in a similar situation as Mark with no legs.

Can I just say that Mark has undertaken this project with huge dedication, first climbing Mt Cook, and then he came to Cho Oyo to train, and it was here that we all agreed to make a team that would be confident and proficient to take him and the rest of the group of amazing climbers that made up the Himalayan Experience team to Everest. I admire the will power of Mark and am proud to have helped him achieve his goal.

Finally, a quick note about Lincoln Hall who was successfully rescued. It was heart wrenching to hear Lincoln on the radio, and also to hear the conversations of the Sherpas who were helping him down the mountain. They also had to leave Lincoln for dead, but somehow in his unconscious state he still managed to move along the ridge where he was then found by members from another team. Alex from Seven Summits tells me that even with this help, it still took another 15 Sherpas and 50 cylinders of oxygen to get Lincoln down to BC.

I travelled back to Zangmu with Lincoln, and this is an amazing story. In Kathmandu we were greeted with the sad news that Sue Fear who summited Everest with us 2 years ago had died on Manaslu. This year's season finished on the sad note that it started.

For the families of those who died on Everest this year I send my deepest condolences.

Yours sincerely
Russell Brice
09 June 2006