A long overdue, heroic story of rescue high on Everest

For the first 29 years of Everest’s climbing history the death rate was 100%. That’s to say that the only two people to climb it, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, (if indeed they climbed it) didn’t come back alive.

Then Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary climbed it in 1953 and came back down again. Suddenly the death rate was down to 50%, and it’s been going down ever since. Today the overall rate is closer to 4%, with close to 300 deaths in total and 7500 successful summits.

This year 563 people reached the summit of Everest and there were 7 deaths, or 1.25%. It’s a dangerous mountain, but you could call this a successful year. To put it another way 98.75% of those 563 achieved the dream of a lifetime, and returned with hard-earned memories they will never forget, that will shape how they look at life from now on. I know, for I shared that feeling four years ago.

Despite these overwhelmingly positive statistics, the media still prefers to focus on the 1.25%. Once again there was lots of hand-wringing about the deaths, particularly in Australia, where a young female doctor was among those who did not return. For her family of course, hers is the only story that matters and my heart goes out to them, but I believe it is a better tribute to her memory and the others who died to put things in perspective, and focus on the positive things that inspired them to take up the challenge and accept the risk.

There are many stories of blame, but we rarely hear about the stories of heroism. I never understand this, because it’s not that they don’t exist. Why do the media focus on the negative, when (as I believe) the majority of people have a positive outlook in life, and would much prefer to hear the positive, inspiring stories instead?

In this week’s post, I intend to do my bit to rectify this.

You’ve probably heard plenty of stories of climbers stepping over dead bodies (a myth I dispelled in this post) or leaving others to die without trying to help. It’s this latter myth I’m going to dispel this week, with the help of an old teammate of mine Robert Kay.

Robert Kay makes a couple of new friends in Arughat at the start of the Manaslu Circuit trek
Robert Kay makes a couple of new friends in Arughat at the start of the Manaslu Circuit trek

While only 1.25% of summiteers died on Everest this year, a far greater proportion than that came close to death, but returned to tell the tale. Some of them found the strength inside to find their own way out of their difficulties, while others needed the encouragement and help of teammates, Sherpas, guides, and members of other teams. I nearly died myself on the North-East Ridge in 2012, and although I found my own way back down, Chongba was with me the whole time, and was there if I needed him.

There are heroic stories of rescue on Everest every year, but you rarely, if ever, hear about them. I challenge a major media outlet (who read my blog but pretend not to) to take up Robert’s story, a story of cooperation and heroism. Sherpas, commercial clients (yes, commercial clients), guides from rival operators, and helicopter pilots, all rallied together and contributed to a Herculean effort that saved a single life.

One of the reasons you don’t hear about these stories is because they really need to be told by the victim, and victims don’t often want to talk about the trouble they cause to others.

This is where Robert differs, because he is one of life’s good guys. He has been visiting Nepal for many years. He has two adopted Nepali daughters whom he has put through school in the United States, and a more extended “Nepali family” of children he has been sponsoring through a charity for many years. After the 2015 earthquake he returned to Nepal to lead a trek to Everest Base Camp for his friends, to raise money for earthquake victims.

Few people deserve to climb Everest more than him. 2016 was his fourth attempt, and he has climbed many other peaks in Nepal, as well as Denali, Vinson and Aconcagua. Everest would be the last of his Seven Summits.

Everest needs more people like Robert, who serve their time and give back to the places they visit. But how easily he could have been just another one of those statistics contributing to all the media stories about inexperienced clients who don’t know when to turn around, who need their hands to be held every step of the way, and guides to make all their decisions for them.

Robert at the South Col the afternoon before his eventful summit day (Photo: Robert Kay)
Robert at the South Col the afternoon before his eventful summit day (Photo: Robert Kay)

I first met Robert in 2011 on Manaslu. We were both climbing with Altitude Junkies, a western operator who run “unguided” expeditions to the 8000m peaks. This means that clients are expected to climb unsupervised between camps and make their own decisions, but in truth there is plenty of advice and support from owner Phil Crampton and his team of experienced climbing Sherpas.

Robert was hoping to reach the summit of Manaslu and ski back down again, but his ski boots were nowhere near as warm as our triple mountaineering boots, and he frequently suffered from cold feet. I have two abiding memories of him on that expedition – of passing him on a steep snow slope with his bare foot pressed into Gombu’s down suit; and passing him again as he approached the summit late in the day, with Gombu carrying his skis.

Robert made his own decision to set off late on summit day, at 11am, when he knew it would be warmer. It worked. He and Gombu both reached the summit, and Robert returned without frostbite, despite his boots. He vowed never to take his skis to an 8000m peak again.

This year on Everest he was already struggling when he reached the South Col after a tiring ascent up the Lhotse Face from Camp 3. The South Col is the windswept plateau at 7950m between Everest and its sister mountain Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. It is nearly 1000m below the summit and the launchpad for summit attempts.

Most teams leave for the summit the evening of their arrival and climb overnight, but when Robert got there strong winds were blasting across the plateau, and it was the most they could do to huddle inside their tents. Besides, he had already decided that it would be asking too much to get to the top the following day.

He sent the following text message to his wife Patty:

My climb is over. I’ve never suffered like this. 2 big days to get to base camp then relax & warm.

But in the middle of the night the wind died, and the following day it was bright and sunny. Robert’s team remained on the col that morning, and at some point that day he changed his mind and sent another message to his wife:

What a difference a day makes! Aiming for the top at 8 tonight. Great weather, feeling capable.

The following morning he achieved the thing he had dreamed about for 39 years, and stood on the summit of Everest. According to his account of the climb, it had been a relatively straightforward ascent for him – he was warm and felt strong – but the crowds had frustrated him (over 200 people reached the summit that day, 19 May). He estimated that in total nearly five hours were added to his summit day by the delays on ascent and descent.

In truth, his ascent had been far from straightforward, and it’s likely he was already in the early stages of high-altitude pulmonary edema (an extreme form of altitude sickness also known as HAPE) as he stood on the summit.

As HAPE and exhaustion set in, his descent became increasingly laboured, but he struggled on. Beneath the South Summit he tried to take 30 steps between rest breaks, but could only manage 10-20 (this sounds pathetic, but I know exactly how he feels). Beneath the Balcony, less than 500m above the South Col, he found the steep slope too difficult to walk down, so he decided to glissade instead.

Or as he says a little more descriptively:

At some point not far below the Balcony, I was getting too tired to stand so I decided to glissade down. This is a fancy climber’s term for ‘slide on your butt’.

He had been accompanied all the way down by two Sherpas, Sangye and Pasang Ongchu, who waited patiently every step of the way. But somewhere close to the bottom Robert noticed that Sangye was also beginning to tire, so he pleaded with him to get back to camp.

Pasang Ongchu remained, gently encouraging Robert onwards every time he felt his rests were becoming too long (the same Pasang Ongchu did exactly this for me on Manaslu as I returned exhausted to Camp 2 from the summit).

They reached the bottom of the slope, and had half a mile to walk across the flat expanse of the South Col, but a few short metres from their tents Robert collapsed. This time Pasang could do nothing to move him, so he went to fetch help. A group of people returned with tea, food and more oxygen. They tried to swap Robert’s bottle, but as soon as he was disconnected from the gas he fell on his side and began to spasm.

It took six Sherpas to lift him up, drag him the remainder of the way to camp and throw him into a tent.

At this point two of Robert’s fellow clients from the Altitude Junkies team, Ben and Laura, who had themselves just returned exhausted from the summit, arrived and realised what Robert needed was a dexamethasone injection. This is a powerful steroid that has been used many times to revive exhausted climbers at high altitude. A guide arrived from a rival team, Madison Mountaineering, and administered the injection. It immediately worked its magic and Robert recovered a little, but it was going to be a difficult night.

Robert could not lie down because the fluid in his lungs (a symptom of HAPE) would cause him to drown. Initially another Sherpa, Mingma, sat back to back with him for a couple of hours, until they rigged up some mats for Robert to lean against.

Descending the Lhotse Face - imagine descending this slope with HAPE and still remembering to take a photo (Photo: Robert Kay)
Descending the Lhotse Face – imagine descending this slope with HAPE and still remembering to take a photo (Photo: Robert Kay)

That night Robert sat up with his three teammates Laura (who administered the drugs), Ben (who kept in radio contact with base camp), and Barbara (who spent the night melting snow on the stove for all of them to drink). He survived the night, but he was still at 7950m and far from safety.

The following day the weather was fair, but it took over 12 hours for Robert to descend the Lhotse Face to Camp 2. Pasang kept two steps ahead of him, and Ben two steps behind, sacrificing their own more speedy descents to help Robert down.

At the bottom of the Lhotse Face six Sherpas from another team arrived with a sled to tow Robert the remaining mile along the flat of the Western Cwm to Camp 2. Twice they had to lower him into a crevasse and lift him back up the other side.

It had taken the assistance of some 20 people to help him from the summit at 8848m to Camp 2 at 6400m, and it was to take at least one more. The following morning at 6.15, a New Zealand pilot called Jason Laing flew his helicopter into the thin air of the Western Cwm to pick Robert up and take him to hospital back in Kathmandu.

Not so long ago flying a helicopter at 6400m was considered extremely risky, but Jason is now an old hand at this. He is the very same pilot who Robert and I both watched bring body after body out of the Khumbu Icefall on longlines after the 2014 avalanche.

Back at Kathmandu, Robert was diagnosed as having not only HAPE, but HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema – the brain equivalent of HAPE) and pneumonia. He was in hospital for a week, but has happily now recovered. Meanwhile Ben got back to base camp under his own steam, where he discovered he had serious frostbite in all the toes of his right foot. He was evacuated by helicopter and taken to the same hospital as Robert.

The next point I am about to make I can’t say better than Robert, so I will leave it to him.

There is always a lot of derogatory writing about commercial expeditions, the quality of their clients and support and the natural competition that business competitors are forced to engage in. I can honestly say from my close up perspective that I saw nothing but the highest professionalism from everyone involved. People forgot their business allegiances when they saw me in trouble and just stood up and did whatever they could to help. I am so proud to be associated with all of these people.

The bottom line for me in this story is that I have been given a second chance at life due to the bravery, skills, hard work and sacrifice of others. I feel like a soldier returning from battle after his buddies carried him through a hail of bullets. Were it not for Pasang Ongchu Sherpa, Sange Sherpa, Ben and Laura Darlington, Barbara Padilla, Lysle Turner, Billy Nugent, Phil Crampton, Jason the pilot, the doctors at the CIWEC Clinic, the six men who carried me to my tent and the six men who carried me over a mile in the snow and dark into C2 there is no doubt in my mind that I would be dead on the side of the mountain that has held my attention for 39 years.

When deaths happen on Everest all we ever hear in the media is how it’s down to inexperienced clients who shouldn’t be on the mountain. But the majority of Everest climbers, like Robert, have every right to be there.

Everybody, even the most experienced of climbers, can have a bad day. Luckily, in most cases on Everest, there are people there to help. Rescues like this, with heroes big and small doing everything they can to give someone a chance to survive, are common on Everest. We rarely hear about them, and it’s time this changed.

Congratulations to Robert and the rest of his team for their incredible achievement. He is now the first motorcycle dealer from Nebraska to reach the summit of Everest, and may his story of survival serve as an inspiration to others. He may like to thank many people for saving his life, but the Sherpas will tell him that it’s all a result of his own good karma.

Now make yourselves a cup of a tea or coffee, or crack open a beer or something even stronger, and read Robert’s story in his own words:

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2 thoughts on “A long overdue, heroic story of rescue high on Everest

  • June 1, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Thanks, Mark, for walking us thru the account of Robert’s climb and rescue. This is a great alternative perspective on the challenges and risks and achievements that make up Everest.
    By the way, your books have been a huge help to me!

  • June 1, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Great article Mark well done!

    You are right in saying the press only brings us the bad side of climbing Mount Everest so it is good to read something good for a change.

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