Everest '96: Walking dead

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Day 14 of Patrick Conroy's coverage of the first ever South African Everest expedition was spent at Camp 4 on 11 May 1996

Day 14 of Patrick Conroy's coverage of the first ever South African Everest expedition was spent at Camp 4 on 11 May 1996

*In 1996 Patrick Conroy was sent to Nepal to report on South Africa&39;s first Everest expedition. Twenty years later he reflects on this memorable assignment.

Day 14: 11 May 1996

Throughout the night we stayed huddled around the radio at base camp, updating Camp 4 with the little information we had.

Scott Fischer’s Russian guide had controversially climbed that day without using supplemental oxygen. This meant he ran the risk of becoming hypoxic (inadequate oxygen supply to the body) and would not be able to assist his clients.

Not only that, Boukreev rushed down the mountain ahead of everyone else and was one of the first in Camp 4. He later justified the decision saying he would have gone back up if there was a problem.

Well, there was a problem and Boukreev was in the wrong place to help. Without a radio and with no idea where his team was in the storm he had left the rescue efforts to Fisher and Beidleman.

At around 7pm Boukreev had headed back up the mountain but found no-one. He was forced to return to Camp 4.

His leader, Scott Fisher was higher up the mountain having only left the summit at around 4pm – two hours after the cut-off.

Fellow guide Neal Beidleman and Hall’s guide Mike Groome, with two Sherpa and seven clients, were struggling to find Camp 4 in the dark, wind and driving snow. Two of the clients, Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba, were barely conscious.

The situation was critical and the group had to make a break for it or die.

Under the leadership of Beidleman and Groome they set-off in the direction they hoped the tents were in. Weathers was unable to move having collapsed in the snow. Yasuko Namba could not continue either let alone support her own body weight.The diminutive woman lost her grip on Beidelman’s arm and fell. As much as he wanted to the guide could do nothing for her. He kept the group going.

It was around this time that one of Hall’s clients made radio contact with Helen in basecamp. He was in Camp 4 and was able to pass some information back from the Col. He was able to report that Beidleman and Groome had got their group to safety but Namba and Weathers were missing and likely dead at this stage.

Rob Hall’s radio calls also offered a clue as to Doug Hansen. In one transmission he simply stated that Hansen was “gone”. It was immediately assumed this meant the American postal worker was dead. Hall had to now fight to get down and save his own life but was badly frostbitten.

Instead of inquiring about the details of Hansen’s fate the basecamp crew opted to urge Hall down the mountain as best they could. He had to focus on saving himself. Whether Hansen had fallen to his death or simply collapsed from the cold was not important. "Gone" meant it was over for Hansen. He had reached the summit and finally achieved his dream - but at a terrible price.

Guide Andy Harris was also nowhere to be seen. Krakauer had reported that he had seen him reach the camp but would later discover he had mistaken Martin Adams for Harris. The handsome New Zealander who had turned many ladies heads in basecamp had simply vanished.

In the South African basecamp we continued to do the maths, trying to work out just how many people were lost on the mountain. Despite news of some stragglers making it back the accepted figure was seven souls missing as dawn approached.

The cold night air had also frozen our generator which supplied the satellite phone and battery chargers with power. Philip had spent hours over the previous few days tinkering with it. No matter how many times he declared it fixed the generator would splutter and cough and then stop all together.

In the cold early hours it packed up again and Philip was on the other side of camp with the New Zealand team. I radioed to him that it wasn’t working. He told me to check the fuel levels, make sure there wasn’t any ice or snow clogging it up somewhere and then added half joking, “If that doesn’t work hit it with a rock”.

Philip and I had gotten on very well in camp but he did not know me well enough to understand that I rarely get sarcasm and so took the instruction seriously. Having worked my way down his checklist, and getting increasingly impatient fighting with this uncooperative hunk of metal in sub zero temperatures, I picked up a rock and banged it against the frame of the generator. For good measure I repeated the blow a second time.

Something must have dislodged itself, bounced into place, or simply scared the machine stiff that it worked on the next attempt to start it. I had little faith it would last much longer and so fired up the satellite phone and filed a report to 702.

Back up at Camp 4 Anatoli Boukreev, who had gone out on a second rescue climb, returned to Camp 4 with a mixture of clients from Rob Hall and Scott Fischer’s teams. They had been sheltering close to where Weathers and Namba had been left behind.

Boukreev gave a description of where they could be found to Hall’s client, Dr Stuart Hutchison, from Canada. Hutchison bravely decided to go out and find them with a team of Sherpa. He came across the bodies partially covered in snow. He knelt down and saw that the person in front of him was Yasuko Namba and she was breathing. Both gloves were missing and her hands were frozen solid. She was unconscious.

Next he made his way to Weathers – also still alive with his face covered in ice. He tried to get Weathers to sit up but couldn’t.

Hutchison made the agonizing call to leave them where they lay certain that they were too far gone to be saved. Usually decisions like this are left to professional mountain guides, not doctors who have paid to reach the top. Hutchison made the right call in the moment and any criticism of his conduct would be grossly unfair.

Boukreev also returned and reached the same conclusion. He was sure Namba was dead by then but Weathers was alive when he left him.

Instead Boukreev focused on trying to save Scott Fischer and locate the missing Taiwanese expedition leader Makalu Gau and his Sherpa.

Daylight did not end the bad weather.

Over at Rob Hall’s base camp Philip continued to help and communicate with Ian. The focus was starting to switch to the survivors. There were severe cases of frostbite and anyone with medical knowledge was being called upon to assist.

Dr Hutchison at Camp 4 was heroic, bravely heading out into the storm and now treating the injured. Hall and Fischer’s basecamp doctors radioed up instructions to him on how to treat frostbite.

A full scale rescue would now be needed to get the injured down from the death zone and back to basecamp. Between them was the Lhotse face, Western Cwm and then the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. It would be a miracle if they could get everyone down alive.

Hopes for the missing had not faded. Rob Hall was still in radio contact but worryingly he was not moving.

Dr Ingrid Hunt, from Scott Fischer’s team, made her way over to our camp. She introduced herself politely and asked if she could come into our comms tent. She wanted to know if we could radio our climbers and ask someone to check how many of their expedition had made it back to the tents.

We called them and Bruce Herrod volunteered to go.

Hunt was tall and slender. She could not have been older than 30. The radio she was holding crackled and a voice speaking in Nepali was conveying a message. She handed it to a Sherpa who had accompanied her on the trek to our camp.

He smiled, “All team safe” he announced. And then, “Except Scott Fischer. Still missing”.

I radioed Bruce and told him to hold his position.

Deshun Deysel took over radio duties while I went over to the New Zealand camp to resupply an exhausted Philip with recharged batteries.

I noticed Helen Wilton sitting in a chair outside the communications tent. She was staring at nothing in particular with a look of anguish on her face. She was as still as a statue and lost in her thoughts and desperate prayers. A radio inside the tent suddenly crackled into life startling her. In a flash she was inside the tent talking desperately to the person on the other end. My heart broke for her. I hoped desperately in that moment that Hall would make it down to his dear friend.

The search parties continued to try and get to Hall but were turned back by bad weather. The situation was still precarious and the South African team were forced to make a dangerous decision - descend now or stay. After consulting each other the team decided they could not move from Camp 4 and would spend another night on the Col.
Then some relief. The missing Taiwanese climber was found by rescue Sherpa. He was very badly frostbitten but was able to move on his own.

Perhaps desperate to make amends for leaving his team on the descent Anatoli Boukreev continued to fight his way up Everest.

In the early evening he came across Fischer. It was a terrible scene.

The American was partially undressed and splayed out in the snow. During the final stages of freezing to death climbers are known to paradoxically feel warm and want to remove clothing.

Boukreev retrieved some of Fischer’s personal items including his camera, ice axe and pocket knife. The knife would later be given to Scott’s son as a reminder of his father.

For us at basecamp it would be several hours before Scott’s death would be confirmed. We were still under the impression he was missing and Boukreev had no radio.

Hall was still alive and making radio contact. As darkness approached it was clear he would have to spend another night out in the open. His teammates in basecamp patched his wife through to him. She was heavily pregnant with their daughter. Too frozen to move Hall tried to comfort his wife and together they decided on a name for their unborn child, Sarah.

Meanwhile in Camp 4 the situation was grim with little hope of survivors making it back before dark. Then, an icy figure stumbled into camp. He was unrecognisable with one frozen arm held out in front of him in a ghoulish posture. It was Beck Weathers.

Weathers had been left for dead three times and spent an entire night laying on the frozen ground. It was clear from the sight of him that he would lose both hands and most of one arm due to frostbite. His face was covered in dead frozen flesh.

He was bundled into a tent and immediately Hutchison started to treat him.

Back in Texas Beck’s wife was being comforted by friends and family. She had received the news that he was dead. Eight hours later she received another call, this time that he had walked into camp like a frozen Lazarus.

After Beck Weather’s miraculous arrival at Camp 4 the survivors of Rob Halls expedition asked the South African team to relay a message to their basecamp. They wanted their teammates to know that all the other missing climbers, except for Rob Hall, should be presumed dead.

I was dispatched to the New Zealand camp to ask their doctor, Caroline Mackenzie, to come over to our camp where Philip would relay the message in person.

He broke the news to her as gently as he could. She held back tears, nodded and then walked silently back across the glacier.

Nightfall brought reflection and sadness.

Barely a word was spoken over dinner. I had never met Rob Hall, Scott Fischer or any of the dead or missing climbers. They were just names on a paper or a voice overheard in the radio traffic. Deshun and Philip had met them. Deshun’s bubbly and social personality had made her very popular in the camp. She had shared laughs with Scott, Doug and the others.

I could understand why she was so upset. I couldn’t explain my own sense of loss. The memory of a distraught Helen Wilton and the grieving faces of the two doctors Ingrid Hunt and Caroline Mackenzie brought me close to tears. I felt silly for feeling this way and reminded myself that I did not know these people and should not be feeling this deep sadness. Surely grief belonged only to those close to them?

I walked back to my tent in the dark. While Rob Hall spent the night near the South Summit I slipped into my sleeping bag with a mug of hot tea. I lay there thinking about him. I felt strangely guilty to be safe and enjoying these comforts while he fought just to see another morning.

Why guilt? I just can&39;t explain it. Illogical guilt and utter helplessness. We all felt it in basecamp. There wasn’t a soul on the glacier who didn’t want to rush up and rescue the missing and injured.

(Even now, 20 years later it is hard to write this down. Again I&39;m perplexed at these unexpected feelings that resurface, and I&39;m even a little embarrassed. Deshun - I know what you are thinking, thank you)

May 12th would bring more news of what had happened on the mountain as everyone tried to make sense of the tragedy.

And would Rob Hall answer his radio in the morning?

Read more:

Day 13: Missing, presumed dead

Day 12: The first casualty