You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which
you really stop to look fear in the face... the danger lies in refusing to face the fear,
in not daring to come to grips with it... You must make yourself succeed every time. You
must do the thing you think you cannot do.
...There was only one time when I came
close to having an accident in that precarious place. Descending down the fixed lines one
day, I heard a sharp crack behind me. Startled, I looked up and saw an ice cliff the size
of a house breaking away about 100 feet directly above. Turning, I raced down the rope as
fast as I could, but before I had gone very far, I hit an anchor in the line and was
forced to stop. Frantically, I looked around. The whole cliff had collapsed and buried the
rope where I had been standing seconds before. Luckily, it had not continued downhill
When I think about those days
in the Icefall, I realize now that the only real advantage we had in going through in the
dark was that we were unable to see just how deep the crevasses were, because the ice was
still moving downhill at night. It was a place of extreme unpredictability; it was the
gateway to Everest, however, and we had no choice but to pass through if we were to
achieve our goal.
After two weeks of effort, we
occupied our first camp site at 19,600 feet, above the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall. This
was a great day for the expedition. Everything was going well. We had found a reasonably
safe route through the moving ice and we were very optimistic about an early success.
Looking back, I feel now that
we were starting to build a bubble of invincibility around ourselves. Without realizing
it, we were already becoming a little complacent, focusing on the summit without really
paying attention to what was going on around us. We were entering into the most dangerous
period of the climb!
That night, strong winds blew
deep snow onto the upper slopes of Everest, high above our heads. The tents at Camp I were
covered with a heavy blanket, which had to been cleared away every hour throughout the
night. Strangely, however, no snow fell down at Base Camp, where most of our team were
In the early hours of the
morning, fifteen climbers and Sherpas set out in the darkness to climb through the Icefall
towards Camp I. By the time they were well into the Icefall, they found themselves pushing
through fresh snow. Even more troubling were the strong winds, which made the newly
deposited snow very unstable.
Just before 5 o'clock, in the
misty dawn, a slab of snow slowly fell away from the West Shoulder of Everest, far above
their heads. Hearing a noise like thunder, the party paused to listen. It was not unusual
to hear an avalanche falling. We had heard many since we had arrived at Base Camp. But
they had all faded away into the distance. This one didn't. It thundered louder and louder
as it came closer. But because of the mist it was impossible to tell from which direction
it was coming. The noise was echoing around and around the valley.
As the avalanche roared towards
the climbers, it was forcing the air out of its path. The blast of wind hit the group,
knocking them off their feet and blowing them twenty feet through the air until the ropes
pulled tight. Then out of the mist came the bowling mass of snow and ice, which scythed
right through the line of men, burying seven who were in its path.
That morning, I had been
sleeping in at Base Camp, enjoying a rest day. I was woken from a deep sleep by a sudden
gust of wind which set my tent flapping. But I thought nothing of it. I just rolled over
and continued to doze. Suddenly, Lloyd Gallagher, who had been manning the radio
connection with the Icefall team, came running across from the kitchen tent and thrust his
head through the door flap.
"There's been an
avalanche," he shouted. "Get up, now!"
While a rescue party scrambled
up through the ice to help, Lloyd and I coordinated the effort from Base Camp. Over and
over we called up on the radio into the darkness, repeatedly receiving no reply. It was a
horrible time. No one knew what had happened. At one point, nine team members were
missing. Finally, one by one, the climbers checked in and by a process of elimination, we
discovered that three Sherpas had disappeared.
The avalanche had begun
some five thousand feet above the Icefall. At its widest point, it measured over a mile.
As the snow fell off the West Shoulder of Everest, it billowed up with enough force to
sift powder snow down onto Base Camp, nearly two miles below. It was that blast of wind
that had rattled my tent and woken me up.
The snow had settled like
cement at the accident site. It took three hours to dig through the debris before
uncovering the first body. It was Pasang Sona, a forty-year-old Sherpa, who had been to
Everest many times. Pasang Sona was a man who knew the dangers of this mountain better
than most and who had accepted personal responsibility for his decision to go back one
more time. He was also a husband, a father and a provider for his family. Now, after three
hours lying crushed beneath the ice and snow, Pasang Sona was dead. We tried everything we
could to bring him back to life. Rusty Baillie climbed into a sleeping bag with him in a
vain attempt to reheat the body and Steve Bezruchka, one of our expedition doctors,
performed CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But three hours was just too long. The
bodies of twenty year-old Ang Tsultim and forty year-old Dawa Dorje were never found. To
this day, they still lie buried in the ice of Everest.
"It was shattering,"
says Baillie. "Its one thing to sit in a bar in Calgary and say, Geez,
you know 24 men have died in that Icefall; well have to be very careful in
there, and quite another to be carrying the body of a friend down through it."
All of a sudden our bubble of
invincibility had burst. The worst possible thing had happened. Three people were dead! I
felt hollow and sick. I remember stepping outside the tent. It was a gray, misty dawn,
silent except for the soft hiss of the falling snow. As I waited, the rescue party brought
down the body of Pasang Sona on a stretcher.
I dont think we had
really appreciated the seriousness of the climb until this moment. For about three years
prior to our expedition, there had been no accidents recorded on Mount Everest. We had
started to think that this climb was not as dangerous as we had been led to believe. It
had seemed like a big holiday for most of us. We had played lip service to the possibility
that somebody might get killed, but now we had to face the terrible reality...
Success seems to be mainly a question
of hanging on when others have let go.