Chapter 6

Learning from Setbacks

Excerpted from Straight to the Top and Beyond:
Nine Keys for Meeting the Challenge of Changing Times

 

 


"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."

— Eleanor Roosevelt

...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 after me.

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 sleeping.

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. "It’s one thing to sit in a bar in Calgary and say, ‘Geez, you know 24 men have died in that Icefall; we’ll 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 don’t 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.

- Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Amatt, all rights reserved