|"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
...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
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
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.