Sunday, May 25, 2008

The First Middle Eastern Guy

So. In addition to a fatality on the 21st, as well as myriad of other issues.. literally. Tons of snow blindness, HAPE, HACE, you name it. All on a quiet, windless, relatively mild night at 29,000'.

One climber took the prize when it came to not fame, but notoriety. Coming from a Middle Eastern country, he had his nation's flag literally plastered over every possible part of his body and pack. He almost died. And in all truth, we were told he had died no fewer than three separate times. Like for two days, we actually did think he was dead. It was because of this, and the fact that he placed himself squarely into a situation where he could have died that he became the most well-known climber on the mountain this year.

I mean it when I say that he had flags everywhere. The first time I saw him, it was at the top of Crazy Ladder #1 in the Icefall on an extremely hot day. All of our team was in T-Shirts and slapping on sun block. We were trying to head down to Base Camp but were stuck at the ladder because whoever was coming up was taking an incredibly long time on the 50' ladder section. 20 minutes later, a guy draped in down clothing staggers up to the top and takes a knee, bathed in sweat. He has little flags everywhere. Sewn on his sleeves, to his thighs, on the back of his hood, on the front of his ski hat. He even has two little ones fluttering in the breeze, strapped to both sides of his pack. I swear I'm not making this up. "Hey, are you ok?" we ask. He ignores us and trudges on.

Stories of his lack of climbing skill trickle in over the course of the next several weeks, but he sticks with it and continues higher and higher.

On the summit push, he left from Base Camp along with the rest of his team, bound for Camp II. The rumor is that halfway through the Icefall, he fell off a ladder and was left dangling in a crevasse for close to an hour. He was so far back from the rest of his team that no one was nearby and so there he hung, waiting for someone to come along and help him. Finally extracted, he continued on to Camp II and arrived several hours behind his team. His camp was halfway up Camp II, roughly 200 vertical feet from the entrance and this guy was way too tired to go the final distance once in Camp II. So what did he do? He found the first available tent, crawled into it, and fell asleep.

An hour later, a Sherpa from another team returned to his tent and found a stranger asleep in it. After waking him, the climber crawled out, got up, and began to wander toward his own team area. "Hey, you forgot your pack" the Sherpa told him. "I'll get it tomorrow" the guy replied- and kept walking.

He finally arrived into his team area and was met with shocked concern about what happened. "We heard you fell in a crevasse!!" "No, not at all." He did finally admit to falling asleep in a Sherpa’s tent and asked a teammate to go and get it for him.

So this brings us to summit day. The climber made it as high as the South Summit, where I saw him on my way down. In truth I was shocked as hell to see him there, but make no mistake- no one else on that mountain was going to wear a climbing suit with 8 flags sewn on and 2 more strapped to their pack. He was noticeably out of it, disoriented and extremely tired at almost 29,000'. It was here that he was turned around.

When forced to turn back due to onset of what appeared to be potential HACE, he became extremely agitated and insistent on being able to go for the summit. His team then literally had to begin the hazardous and challenging job of guiding and dragging him down the mountain toward Camp IV.

At times, he would not walk. At another time he lost the ability to speak or understand English and required a translator. At all times, he was highly argumentative, difficult, and doing his absolute best to make things difficult for his teammates. Finally, after several hours of effort the team arrived at The Balcony. Once here, at this little 20 square foot flat alcove made famous as the site of Hillary and Norgay’s Camp VII in 1953, teams have a small spot to relax in relative safety. It is also here that many teams store spare oxygen bottles for the downclimb, or more frequently replace half-spent bottles from their summit pushes with fresh ones, leaving half-full ones at The Balcony for retrieval on the down climb. Spared, the team that was running extremely low on O2 now found themselves buying another few hours thanks to the replenishment of the O’s. But he would not move, and announced to his team that he would sleep at The Balcony, not going any further.

His team would not accept that. Soon thereafter and with the sun setting at the end of a pleasant day, they began the long, slow job of moving and encouraging their stricken teammate whose condition continued to worsen down the mountain. When he began to kick and swing his arms, his team lashed his legs together and dragged him with rope. When they ran out of Oxygen, they gave what little they had to keep their teammate alive. Eventually, they finally made it to the area above the Triangle Face by where Scott Fischer rests, he began to argue yet again and insist on not moving any further. There, he stopped and became immobile. With this, a teammate shook him, pointed in the direction of another body resting nearby, and said "See that climber?! If you don't get moving, that's you tomorrow!" His response: take a baseball sized-rock and throw it at the team lead. The rock nailed him square in the forehead.

One teammate moved quickly down to Camp IV and tried to enlist the help of other climbers to get supplies up to the top of the Triangle Face. He even went so far as to offer $1,000 to anyone willing to move to the site of his teammate with an Oxygen bottle and a sleeping bag. I heard him moving around, asking. Some Sherpa and other folks talked about it but no one really took him seriously. After all, it’s all about self-preservation at that elevation, and everyone feels like crap. You are at the edge of your limits, and your body is literally dying underneath you. At that location, one of the most hostile and unforgiving places on the planet, it is all about survival and camaraderie. This became evident in this given situation. $1,000? Initially, not a single taker for the offer. It just wasn’t worth it. Too tired, too gassed. All of our energy was to be stored for use in returning down the slopes the next morning in order to get ourselves out of there.

Then, the camaraderie came into play. This is the side of climbing very similar to the Marines, where teamwork and brotherhood is forged not through dollars but through long hours and weeks spent in difficult situations side-by-side. Willie, who had just successfully summited for an unprecedented 8th time, was very close with several Sherpa and other team leads who just happened to be at the South Col at that very moment. When approached and brought up to speed on what was unfolding 1,000’ vertical feet above us, Willie contacted a Sherpa who was headed to the summit and asked- no money involved- if they could bring along Oxygen. They agreed, and headed out soon thereafter. Often times I try to explain the brotherhood formed in places like the Marines, and why friends are for life. Every time, it’s impossible to explain. But here, it makes complete sense and I understand that the Marines are not the only place that these relationships begin.

At that point, five hours into trying to get him down, they all said screw it. There is only so much you can do, and this team was at it’s limit. Rescues are one thing, but personal safety is another and despite the long odds they had succeeded in moving this person far down one of the most technically challenging portions of the South Col route. They were rapidly running out of Oxygen and putting themselves in peril. The moment the guy threw a rock at the head of another teammate, this individual became almost as much of a hazard as the mountain did. So, they made a decision and left him a sleeping bag with a bottle of oxygen. Go with God. In their minds, they had just said goodbye to a teammate, but had made a positive step in increasing the odds of their own self-preservation.

In the ensuing summit push of teams heading up from the South Col the night of 21 May, a team of Indian climbers saw this guy nestled in his bag with an oxygen mask quite close to the other bodies at the top of the Triangle Face. He was not moving, he seemed at-peace. As a result, this team assumed, like the other bodies on the mountain, that this individual was a climbing casualty of trips past and was now a permanent fixture on the mountain. They continued climbing higher and with other teams transiting so close to bodies as the fixed lines led them to The Balcony, no one truly paid much notice other than a casual awareness of the hazards of climbing at this level.

Perhaps thanks to the oxygen, possibly due to the sleeping bag. But for whatever reason, this guy wakes up at 3am, and stumbles down to Camp IV a few hours later, opening a tent and shocking the bejeezus out of everyone who thought he was dead.

Dead/alive five times over before we finally found out he was alive. So, dead, alive. Dead, alive. He stayed at Camp IV for another day and then began the long, slow journey out with frostbitten feet and hands. He spent three days moving from the South Col down to Base Camp, and then slowly made his way out of Base Camp for Lukla and home.

How he survived after that ordeal is mystifying, but he made it and finally arrived in Kathmandu. Last I heard he will be losing fingers and some toes from his ordeal, but he found fame- albeit not the fame he might have been looking for. He’s alive, first and foremost. Here’s to him for that.

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