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June 16,1999


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Wednesday,   6/16/99
Part Three of Three

When we got the last radio call at base camp indicating that everyone was now back at Camp 4 with the exception Matthews, we were shocked. Was anyone out looking for him? Had a Sherpa been sent up with additional oxygen? Nothing appeared to be happening. It was difficult to judge exactly what the mind set up there was by the radio conversations, but there certainly appeared to be a real lack of urgency over the situation. Maybe they just assumed that he would eventually stroll into camp. We were definitely feeling helpless at base camp, and were quite nervous about the apparent lack of activity up high. There is no doubt that it was getting more difficult to move up there due to the deteriorating storm. Not only would Matthews be having a tough time descending, but if anyone did eventually try to head up from Camp 4, they probably would have had a pretty rough go of it. Feeling somewhat powerless 8000 ft lower at base camp, we tried to strategize a possible solution. We figured that we were probably in a much better mental state than those now trying to exist there at 26000ft and who had been moving non-stop for the last 36 hours. Our first thought was that maybe Matthews had actually made it back to the South Col in the storm and crawled into the first tent that he came upon, which may not have been one of ours. There were several other teams up there up at Camp 4, as well as some abandoned tents from previous attempts that he could easily be in. We raised one of the Sherpas on the radio, and although we could barely hear him over the winds blowing in the background, he indicated that he would go out and check the other tents. Twenty minutes later, he called back saying that he couldn’t even get out of his own tent due to the storm. Apparently, the winds were so strong at that point, that he couldn’t stand up and was afraid of getting blown off the mountain. We asked him to wait for a lull in the weather and try again. An hour later, he called back indicating that he had finally been able to check all the tents, with great difficulty, and that there was no sign of Matthews. He was definitely missing.

We spoke with Mike and Nick again and by this time there was definitely no going back up the mountain. The conditions had deteriorated to the extreme and those at Camp 4 were beginning to worry about their own safety. The problem though, was that assuming Matthews had not died in a fall, then he was most likely still alive somewhere up there. With every minute that went by, however, his odds were decreasing greatly. By 9pm that night, Matthews had presumably been above the South Col the last 24 hours straight. He most likely would have run out of oxygen at least 6 hours earlier, and possibly more; that meant that he was cold, extremely cold. He was now facing the prospect of a night out in the open. Very few western climbers have ever spent a night out above the South Col and survived. Its virtually impossible, especially after you run out of oxygen. Rob Hall survived a night up there in the 1996 tragedy, but never made it back to Camp 4; he froze to death right where he stopped. No one will ever know what truly happened to Mike on that horrible night; he was most certainly very tired, cold and moving very slow. It may have been something as simple as the fact that he sat down for a rest and was never able to regain enough strength to begin moving again. Unfortunately, that’s pretty common. Knowing that his guides and Sherpas were somewhere below him, I’m sure that he hoped and prayed that someone was out there looking for him. In the end, however, there would be no search. Mike most likely passed away sometime during the night. He would never be seen or heard from again.

Richardson and I sat by the radio that night for a few more hours hoping to hear some word of Matthews, but it would not be. We finally and reluctantly turned in for the evening, for what would be a long and very sleepless night. When I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was literally sick to my stomach. I could not believe that what was happening up there, was indeed actually happening. I have been on many rescues over the years for climbers of other teams. Many that ended well, many that ended not so well. But for some reason, when it’s another team, someone you don’t know, you (or at least I) have always had a strange and innate ability to detach emotionally from the situation and act very rationally and unaffected by the whole thing. This was different. This was one of our own up there. And as I lay in my bag, with the warmth of the hot water bottles under my feet and chest comforting me, all I could think about was Mike, somewhere up on that ridge, cold and slowly freezing to death, hoping that someone would find him.

I got up at 4am and went to the mess tent to see if I could raise Camp 4 on the radio, hoping for some miraculous news. No answer. Mike Richardson came in shortly after me, followed by Ang Rita. No one had slept. As we continued to try to raise Camp 4 on the radio over the next 2 hours, there were few words spoken between us; at this point, there was little to say. Every minute that went by now seemed like an eternity. It was a painfully long three hours before the radio finally came alive with Nick’s voice up at Camp 4. Mike had never made it back into camp that night. Although it was now a pretty foregone conclusion that Mike was most likely dead, Nick indicated that he now wanted to head back up with Mike Smith and several Sherpas. The problem was that the weather was now worse than ever. They would plan to wait until there was a break in the winds, at which point they would send the rest of the team (many of whom were just learning for the first time that Matthews was missing) down, and head back up to look for Mike. Half an hour later Nick called back saying that the wind speeds had gone off the chart and they feared losing Camp 4 in its entirety. The rest of the team would have to attempt to descend immediately into the heart of the storm. The winds were now estimated at over 80 knots. At this speed, it’s all you can do just to stand up, let alone move, and an occasional gust will certainly blow you to your feet. This would be a terrifying descent down the Lhotse Face. It soon became apparent that Mike and Nick would have to join them as well. Anyone who went high on the mountain that day was sure to become a permanent fixture up there; there would be no coming back. If Matthews was somehow still alive somewhere up there, his last and final chance of anyone finding him was now over. Thoughts of Mike quickly drifted away as concern soon shifted to those who were now threatened by the storm. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone else on this mountain. Conditions were a good level of magnitude worse than anything we had seen on the mountain to date. Even Willie, who was at the relatively protected Camp 2 which rarely gets hit with high winds, radioed that he was getting pounded harder than he had ever seen and was worried about losing tents there. It was one hell of a storm, and it would get worse before it got better. We would have ten team members and a number of Sherpas attempting to descend the very technical Lhotse Face in extreme cold, extremely high winds and complete white out conditions. Part of me couldn’t help but count my own blessings at this point that I had been spared from all this, as I now feared for the well being of my team. Having descended most of their route myself only a few days earlier in relatively good weather, I could only imagine what lie ahead of them in conditions such as these.

Two hours later we got a call from Mike Smith. I expected to hear that they were now at Camp 3, but they weren’t even close. They were just below the Geneva Spur, still a long way away from Camp 3 and moving very slow in nearly impossible conditions. Mike indicated that it was a complete white out and they weren’t even sure if they were staying on route. Finding the fixed lines on the technical sections was very difficult and people were utterly exhausted. Mikes toes were frozen; he definitely had frostbite and there was nothing he could to about it now. Others were indicating that they were close to frostbite on hands and feet, but the only thing anyone could do was to keep on powering through the situation. We radioed Willie and asked if there was anything he could do at Camp 3. Willie was still pretty trashed from his own summit bid two days earlier, but he said that he would grab a couple of Sherpas and some extra water and start heading up the Lhotse Face to assist. Two hours later, Willie called back and said that he and his team were not even to the base of the face yet. White out conditions and high winds had slowed them to a snails pace and to make matters worse, one of the Sherpas had frostbitten his hands. Willie decided that he and the Sherpa would head back to Camp 2 while the other two Sherpas would continue on. At the same time, Smith radioed down that they had only just then reached the Yellow Band, still moving painfully slow. The trip down from Camp 4 to Camp 3 usually takes 2 hours in good conditions; it would take them 7 hours today. When they finally reached it, several of the team members were hoping to be able to hold up there for the night, too tired to go on. But to their horror, they found there was nothing left of Camp 3 but the shredded and torn remains of what had previously been our tents. Camp 3 had been literally blown off the mountain. They would have to continue on down to Camp 2 in these same conditions. They would not, however, meet any Sherpas on the way up as they were finally forced to turn around as well. As bad as the Lhotse Face was in these conditions, the section from the bottom of the face back to Camp 2 (usually a fairly easy section), would today be most frightening. That section of the route is relatively flat with only about 1000 ft of elevation gain, but it winds back and forth through several crevasse fields. Unlike the rest of the Cwm however, there is no roped protection here. Its usually negotiated in good conditions by line of sight and is pretty straight forward. Today, in white out conditions and heavy snow, it would be nothing short of a game or Russian Roulette.

The next call was about 2pm from one of the Sherpas at Camp 2. Half of the tents at Camp 2 had just been destroyed in one strong gust; gone, wiped out. The situation was going from really bad to worse if you can believe it. By 5pm though, everyone was finally back in Camp 2. They piled everybody, members and Sherpas into the remaining few tents, and literally had everyone grab the ceilings of the tents and hang from them to add weight and to keep them from blowing away. They did this for two long hours when suddenly, the wind stopped; completely. They quickly brewed up some fluids and food and took stock of everyone’s conditions. Mike Smith’s toes were badly frostbitten. Several others had frostbite but much less severe. Denis and Martin appeared to be suffering the initial stages of pneumonia and were not in good shape. The last 48 hours had definitely left its scars; some that would heal, and some that would not. After two hours however, the winds which had abated, suddenly returned with their full fury. They had been lucky that they had enough of a break in the weather to get some food down, but would now spend the rest of the night physically bracing themselves against the tents in this continuing battle. The last two days had been nothing less than hell on earth.

The next day, May 15th, the weather finally improved, and everyone still on the mountain was able to descend back to base camp. When everyone finally returned (from both our team as well as the other teams on the mountain), there was no shortage of exhaustion, frostbite and pneumonia and those affected began to seek medical attention, many from the Yale expedition’s medical tent, some from their own team doctors. Some would eventually be flown out in rescue choppers, while others would have to hike out on their own accord. In our camp, many tears were shed as questions remained as to what really happened up high and why. The only thing that was certain, was that Mike Matthews was dead and our expedition was indeed over. With the loss of so much equipment high on the mountain, and more importantly, the loss of a close team member, it was clear that no further summit attempts would be made from our team. This game had ended.

A couple of days later, after placing Enrigue on a rescue chopper in Loboche due to his pneumonia, I had two days of descent down the Khumbu Valley to really reflect on the situation. I wanted so badly to be able to point the finger at some person to take responsibility for what happened or at one immutable fact to say that is the reason Mike had died; but it was difficult. There were certainly many contributing factors to Mike’s death, some which could certainly be attributed to Mike himself and others that could be attributed to his guide service. Some of it seemed to be the nature of being on a commercial expedition and the unfortunate state of what guiding has become on Mt. Everest. Mike’s drive and ambition, his free spirit, his desire to summit and his belief that he was invincible, in the end, were probably Mike’s worst enemies up there. Ironically, if he had summitted and returned successfully, it would be those same things that would be credited for his success. In everything and everyone, however, there needs to be balance and perspective. The summit is worthless if you can’t come back to tell about it. Perhaps Mike should have tamed his exuberance. At 22 years old, though, that’s a difficult thing to do. Perhaps, therefore, his guides should have paid more attention to him. On an Everest summit day on a guided expedition, there is no excuse for guides and Sherpas being in their tents while clients are still somewhere high on the mountain. I have a difficult time finding some justification or rationalization as to why this would be the case. Perhaps, such an important piece of equipment such as regulators should be checked well in advance of summit bids. This would have indeed increased the number of resources available to clients on the mountain that day, and perhaps one of them would have been able to stay with Mike on his descent. There are many accidents that happen on a mountain such as Everest; the history books are filled with hundreds of them. Some are judgement errors, others are just shear acts of God. I couldn’t help but walk away from this thinking that this was one accident that could have been prevented; one that perhaps most certainly should have been prevented. Mike Matthews did not need to die on that mountain that day.

As I thought more and more about everything that had transpired, I began to realize that there was really a bigger picture to all this and a much bigger concern, and that was the overall state of guiding on Mt. Everest. Much of my life has been spent in mountain ranges around the world, and I am very thankful for the climbing opportunities that I have had. Everest, however, is different than any other mountain that I have been on; the altitude is higher, the weather worse, the temperatures often colder, the summit day harder, the logistics greater and on and on. All the climbs that I have ever done have been on small personal expeditions with good friends. Everest, conversely, is often attempted by large, heavily funded commercial or govt./business sponsored teams, with many team members meeting on the mountain for the first time. It’s a very rare occasion that you see a small privately funded team able to overcome the many obstacles and hurdles to climb here. Things such as permits which begin at $70,000 US per team, dealing with all the various govt. regulations, contracting with local help, porters and yaks (of which we had nearly 300), contracting of Sherpas and cooks (of which we had over 40), the massive amounts of additional equipment needed (tents, ropes and oxygen in particular), and negotiations with other teams all contribute to the initial logistical difficulties and is why the majority of the expeditions are now commercial. All that being said, however, there is even a bigger reason that climbers are drawn to the commercial entities and that is experience; that is the lack of experience on the part of the climber, and the often exceptional level of experience (often Everest experience) that many of the commercial guide services can offer. Everest is by far the most difficult climb most mountaineers will ever attempt. The problem is that the best place to gain experience for a mountain like Everest is actually on Everest itself. Peaks like Cho Oyu, Denali, Aconcagua, Rainier and others can certainly all help in one’s preparations for Everest, but none of them can truly prepare you for it. Its truly a league above the rest. That doesn’t stop climbers with a great deal of experience on these other peaks, such as myself, from having a desire to climb a mountain such as Everest. Thus is born the perfect relationship between the climbers that possess such ambitions and the commercial organizations with the experience. There is an inherent assumption, however, that what a client purchases in an undertaking such as this is that experience, and in that, the expectation that the guide will take on an increased amount of responsibility for the climbers on that team. Now, this certainly opens up the potential for a huge ethical discussion as to the true nature and responsibility of an Everest guide.  You may ask yourself, who in their right mind would be insane enough to attempt a mountain like Everest without a lifetime of mountaineering experience. YOU WOULD BE AMAZED. There were people on the mountain this year that were actually putting crampons on for the first time in their life at base camp; this is NO exaggeration. These people had absolutely no business being on a mountain such as this. They were a huge liability to themselves and even a bigger liability to those who may have to save them. Yet, they were able to find guide services who were willing to take them on. Speaking from a moral perspective, if you as a commercial organization are going to permit someone like that to step foot on the mountain with you, then you’ve got to exhibit an increased level of responsibility for clients such as this. That being said, guides cannot, therefore, permit a situation to develop whereby clients are allowed to move alone on summit day, and more importantly, guides cannot leave their clients on the mountain.  And until that is the case, people entertaining the idea of climbing Everest with a guide must understand that until some changes are effected on Everest, then no matter how much money they pay, they truly can’t rely on anyone up there. The bottom line reality is that all the commercial organizations can offer is access; access to the most expensive and dangerous amusement park in the world. They market and sell the promise of experience, but in the end all they can deliver is logistical support. When it’s all said and done, you are on your own.

I remember well the tragedy of 1996 and the "Into This Air" book that followed in its aftermath. I can remember countless conversations with friends and colleagues that pointed fingers everywhere, but primarily blaming the guide services for specific mistakes they had supposedly made. There was a feeling of "how could such reputable companies show such irresponsibility?". Well, the irony is that on a mountain such as Everest, any expedition, commercial or not, is going to make mistakes. They are going to show critical lapses of judgement; they are going to lack, at times, common sense, and do things that a sane and rational person would deem as highly irresponsible. That’s just the nature of the mountain and the nature of a person’s ability to act and react up there. At these altitudes, mental ability is greatly impaired, cognitive skills are immensely diminished and good decision making just goes right out the window. One cannot judge how they would handle or respond to a situation at sea level by the same standard that they would judge someone at 28,000 ft; it’s a different set of playing rules up there. It makes no difference whether you are a guide a client or a Sherpa. Many expeditions, every year, return to base camp after summit attempts and look back with amazement at just how lucky they had been, narrowly avoiding numerous potential accidents and disasters. That’s just the way it is up there. Most lapses in judgement, luckily, don’t result in fatalities. When they do, however, everyone and their brother are willing to step up to the plate and start pointing fingers. That just may be human nature, but everyone wants to hang their hat on something and define a specific reason for the accident. But lets face it, major mistakes are going to be made on every major expedition that hits the flanks of Everest, now and forever. This, in itself, is the problem for commercial organizations. If inexperienced climbers are up high when the mountain turns fierce, and competent decisions are unable to be made by their guides, then people are going to die. The mountain doesn’t care whether you are guided or not. You as that client are relying on decisions by your guide; decisions that may be inherently flawed due to the inability to exert good cognitive skills at those altitudes. Now, the reality is that most climbers should be in a position to be able to exercise their own good judgement up there, and most of us are. But like I said earlier, not everyone is in that boat. There are people on this mountain that truly should not be here. And the question remains; when it gets ugly up there and they disappear, where is the company that initially promised, "don’t worry, our experience will get you to the top!". Where are they now and will they use that experience to get them down. So many of these commercial organizations are skating on extremely thin ice year to year, pushing the envelop and barely sneaking less than qualified clients to the summit and back in small windows of good weather. They make mistakes, poor decisions, have faulty equipment and are frankly just getting lucky.

Everest is a very tough mountain. It is by far the most difficult thing that I have ever undertaken, both physically and mentally. It is an unforgiving mountain that shows absolutely no impartiality towards whom it chooses to pluck from its ridges. Everest has the ability to suck you into an amazingly false sense of security and contentment with a few warm and windless afternoons, while it prepares to unleash the wrath of God unto you when you step foot on its upper flanks. When you least expect it, it hits you harder than you could every possibly imagine. I will never forget the saga of Beck Weathers, the climber in the 1996 tragedy, who, left for dead twice high on the mountain by his own teammates, would eventually lose both hands to frostbite. I remember an interview with him shortly after his ordeal in which, among other things, he strongly professed his belief that Everest was a "bad" mountain, and that no one, not even experienced climbers should attempt it. Even the best climbers in the world will most surely die up there when the weather turns bad; Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, are perfect examples. When I heard this, I had a difficult time relating to and understanding his comments. He had obviously had a horrifically bad experience up there, but it was just bad luck, right? It didn’t mean that the mountain shouldn’t be climbed. Well, having now spent time up there personally, I can certainly understand where he is coming from; it is a bad mountain and it takes no prisoners. It has such an unbelievable ability to turn on you. When it does, it’s going to turn fierce and people will die; everyone on the mountain will be touched by it in some way. As a climber there, you do indeed know the risks and roll the dice on them every day. Ironically, we spend our entire life avoiding that which is most certainly and undeniably unavoidable….death….our own mortality. Yet up here, on a mountain like Everest, you not only get a glimpse of it, but you stare it right in the face; every day. And not in any kind of macho or arrogant way, but truly in a fearful way. Perhaps for the first time in your life do you realize that it can actually become a very real possibility and very quickly. And as such, you develop a somewhat strange and unique appreciation for life, that which you may not have possessed before. Your desire to climb this mountain is greatly tempered by your fear of it and what can happen up there. It is with you everyday and it is that challenge, overcoming that fear, that will open up the summit for you. Many who look at those of us who undertake mountains such as this, feel that we are truly embracing life while we’re up there. In reality however, you would be surprised to know, interestingly enough, that when it’s all said and done, reflections back on an experience such as this, force one to come back home and actually do just that……embrace life.

Looking back on it all for myself, personally, I really have no regrets. I knew the odds were definitely stacked against me before I came here, but I got damn close. When I turned around on my summit day, I was only 12 hours or so from the top and I’m very pleased with that. I’d given it one hell of a shot and almost made it. If I’d really gotten my butt kicked up there, it may have been a different story. But I didn’t; I really felt like it was within my grasp. In hindsight, there was no way to know what was going to happen to Mike and thus no way to know that there would be no second chances. Perhaps I should have stuck it out that day, but I still believe I made the right decision. As badly as I wanted it, I am just not prepared to sacrifice for this summit what some would have to pay. For me, it was truly the experience of a lifetime. For the rest of my years, of which I hope there will be many, I will always be able to reflect on this and know that I have climbed on Mount Everest. I have experienced the mystique and the majesty, the glory and the history, the challenge and the pain of climbing this truly spectacular mountain. The friends that I have made and the experiences we have shared will be with me always. Since I have been home, many have asked if I will ever go back. Well that is indeed a difficult question and I do certainly have some unfinished business up there. All I can tell you right now, is that chapter has not yet been written.

As a final follow up, there was one additional piece of sadness that struck us all after leaving the mountain. One of the final risks a climber faces after coming off Everest, is a de-acclimatization effect. When a climber spends several months above 18000 ft, the body becomes extremely well acclimatized, which means that you have a greatly increased number of red blood cells traveling through the body to help carry more oxygen. As such, one must be very careful when descending to a lower altitude. The problem is that at an altitude of say, sea level, the amount of oxygen in the air that you are now breathing is two to three times greater than what your body is used to; it is an extreme oxygen rich environment in relative comparison. This rise in oxygen, now greatly increases the body’s risk to blood clotting. Anything as simple as a twisted ankle, strained back, or even a bruise that causes any swelling in the body, is now at risk of a blood clot. Those blood clots can break off and lodge in the lungs or heart causing a pulmonary embolism or heart attack, or lodge in the brain causing a stroke. This risk lasts for several weeks as the body re-adjusts to the lower altitude. As such, many climbers take aspirin several times a day for that period to thin the blood and reduce the risk. Cos and Augusto, who had summitted on the 13th with Team 2, had left from just below base camp via helicopter shortly after descending the mountain and flew out to Katmandu. One day later, Cos flew directly to London. In just a matter of days, he had gone from the summit of Everest to sea level; an extremely dramatic change to the body. We received word shortly after his return home that he died of a sudden heart attack, presumably the result of a blood clot. At only 37 years old, and one of the few of our team members to have summitted, it was nothing less than shocking news. Cos could not have been more thrilled with his prize of achieving his dream. To be struck down like this only days after his success is unfair to say the least and maddening when one tries to make sense of it. Cos was a great man, a good friend and I will miss him always.

The last thing that I’d like to share with everyone is the surprise that awaited me upon my return home. When I originally began to embark on this amazing adventure, I actually received very mixed responses from people, ranging from modest support to sharp criticism. Many thought that I was absolutely crazy to attempt a peak like Everest due to its inherent risks and dangers. Many others thought that I was crazy to jeopardize what had been a very successful career as well as to put my close personal relationships through such potential pain and hardship. Well, there was definitely a very personal cost that had been incurred as a direct result of this pursuit and I can only hope that time will heal any damage done. That being said, I also received a great deal of support for the climb. What I did not realize until recently, however, was just how much interest this undertaking would eventually generate. Although I was able to update my web page from the mountain with the help of Eileen, I was not able to gain access to my email until I arrived home. When I finally did, I was absolutely shocked to see that I had literally hundreds of personal messages waiting for me all relating to the climb. I was blown away and very moved by it all. I had mail from close friends, relatives, friends I hadn’t spoken with in years, friends of friends, and from people whom I’d never even met. The original decision to dedicate my web page to the expedition was done in an effort to keep close friends and family appraised of my progress on the mountain. Much to my surprise, my web page received literally thousands upon thousands of hits during the time I was gone, all seemingly tracking my pursuit every inch of the way. Never in a million years could I have imagined that it would have generated the level of response that it did. Now, you must keep in mind that this page is not published or listed or advertised anywhere. Its spread was entirely the result of word of mouth. What was really amazing to me was that this expedition, my personal dream of many years, was able to affect so many people in such a positive way. I can’t begin to tell you how much that all means to me and how sincerely honored I felt by all your kind words and support. Thank you all so very much. It’s been a great ride and I can only say that I’m sorry it’s over. We’ll have to do it again sometime.

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