Lakpa Rita, the top sherpa for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, was the first to see it. Just visible in the glow of his frost-covered headlamp, a body dangled from a fixed line. This was the second corpse his team had met on their overnight summit bid.
It was 4:30 a.m. on May 20, just beyond Everest’s South Summit, the dramatic rise and dip at 28,700 feet where climbers swap in fresh oxygen cylinders for the final push to the top. The frozen body hung from a line strung along the knife-edge ridge that leads to the Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff 100 feet below the summit. Lakpa Rita, 47, and Garrett Madison, 33, the company’s head guide, paused to consider the unfortunate soul for a moment. The wind whipped by at nearly gale force. The sun, still below the horizon, barely brightened the fierce lenticular cloud that wrapped the upper mountain.
In tight formation with Madison and Lakpa Rita were six clients from the U.S., Britain, and Australia, a third guide, 46-year-old Jose Luis Peralvo of Ecuador, and six veteran climbing Sherpas. Later they would learn that the dead man was a German doctor named Eberhard Schaaf, who’d arrived at the summit the previous afternoon. Schaaf, 61, was guided by two Sherpas from a Nepal-based outfitter called Asian Trekking, and he likely succumbed to cerebral edema during his descent. The Sherpas had stayed with him for hours before one and then the other left to save themselves.
Madison’s group had avoided the crowds by going up on the night of the 19th, in worsening weather. For them, Schaaf presented a different kind of problem: he was blocking the way. “Lakpa went up and cut him off the fixed line,” Madison recalls. Schaaf’s body tumbled 15 feet down Everest’s southwest face, stopping among some rocks.
All night, the Alpine Ascents group had met with the carnage of the previous day, when four climbers died along the 29,035-foot mountain’s most popular route—the Southeast Ridge, which ascends the Nepalese side from the foot of the Khumbu Glacier. In addition to Schaaf, they were Nepali-Canadian Shriya Shah, 33, Korean Song Won-bin, 44, and Chinese Ha Wenyi, 55. There were other fatalities as well—two on the mountain’s north side and four earlier in the season—along with serious injuries that resulted in roughly two dozen helicopter evacuations. In all, 10 people perished on Everest in April and May of 2012, making it the third deadliest spring season on record, behind 1996’s total of 12 and 2006’s total of 11.
The Alpine Ascents team encountered all four of the doomed May 19 climbers on its way up, either dead (Schaaf and Shah), too far gone to rescue (Song), or not yet in distress (Ha). Had Madison and Lakpa Rita believed they could help Song, they would have been duty-bound to try. “Since there was nothing we could do,” client Rob Sobecki later blogged, “we carried on climbing upwards.”
In the days that followed, the international media would seize upon these deaths as the latest proof of a now familiar claim: that the climbing scene on Everest is out of control. Flocks of ill-prepared novices were crowding into Base Camp, paying outfitters between $30,000 and $120,000 for what, to a lot of sane people, looked like assisted suicide.
Comparisons between this single-day tragedy and the one that claimed the lives of five clients and three guides in 1996—and led to Outside’s publication of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”—were on the lips of commentators from CNN to NPR. Even in the climbing community, which is still deeply divided by the differing accounts of the 1996 episode, people began to ask: Has anything changed?
I was embedded on Everest with a team of climbers, the four Americans of the Eddie Bauer First Ascent West Ridge expedition: David Morton, Jake Norton, Charley Mace, and Brent Bishop. Unlike Krakauer in ’96, I wasn’t trying to climb the mountain, which left me free to roam Base Camp reporting on the season’s events.
What I saw was a situation that resembled ’96 in some respects but in most ways did not. As happened back then, some of the 2012 teams lost precious time waiting in long lines in the Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, and summited too late in the day. But 2012’s victims weren’t caught by a freak, fast-moving storm. Their deaths were the result of exhaustion, climbing too slowly, ignoring serious altitude sickness, and refusing to turn around—which is to say, the steady toll of human error. Nobody was killed by the mountain’s roulette wheel of hazards such as rockfall, avalanches, and blizzards.
This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.
But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.
It’s a recipe that doesn’t require a storm to kill people. In this regard, things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse.
Lincoln Hall’s story is the most incredible I have come across in all the Everest reading and viewing I’ve been doing. At the end of the climbing season in 2006, this fifty year old Australian had reached the summit via the northern route, with three Sherpas. They had summited early in the day and had plenty of daylight and oxygen to get back to camp. But altitude sickness struck when Hall was still at 8600m. Suffering from the effects of cerebral edema, where the pressure inside the skull means fluid begins to leak into the brain, he began to hallucinate and collapsed several times. Each time he collapsed Hall believed he was taking a short break but they were long periods of unconsciousness. The Sherpas did their best to keep him moving through the day but he’d struggle with them and progress was very slow. Later Hall collapsed again and didn’t move. As the afternoon went on, the Sherpas continually tried to wake him and try to get him down to camp. All had been in the ‘Death Zone’ above 8000m for 19 hours, and supplemental oxygen had run out. They were all dehydrated and exhausted. Hall was declared dead at 5.20pm, and two hours later the Sherpas were ordered down to save themselves.
But Hall was not dead. He survived the night alone without water or shelter, drawing on yoga breathing and Buddhist meditation techniques, his consciousness tripping out in hallucinations. Luckily the temperature didn’t get below minus 25 that night – very cold, but not like it can be. He felt death as a grey cloak he was wearing, welcoming him. And so he determined to remove the cloak and face the cold. With dawn the sun warmed him somewhat and after 30 hours in the Death Zone he was found by another team heading for the summit. “I bet you are surprised to see me here,” were his first words. When they found Hall he was sitting cross legged and had removed his down jacket. He thought he was on a boat and wanted to get off – rather dangerous with a 3,000 meter drop in front!
The climbers abandoned their summit attempt and stayed with Hall until a rescue party could be organised and reached him. Still suffering from hypoxia Hall continued to battle with Sherpas on the way down, but he finally made it under his own power. Later he said Buddhism defines 8 stages of death, and he went through the first two. He doesn’t know what turned it around, nor can medical science explain why he didn’t die alone so high on the mountain. In an interview, Hall said:
The big thing I see is that what I had believed to be the nature of reality—the barrier between life and death, the dichotomy, I suppose—is actually not what I thought. And two things: the impossible can be possible, and death is not the grim reaper. It’s more welcoming. And it’s not like a trap, a welcoming trap. It’s actually just the next phase. I’ve been a card-carrying Buddhist for a dozen years now, and had Buddhist sympathies for a dozen years before that, but what happened this time around, on Everest, was that my appreciation of the Buddhist understanding of reality suddenly became real to me. That death isn’t the end, that it’s a cycle. So that’s the really potent life-changing message, even though I’m much the same person outwardly.