Every year the drama is played out on the slopes of Everest and every year climbers die. The Media report and people judge. There are stories of climbers being left for dead and of people walking past them as they lay dying in the snow. People judge this as being inhumane and extremely selfish towards one’s own summit goals. However, the reality is that, often, you can do very little to help a climber in distress above 8,000m. This is why experience and judgement are so critical. Yes, freak accidents will occur, but climbers with the knowledge gained through years of experience can often make the right choices to avoid the majority of the dangers on the mountain. The basic rule, and it is a very harsh one, is that once above 8,000m if you cannot walk down under your own power you are not coming down. This means that if you break your leg (as happened to a climber on the Tibetan side of Everest last week) you are essentially dead. If you are unconscious or incapacitated to the point where you cannot walk, you are not going to come down off the mountain. Rescue at these heights is so dangerous and difficult that it is nearly impossible. The physical exertion to carry another person at this altitude is far beyond the ability of any climber. It is all most climbers can do just to put one foot in front of the other let alone rescue an unconscious or incapacitated climber. And, yes, the Sherpas are incredibly strong, but they are not super human and they cannot carry out these rescues without grave danger to themselves. Additionally, the ground on Everest is steep, rocky and icy preventing climbers from dragging a climber down.
When I was climbing Everest in 2008 I came across two climbers headed up towards the summit as I was heading down. They were well past the time when they should have turned around, they were far from the top, and yet they were still headed up. One climber was actually crawling on his hands and knees. He begged me for water, but I had none to give. I urged him and his partner to turn around, but they refused. There was nothing more I could do at this point so I continued down. Not long after my encounter with these two climbers they both succumbed to exhaustion and collapsed in the snow unconscious.
Other climbers dragged them down to the balcony. However, below the balcony it is steep and rocky and it is no longer possible to drag an unconscious person down. They stuffed these two climbers into sleeping bags and left them assuming they would die. Fortunately for theses two climbers, it was a warm night on Everest and they survived. The next morning they were discovered by another team and found to be still alive. With the rest from the night in the sleeping bags they were once again conscious. This team gave them fluids, oxygen and drugs and the two climbers miraculously stood up and were able to walk down under their own power. It was a miracle, and the only reason they survived was because they were able to walk down the mountain. This story has a happy ending but many such stories on Everest do not.
Although this event did not end it tragedy, it could have been avoided in the first place if the two climbers had made smart decisions. Once again this is where experience comes into play. You need to know how your body reacts to altitude; when to push harder and when to turn back. And the only way to learn this is to go to altitude on repeated occasions. Start on lower peaks and work your way up. By the time you get to an 8,000m peak you will know the tell-tale signs that will set off alarm bells in your head and tell you to go down. It is all about having a realistic plan of action that will provide you with the requisite skills and experience so that when the chips are down, you know what to do.