The Rescue

By Owen West

Westwrite, 01/09/2001

THE SUMMIT BID
24 May–The Rescue

When Marco Siffredi jumped off the summit of Everest with his snowboard he had no fear. “Many are afraid for me,” he told me a few days earlier at ABC, “so it does no good for me to be afraid too. I snowboard Everest. It takes big balls, Big Pimp, yes?” Oui. He surfed down the northeast summit ridge, using stunned climbers as slalom flags, and popped one of his bindings on the summit snowfield. Was his bid to pull off the wildest snow stunt of the decade over because of mechanics? The answer was no because, as happens from the moment you go up high, the Sherpas were close. Lopsang arrived shortly and somehow had some material in his pack to fix the plastic. Still, when Marco found his edge and slid toward the North Face–he couldn’t descend the normal northern route because of all the rock–Lopsang was worried enough to call after him, “Only one life, Marco!” Marco smiled and twisted his skinny torso, quickly accelerating down the Great Couloir where a lost edge would mean a nearly sheer 10,000 foot drop. Given some drag from a few impacts and the snowboard, which would have prevented him from going terminal, it would have taken his body nearly a minute to fall the distance to the glacier. That’s a long way, folks.

Russ, peering through his spotting scope, guided Marco down the couloir, alternating shouted steering instructions with gasps. But the kid held his edges. And when Marco was level with the North Col at 23,000 feet (it had taken us three full days to ascend from here; Marco took an hour to descend), he snapped his crampons on one at a time, found his purchase in the ice-age snow, and hiked his way across the face of Everest. The entire mountain watched this assault, an Indy car rocketing toward the wall and somehow passing through unscathed. A diver swallowed by a shark and somehow cutting himself out. Since no one had ever gone this way there were no ropes. But that didn’t bother Marco. What bothered him was that he had rested too much on the way down and never really ‘pushed’ the envelope. When he joined me at ABC that afternoon he told me that he would return in the Fall to board the Hornbein Coluoir when there would be more snow. “Then I go faster,” said Marco.

6,000 feet above us, Asmus was trying to roust his teammates. First Jaime sat down and now Andy, too, was sitting. Neither could move more than a few feet at a time and Jaime was complaining about his eyesight: either his contact lens had frozen and shattered on his eyeball or cerebral edema was beginning to flush. Andy’s eye began to fog as well. An open bivvie in the mountains is always dangerous, but at 28,700 feet on Mount Everest it is certain death. Well, it was before the 2001 season.

Asmus moved down the third step and fixed a rope so his mates could rappel down easily, but after an hour of stomping feet and checking the watch–it was now nearly dark–the two figures above had just reached the top of the step. Then they sat down again. It was almost dark and the sun would take thirty degrees with it when it sank.

Russ: Asmus, what’s happening mate?
Asmus: I’m…they’re not moving, Russ.
Russ: They’ve got to move!
Asmus: They’re not moving.
Russ: (pause) Asmus, can you go down to the top of the second step, get the oxygen bottles there, and take some back to Andy and Jaime? I know it’s a lot to ask. It’s your call, mate. It’s going to be tough for them to get down without it, but I know how hard it will be. Can you do that?
Asmus: (long pause) Yeah, okay Russ. I’ll try.

In addition to the bottles the climbers had stashed at the step, Chris Warner–having seen the state of his climbers hours before–had left an additional bottle for them just in case, a selfless act considering the personal danger that is the northeast ridge. Hours below them now, Chris was powerless to go back up high to help Asmus as he was too exhausted and was dealing with his own mini-rescue: guiding a Spaniard with cerebral edema down past the knife edge even as the man giggled, tried to jump off the mountain, claimed his legs were broken, and caused general chaos. But Chris got him down. Saved his life.

It’s at least an hour roundtrip from the third to the second step when you’re fresh, but at 5 p.m. after a grueling summit bid with the sun now dipping below the clouds, Asmus’s choice squeezed him squarely between loyalty and duty on the one side…and certain peril on the other. At 26, he was the junior guide and now regretted that he didn’t speak up and turn Andy and Jaime around. He was exhausted and felt the sharp instinct to get down, right now, as quickly as possible, before he died. If he was even able to return with some bottles, his own oxygen would run desperately low and he would face a return in the dark. On the north side, most people die on the descent because the rocky route is long and takes razor sharp concentration. At night it’s virtually impossible to navigate the northeast ridge and most people simply sit down and try to last the night. But Asmus did it, and in so doing saved lives while risking his own.

Tired clients generally took fifteen minutes to clamber down the third step; Andy and Jaime took over an hour. When Asmus arrived with four bottles of oxygen, Andy and Jaime were immobile at the bottom of the step. It was dark now and the wind was rising. Asmus carved out an area with his ice axe that was sheltered by the wind, behind some big boulders, and helped Jaime and Andy into the depression, hooking them up to fresh oxygen. The impression below was that Andy was still mobile and that he was staying with Jaime, but the truth was that he was exhausted and frozen himself after a long day with minimal oxygen, and many other long days helping clients. No one except Asmus saw that, though, and the instruction soon came to triage.

Russ: Asmus, get Andy moving and get out of there.
Asmus: He’s…he says…he can’t move too well. I’ll try…
Russ: Listen to me, mate. If Jaime can’t see he’s not going to be able to get down. We’ll try to get him in the morning. So get Andy started and get down.
Chris (NOTE__I don’t remember the exact wording here): Yeah, we can get Jaime in the morning if he’s still alive. But you two have to get down.
Asmus: I…okay. So you want me to leave Jaime, is that what you’re saying?
Russ: You need to get whoever you can moving and get down. Now. If Jaime can’t move then he’s probably not going to make it.

We didn’t hear from Asmus until he stumbled into top camp around midnight, having made an oxygenless descent in the dark, an incredible feat of mountaineering and luck. When he arrived he was alone.

This surprised Chris, who had stayed at top camp (27,250 feet) to help with the rescue while everyone else descended at least to 26,000 feet to get out of the death zone. Chris had stumbled over to the American camp at 9 p.m. with news of Jaime, and the Americans–who had abandoned their previous summit attempt because of snow conditions–agreed to make an attempt to revive him in the morning. They expected to find a corpse, perhaps push it off the route, and continue up. Now here was Asmus, alone, which meant that Andy was still up there somewhere. But he was so tired that he couldn’t find the energy to move out of his tent and tell the Americans; they’d find them when they arrived.

Russ had rescued 14 people from above 8,000 meters but never one of his own; now he was organizing an impossible rescue even as he chided himself for not forcing Andy and Jaime to turn before the summit. He quickly snapped into the role of a seasoned logistician and put his plan into action. He began to call on any and all available expeditions, asking them for oxygen. Chris and Asmus were at the top camp but both of them were too exhausted to move higher again. Everyone else had descended so when he learned that no other teams could spare some rescuers, he called Lopsang and Purba at 26,000. Both of these men had performed incredible feats during the day, Lopsang carrying Marco’s snowboard and repairing his bindings, Purba shepherding clients and giving up his own oxygen on the descent, short-roping a client down over the steps. So both men had worked harder than anyone on the summit and had descended quickly to begin recovery. Now they were a full 1,200 feet below Chris and Asmus.

Russ: Lopsang, how are you and Purba feeling?
Lopsang: Yes. Okay, boss.
Russ: Lopsang, Jaime is stuck on the ridge at eight-five. Andy may be with him. Can you and Purba carry some oxygen up to high camp…and maybe go back up on the ridge to help? The Americans are going to try to get them down tomorrow morning. Can you assist?
Lopsang: Uh…
Russ: I know how hard you’ve worked. I know what I’m asking. Can you get back up there?
Lopsang: Yes. Okay. We go tomorrow.

With Andy and Jaime up at 28,600 feet, exposed for the night, I was given the task of calling their Next Of Kin. Everyone thought both men would die. Unfortunately, i had experience in this area, probably the worst billet I ever held as a Marine. I twice served as a CACO (Casualty Assistance Call Officer) and, after informing the widows, witnessed the laughing (“Oh this is just like him! This is a joke, right? Right?”), the crying, the attacks, the rage. I called Jaime’s wife and, using a woman from the Columbian team as a translator, told her that he was stuck on the ridge.

O: Jaime pushed himself hard and made the summit this afternoon, at about 2:30. You and your entire country can be proud of him. He wants you to know he was thinking of you and (his son) the whole time. We’re all very excited for him. I want you to know that Jaime has decided to spend the night on the ridge. He and one of our strongest guides were descending late and they decided it would be safest to stop. He’s still very strong and he sends his love.
Translator: She says it’s great. She says he’ll be fine, he always liked camping. Can you call her in the morning?
O: Yes, of course. I’ll call her when he’s on his way down.
Translator: She says he’ll be okay.
O: Yes, he’s very strong.
Translator: Yes, she’s very happy.

Off the hook on the first call, I knew the second would be much tougher. X, to whom Andy had proposed on the summit via camera, was a climber herself and thoroughly versed on Everest. Andy had promised that it would be his last trip to the summit and she had gone through the night sleepless–waiting for the ‘all clear’ call–when I rang her.

O: I just want to say that Andy is fine but he’s still on the mountain. He summitted with a client this afternoon and made the decision to stay behind with the client when he started to slow down on the ridge…
X: Oh God. Oh no.
O: So Andy’s going to stay with the client overnight. But he’s lucid and you know how strong he is. We all do. We’re talking to him.
X: Oh my God. How high is he?
O: Uhhh…he’s well down from the summit on the ridge.
X: HOW HIGH?
O: about 28 five.
X: Oh my God. He has to keep going.
O: We know. He can but he wants to stay with the client. You know Andy.
X: It’s Naoki, isn’t it?
O: It’s not important who’s with him. Andy was helping him down and by morning we’re going to have a bunch of folks up there with oxygen to help them down. The weather’s perfect: light winds and really warm temperatures here.
X: How much oxygen does he have?
O: Several bottles.
X: You’re sure he has plenty of oxygen?
O: Yes.
X: Oh, I knew something bad had happened when I didn’t get a call. I want you to call me as soon as the sun rises or you hear anything. Okay? What time is sunrise.
O: About 5pm your time.
X: Call me then. I’ll be waiting at five.

What transpired that night is locked away in the foggy memories of Andy and Jaime, and neither carries the same view. Jaime, who insists that he stayed behind to be with Andy–who was moving slower (indeed, Andy did get to the summit almost twenty minutes after Asmus and Jaime)–had ‘no worries’ throughout the night and was positive he’d be fine. Andy, on the other hand, remembers comforting Jaime, often holding him in his arms to keep him warm, alternatively shaking him awake and encouraging him. Andy was nervous–he’d been up high so often that he believed they’d survive the night. That wasn’t the issue. The problem was continuing the descent when the sun arrived; neither man could move. Their bodies had been dying for two days and there was simply no energy left. Unlike descending the south side, a route Andy had climbed two times, you have to be ambulatory and quite coordinated to descend over the huge steps on the north. Also at issue was oxygen consumption. Asmus left four full bottles with the pair but Jaime remembers Andy telling him that the bottles were empty. As a result, they spent much of the night sucking the thin air…assuming this was accurate. What is not up for debate is the weather conditions. That night was the warmest to date on the mountain (about minus 9 F), and the winds didn’t increase past twenty-five knots. Balmy for Chomolungma.

Jason Tanguay, Tap Richards, Dave Hahn, and two Sherpas, Pu Noru and Pu Dorje–all from the American Expedition–departed shortly after midnight for their summit bid. Andy Politz stayed behind at high camp to act in reserve if he was needed. Dave had been to the summit several times and had himself spent the night at 28,400 feet on the north ridge, breathing oxygen through the night until the sun came up instead of risking a descent along the knife-edge illuminated only by a headlamp. He’s one of the strongest high climbers in the world. Jason and Tap had climbed the mountain’s walls several times without a summit. Tap was especially eager because, as part of the expedition that discovered Mallory’s body in ’99, he turned around below the second step: the weather had been iffy and the ropes were old and frayed. It just ‘didn’t feel right.’ Now, though, with a perfect weather window and two more years of serious mountaineering under his belt (and an aborted summit attempt only two weeks earlier), Tap was certain he’d make the summit. Finally.

Just after sunset, the Americans encountered three Russian climbers who had run out of energy on the ridge between the first and second steps. They gave Ivan some Dex and Pu Noru gave up his oxygen rig in an attempt to kickstart the men. That Sherpa was forced to turn but the other four men pushed on, promising to return to the Russians on the way back and help them down. Russ was on the radio with the American expedition leader, Eric Simonson, and both agreed that Jaime was likely dead–or certainly immobile and blind–so the effort should be focused on Andy, who never made it down to top camp.

Tap and Jason crested the second step at about 0630 and were surprised to find not one body below the third step but two. In fact, when they approached, they recognized the second, bigger man next to Jaime–it was Andy Lapkass, whom they knew. And he wasn’t dead. “Hi Tap,” said Andy lucidly. “OH, hey Andy,” said Tap, staring at the man’s outfit and wondering why he wasn’t dead yet. Both Andy and Jaime had unzipped their down suits sometime during the night, and to Tap this was a clear sign that they were on the verge. Just before hypothermia kills, the body feels incredibly warm–even hot–and the victim often tries to strip down as a result. That’s why many of the bodies up high are half naked. Jaime would later insist that he was very, very warm that night and would have taken off his insulating layer as well. But he had run out of energy before he could strip entirely, arms falling limp to his sides, one way to die having defeated another in some grim coroner’s competition for ’cause of death’. And here they were, right on the most exposed part of the ridge…alive. At some point the pair had moved from Asmus’s protective spot out into the wind. They couldn’t remember why. Luckily, the rip was tame the night before and they were not blown clean off the ridge.

Both men were talking but neither could move a muscle below his neck. Pu Dorje gave up his oxygen rig and was forced, like Pu Noru with the Russians an hour before, to immediately descend without oxygen. Tap thought that they’d just stay with Jaime and Andy for an hour or two until they died, then continue up. He pulled out a vial of dex for an injection but it froze solid in the syringe. So he and Jason resorted to crushing the pills and pouring them under the men’s tongues. First one dose. Then two. Then four. Still no movement. I was listening on the radio and sweating over my watch; I had to call X soon and it looked as if Andy would die on the ridge. After six doses, Jaime began to complain of dizziness–‘these pills aren’t working,’ he said, ‘they’re making me sick.’–and Andy’s legs began to twitch. As Tap put it later, this proved the Dex was working, a powerful steroid eruption, kickstart to the heart. Five minutes before I was to call X, Andy stood and took a step. Like a newborn colt he immediately collapsed. But he was moving. Somehow. I called with good news: “Andy is up and moving.” But it remained, in truth, doubtful that the Americans would be able to guide them down. It would be a long, slow journey during which their oxygen would certainly go dry. At some point the rescuers would be forced to abandon the bivvie survivors and save themselves.

2,000 feet below, Purba and Lopsang were driving hard up to high camp for the second time in two days, carrying three bottles of oxygen each. Where it had taken the westerners 3.5 hours to climb from 26,000 to 27,250 feet when they were fresh and carrying light loads, the Sherps clambered up in 2.5. They opened Chris and Asmus’s tent at high camp to see if the guides could help them in the rescue and climb higher, up to the ridge again and maybe up to the steps. Neither Chris or Asmus could move. They had both done so much work up high that their bodies simply could not go higher or work harder. Chris had saved a Spanish climber, Asmus had saved two team members. This is not an indictment of their fitness–both Chris and Asmus were horses and they had proved it the night before. It is simply testament to the incredible physical capabilities of those two Sherps, who had worked just as hard up high the day before. Now here they were, a day after summitting and shepherding, ready to climb back up into the heart of the death zone. Chris would later say that there were maybe five men in the world who could have climbed back up. We just happened to have two of them on our team.

Purba and Lopsang changed oxygen bottles, said their good-byes to the guides, and immediately started up the cliff to the ridge.

It had taken several hours of nursing and cajoling but Andy and Jaime were finally moving, sucking oxygen from the dwindling supply their rescuers were carrying. The Americans took one last look at the summit that would again elude them–it was a perfect day, quite warm–and turned their backs for another year. In 2001 they had a higher calling; if they managed to get Jaime and Andy down it would be the highest rescue in history. They later reported that several other teams had passed by the rescue party on the way up to the summit. Few offered water. None offered oxygen. Testament, I think, to different cultures and the value of human life. Andy was moving faster than Jaime and after another hour he had moved nearly 200 meters, head down, numbed hands gripping Tap’s shoulders, shuffling one frostbitten foot after another. Jaime had moved only forty. Now he needed a long rest period again, during which Dave patiently waited, alternating verbal prods with physical pulls. At this point, Eric Simonson (the leader of the American expedition who, with Russ, was coordinating the rescue) was on the radio trying to convince Dave, who was guiding Jaime alone, to leave him for dead.

Eric: If Jaime can’t move any faster than that he’s going to die.
Dave: Well, this is his pace…
Eric: Then you’re probably best to leave him and move on to Andy. You’re putting yourself at risk for someone who’s not going to make it. He’s too slow.
Dave: Say again.

To motivate Jaime, Dave Hahn pushed his radio up against Jaime’s ear. This is approximately what he heard:

Eric: I said, Jaime is going to die. He’s not going to make it. You should leave him and move up with Andy.

Jaime, leaning up behind Dave with his hands on the big American’s shoulders, moved faster. When they reached the top of the 100-foot Second Step–four times the size of the Hillary Step and much more sheer–Dave was starting to tire. It was hard enough work carrying two bottles of oxygen (Jaime was on one) at 28,500 feet, but with a man’s drag on his shoulders his physical batteries where waning. There was simply no way he could rappel down the step with Jaime, as steep as it was. If he was going to live, Jaime would have to do it mostly himself, just as Andy had done thirty minutes before. And even if he did manage to descend, it was questionable whether Jaime could move fast enough for Dave himself to make it back. The rescue had already been withering. Even if they made the base of the step, the harrowing ridge awaited. How could he possibly get a dying man across a 14 inch patch with 10,000 feet on either side? It was a tense moment and Eric, radioing from Base Camp and concerned for the safety of his men, blasted Chris for remaining at high camp.

Eric: Chris, why can’t you get up there and help?
Chris: Asmus and I are too wasted.
Eric: Well, I hope you’re enjoying a nice brunch while your friends are up there dying. I hope you’re real proud of yourself, man.
Chris: You know what, I really don’t need this right now.
Eric: Yeah, well, that’s pretty clear. You just sit tight and relax.

I was disappointed when I heard this. Eric’s team had done all the hard work on the mountain fixing rope and he deserved–and still does–the gratitude and respect of all those who climbed the north side. But this puerile lecture, even in the heat of battle, was beneath him. Especially coming from base camp, 10,000 feet below. Chris had performed so well up high. He shouldn’t have been faulted for not being Superman.

Halfway down the step, Jaime tangled himself in a rope and briefly spun upside down. His goggles fell off his face and started a 7,000 foot tumble. His eyes were already cloudy; without goggles he’d go snow blind and any chance for rescue would be terminated. In fact, if he couldn’t untangle, he might remain there. Permanently. Dave was too tired to ascend the step (he’d been busy helping Jaime down and protecting him as one of the Spanish climbers who had blown right by them on the way to the summit now demanded to move past Jaime on his way down) and even if he managed to haul himself up, he’d have to do it on an old rope. Jaime was rappelling on the new one. Tap remembers standing near the base of the step, wondering how in the hell Dave could get Jaime down, wondering how in the hell he’d manage to get Andy across the ridge to the first step, wondering how in the hell he’d do when his oxygen ran out in an hour. Then he looked toward the first step and saw Purba cruising toward him along the knife edge as if he was walking up his own driveway. Something about this man’s presence told him one thing: they’d make it.

Purba nodded his thanks to the Americans and effectively indicated: “I’ll take it from here.” He hurried along to the base of the second step, climbed past Dave along the vertical crack, put his own goggles on Jaime’s face, freed him from the tangle, and escorted him to the base of the step where he gave him fresh oxygen. Then he took the lead in helping Dave get Jaime down the ridge, alternating between a short rope and his strong arms to keep Jaime balanced as they approached the dizzying balancing act. By now Andy Politz and Lopsang had reached Andy and his rescuers, Tap and Jason, and they, too, boosted the rescue just when it needed it most.

When the party came upon the Russians, Andy Politz saw that one of them was dying. He tried to resuscitate the man, it was clear that it was hopeless. This man later fell off the ridge. Below, a Russian teammate happened to be in our comm tent when I was informed of this death. He departed and returned thirty minutes later with two other Russian teammates. Both of them carried digital video cameras to record the macabre conversation.

Russian: I want to know if there is information on the Russian team.
O: Well, you know as much as I do. Just what they said on the radio.
Russian: What was that?
O: That one of your men had fallen off the ridge.
Russian: Is he dead?
O: That’s what they’re telling us.

The cameramen pushed closer to record their expedition leader’s reaction. Bizarre. Later, I learned that the Aussie who I had passed on my way up had died outside his tent at 26,000 feet. This young stud had just sat down and died. It’s a hard mountain.

When the intrepid rescue party reached high camp, Chris and Asmus were waiting. They relieved the team of Dave, Jason, Tap, Andy, Purba, and Lopsang and helped their two teammates down to 26,000 feet where everyone collapsed for the night. Later, a call came through to Russ from Lopsang.

Lopsang: Russell, do we have any medicine? Purba’s eyes are sore.
Russ: Yes, we have some eye drops in the first aid kit.
Lopsang: Okay, boss.

We never heard from the Sherps again that night but when they descended, we learned that Purba had suffered snow blindness after giving up the goggles and that his eyes were incredibly sore. If a westerner had suffered that malaise at 26,000 feet all hell would have broken loose. Purba just asked for eye drops.

Russ warming Jaime’s fingers after the rescue

And so it was that on 24 May, 2001 the most difficult rescue in Everest history was completed. The aftermath was somewhat ugly, what with the he said/he said debate of the events–a natural occurrence, i think, given the relentless assault the lack of oxygen had made on those two men’s minds and memories. When they limped into ABC, neither of them was quite right. I was reminded of the scene in Pet Cemetery when the cat comes back from the dead and it’s a little languid, a little sluggish, a little strange. They improved in the next few days (Jaime’s card playing ability was so poor on D+2 that he was pairing Jacks with Kings–Little Pimp suggested he and I win some money but we resisted) but even as we departed Nepal it was eerie and depressing to talk with them. They had been incredibly strong to survive but Everest makes you pay its price of admission. More depressing was the fact that Andy had been ravaged by the cold. Where Jaime had survived unscathed, Andy will likely lose his toes, some of his forefeet, some of his heels. His thumbs are scarred but will probably remain. The tip of his nose is scarred. Losing toes is acceptable to the civilian who’s climbed Everest, but for a serious endurance athlete like Andy it’s a terrible price to pay.

Andy saying good-bye to Russ on his evacuation from ABC

But the salient lesson I gleaned may have come in the Kathmandu lobby. The American team, who had performed so selflessly on the mountain, sought out my teammates to complain about the Web reporting since the accident. They bitterly complained about the lack of coverage Jaime and Chris had given them on Websites (indeed, Jaime’s folks in Guatemala made scant mention of the rescue–but Jaime had nothing to do with this; it was all his manager) and were clear in their demands. They wanted credit. They wanted their endeavor public. They wanted, fame, however scant, for the incredible feat. A shouting match ensued and accusations were leveled. They were really, really angry to have been minimized. While I understood the outburst and the need all too well, it was an ugly event and it said something, I think, about our culture. I had been so proud of the Americans who had represented the States so well in the international arena. They had taken the lead from Day 1 on the mountain. And when some teams ignored our men on their way to the top, for the Americans the summit had ceased to be a consideration when it was clear Jaime and Andy would not survive without their help. And yet they could not make this sacrifice in silence; they wanted the praise which was, after all, well deserved. And it angered them when it was not effusive.

Two days later, some of the group had lunch with Purba and several of his family who lived in Kathmandu. Purba tried to steer the conversation away from the mountain but one of my teammates persisted. I can’t remember who it was, but I believe it was Ellen. She, like the rest of us, was in awe of Purba.

Big Andy riding a Yak down to BC after the accident.

Ellen (to his family): So, what do you think about what Purba did up there? You should be so proud. I know I am.
Purba: Oh, no, please.
Family: What?
Ellen: Did you hear about the rescue?
Family: Rescue?
Ellen: The greatest rescue in Everest history? Purba was involved in it. He’s a hero.
Family: No, what happened? What happened Purba?
Purba: No, it was nothing.