Back from the dead

Himalayan Sherpas left Lincoln Hall when they thought he was dead. Then passing climbers saw signs of life, and this time they didn't walk on by. Cole Moreton tells the story of an extraordinary and heroic rescue
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The Independent Online

Then something astonishing happened. An American climber on his way to the summit early next morning saw the frozen body and noticed faint signs of life. Yesterday, Mr Hall was recovering at a lower-altitude camp after the most remarkable rescue in the history of the world's highest mountain.

Full details have now emerged of how Mr Hall survived three days in the so-called Death Zone above 8,000m, where oxygen starvation causes the body to deteriorate rapidly and brain or lungs can fill with fluid. His discoverer gave the confused, frostbitten man hot tea and oxygen and radioed for help. More Sherpas climbed up to the peak with a stretcher, and hauled him down the mountain very slowly. He was very ill, but last night reports from the advance base camp suggested he still hoped to walk the 22 kilometres back down.

The rescue came just days after it emerged that a British man, 34-year-old David Sharp, had been ignored by climbers as he lay dying on a busy route to the top. Their behaviour was described as "horrific" by Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first man to conquer Everest, 53 years ago tomorrow. Only 1,300 people had climbed it by the turn of the century - but in the past six years this number has almost doubled, thanks to better climbing technology and commercial exploitation of the mountain. The atmosphere there has been described as "a circus" and "a graveyard" in weblogs from the crowded slopes in the past few days. Some climbers have turned back, sickened by the 11 recorded deaths so far this year - the worst ever season for individual fatal incidents on Everest.

There may be more. Alexander Abramov, leader of the 7Summits Club team with which Mr Hall was climbing, says he believes 15 people have died.

The reason for so many deaths, he wrote on his weblog two days ago, has been extremely good, windless weather. "The weather has allowed plenty of climbers to reach the summit. In more severe conditions they, probably, would stop climbing at lower heights. The summit became a death trap for climbers with latent problems of health."

The guides and climbers living on Everest this season has had to struggle with strong criticism from outsiders, but also with self-doubt. The news yesterday of the rescue of Mr Hall, a co-ordinated effort by Sherpas using equipment from several teams, has restored some morale. "It's good to see the international community of expeditions are pulling together," said Mr Hall's friend and fellow climber Duncan Chessell.

Mr Hall already knew, first hand, how dangerous the mountain could be: in 1984 he was part of the first Australian team to climb the north face without bottled oxygen, by the daring so-called White Limbo route. But he abandoned his own attempt at 8,300m that time, fearing for his health, and let others go on ahead.

"Though I shall never see the summit panorama other than through the eyes and hearts of Tim and Greg," he wrote in a book named after the route, "I know that no view is worth that price."

This year he returned, hoping to help a 15-year-old called Chris Harris break the record for the youngest person to reach the top. Chris was forced to give up, but Mr Hall felt able to go on. He left the summit assault camp at 8,300m on Wednesday morning with five Sherpas and the experienced guide Harry Kikstra alongside Thomas Weber, a visually impaired climber from Germany.

Only 50m from the top, Mr Weber became totally blind. He turned back with Mr Kikstra and two Sherpas, but collapsed, saying "I am dying", and never recovered consciousness.

Meanwhile Mr Hall had reached the summit, but was losing co-ordination as high-altitude cerebral edema caused fluid to collect in his brain. He sat down in the snow just below the peak, unable to move on his own. The three Sherpas tried to haul him down the mountain, but after nine hours they had moved only 100m down the icy ridge. By then Mr Hall was showing no signs of life.

The Sherpas were exhausted and had no oxygen left. But they reportedly had to be ordered by their expedition leader on the radio to come down to camp in the darkness and save their own lives. They had to be helped down the mountain themselves, the next day.

So Mr Hall was left for dead, close to the body of Thomas Weber. Another team member, Igor Plyushkin, had collapsed at a lower altitude a few days earlier. His body had been laid in a sleeping bag and covered with rocks.

When the radio crackled with news that Mr Hall was alive, 11 Sherpas climbed up to bring him down on a stretcher. It took them all day and long into the night.

The expedition doctor was waiting below at the North Col camp in a dining tent he had converted into a field hospital. Mr Hall was severely frostbitten and suffering from altitude sickness and "acute psychosis, a disorientation in space". But after giving him oxygen and wrapping him in a sleeping bag the doctor, Andrey Selivanov, reported his survival to those who were mourning him with the words: "We shall overcome!"

Yesterday, Mr Hall arrived at Advanced Base Camp, at 6,400m, with the doctor and 10 Sherpas. He had no memory of what had happened, but "the cerebral edema is practically gone now", reported Alexander Abramov on the 7Summits Club website. "He regained adequate perception of reality."

From the camp, Mr Hall called his wife Barbara at home in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, telling her he had bad frostbite in his fingers. According to Mr Abramov she told him: "I would love you the same even if you lost them all."