He’d spent seven hours clambering up the mountain through ice and snow, and now an exhausted Daniel Mazur sensed that success was near.
Although it was ten degrees below zero near the top of Everest, the soft morning light revealed clear blue skies for miles around. This is perfect — we’re definitely going to summit today, the climbing guide told himself, digging his crampons into the ice and taking a few more cautious steps. He and his companions were less than three hours away from the spectacular 29,035-foot summit.
It was 7:30 a.m. when Mazur climbed onto a narrow ledge called Mushroom Rock to rest and offer encouragement to his SummitClimb teammates, Andrew Brash of Canada, Myles Osborne of England and their Sherpa guide, Jongbu.
As the men looked out on the snow-covered peaks below, Mazur suddenly saw a flash of bright yellow to his left. Was it a tent? No way, he thought, squinting to take a closer look. No climber would camp out at this altitude. The yellow blur moved again, and Mazur’s jaw dropped in amazement. What the hell? he wondered.
Perched precariously on the edge of a jagged cliff was a man sitting cross-legged, trying to change his shirt. His thick snowsuit was unzipped to the waist and he had no hat, gloves or sunglasses.
Without an oxygen mask, sleeping bag, food or water, there was no reason for Lincoln Hall to be alive at 28,000 feet, and he seemed to know it. Pulling his frostbitten hands out of his shirt, Hall looked up at Mazur.
“I imagine you are surprised to see me here,” he said.
Hall had been alone on the mountain since 7:30 the night before. Following an arduous climb up the north ridge, he and his teammates had reached the summit at nine that morning. After celebrating the glorious view of the earth’s curve and posing for victory photos, they started on their descent, hoping to reach camp before dangerous afternoon storms rolled in.
But at 28,000 feet, Hall’s feet had stopped moving and he was overcome by a deep fatigue. He turned to one of the Sherpas he was climbing with. “I need to lie down — I need to sleep,” he told him.
With 25 years of experience behind him, Hall was a seasoned mountaineer. He had climbed Everest once before, in 1984, but failed to summit. Now, although he didn’t have the presence of mind to realize it, he was suffering from cerebral edema, a severe form of altitude sickness. The condition causes the brain to swell and leads to a stumbling, intoxicated gait, hallucinations and, eventually, death.
In fact, this area of the mountain, right below the summit, is known as the “death zone.” It is incredibly steep and icy, requiring climbers to use fixed ropes and ice axes to hack their way to the top and then back down again. And because of the high altitude, if a climber is going to get sick, it usually happens here.
Normally, the descent from here to advanced base camp takes about two hours. But Hall was weak and increasingly uncooperative as the edema overtook him. Two Sherpas had to lower him down between them, wasting precious daylight, while the rest of the group kept going.
After nine hours, Hall went limp. He appeared to be dead, and the Sherpas were ordered by their leader to leave him on the mountain.
Checking one last time for signs of life, one of the men poked Hall in the eye. When there was no response, they gathered his backpack, food, water and extra oxygen and returned to the high camp.