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. It’s not uncommon for people to freeze to death climbing in the mountains, but these people froze to death—and then came back to life.
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.
Just hours before, another climber, a German man named Thomas Weber, suffered similar symptoms, then collapsed and died, less than 20 yards from Hall. And ten days before, David Sharp, a climber from Great Britain, had become seriously ill from the high altitude and died beneath a rock overhang. Forty other climbers, intent on reaching the summit, had passed by, refusing to help.
Reaching the top or saving a life
Almost any experienced climber who’s been to Mount Everest knows somebody who didn’t make it back. Two of Dan Mazur’s friends, Rob Hall (no relation to Lincoln Hall) and Scott Fischer, died in the notorious snowstorm that killed six other climbers in 1996. Their bodies and nearly 200 others are scattered across Everest’s treacherous slopes, preserved for eternity in snow and ice.
“There are times when you literally have to step over somebody’s body to get to the top,” says Mazur. “It’s a grim reminder that you should never lose respect for the mountain.”
Near the peak on that crisp, clear May morning—”a mountaineer’s dream,” Mazur describes—he and his team members quietly realized they had a choice to make: Should they phone in Lincoln Hall’s predicament to his group, 7 Summits, and continue on? Or stay with him, until help arrived?
Mazur had reached the summit once before, in 1991. But for Brash and Osborne, who had spent $20,000 each to make this expedition, it was the dream of a lifetime. In the end,
Mazur knew, there was only one possible decision to be made. “Luckily,” he says, “everyone made the right one.”
Osborne spoke first. “We can’t leave the guy,” he said. They all agreed.
Not only was Hall frostbitten and disoriented, he could slip and plunge down the 8,000-foot Kangshung Face at any moment.
“We found him sitting on a three-foot-by-three-foot platform covered with snow and ice,” says Mazur. “It’s hard to believe he didn’t roll over the edge
during the night.”
The men got Hall away from the cliff’s edge and helped him back into his snowsuit. Rummaging through their backpacks, they shared their oxygen, lemonade and Snickers bars.
“Can you tell me how you got here?” asked Mazur.
“No,” said Hall.
“Can you tell me your name?”
Hall hesitated, then broke into a grin. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “My name is Lincoln Hall. Can you tell me how I got here?”
Thank God, he’s coming around, Mazur thought. But Hall wasn’t coherent for long.
“This is a great boat ride we’re on!” he kept saying. Still hallucinating, he stretched out his arms like he was about to do a backflip. He tried again to remove his snowsuit, then lunged for the cliff.
“Whoa! Where do you think you’re going?” Mazur grabbed him in a bear hug and tackled him onto the ice. Does this guy have a death wish? he wondered.
Then he flashed on his late friend Scott Fischer, who died on Everest. When climbers came across Fischer’s body, he was partially undressed, a bare arm sticking out of his unzipped down suit. Mazur knew it was common for people in the last stages of hypothermia to tear off their clothes. He also knew they tended to act like three-year-olds having a tantrum. Hall was belligerent—he wasn’t listening, or maybe he wasn’t capable of processing what was being said. Either way, Mazur decided, “I wasn’t going to let this guy we were trying to save kill himself.”
“Come on,” Mazur told his teammates, “we’ve got to keep him away from the ledge.” It looked like they’d have to anchor Hall to the mountain, to keep him from lunging off. They drove an ice axe into the snow, then attached a “sling,” mountaineers’ lingo for a strong nylon tether, which they tied to him with a figure-eight knot.
Calling for help
With the injured climber secured, Mazur radioed down to high base camp, where their team’s cook was waiting. “Go over to the 7 Summits camp, get their guys out of bed and get them on the radio,” he said. “Hurry!”
Ten minutes later, the head Sherpa on Hall’s team came on the radio.
“Lincoln Hall is in big trouble and needs your help,” said Mazur.
There was a long pause. “You mean he’s alive? How alive is he?”
“Well, he’s moving around, he’s talking,” said Mazur, exasperated. “We need extra food, water, and oxygen to get him down. Otherwise, he’s not going to make it.”
Mazur insisted the man put Hall’s leader, Alex Abramov, on the phone.
“You’ve got some guys in high camp, right? Send them up!” he told Abramov. The Russian climber agreed to send all the Sherpas he could gather.
“You can’t blame the Sherpas for leaving Hall on the mountain,” says Mazur. “It’s their job to help us climb, but it’s not their job to die.”
For more than four hours, Mazur and his team waited, stomping their feet and pacing on the small snow-packed ledge to stay warm.
“We were all pretty quiet,” recalls Brash, who had spent years training to climb Everest. “It was disappointed silence. We knew we weren’t going to get to the summit.”
At that point, no one knew if Hall was going to live. He shivered uncontrollably and his head jerked up and down. He was suffering from snow blindness, common at high altitude on such a bright, clear day. His fingers were so frozen they looked like pale yellow wax.
The team was relieved when two Italian climbers suddenly appeared on the ledge.
“Good morning!” said Mazur. “We’ve got a guy in trouble here! Can you help?”
The men kept moving toward the summit. “Sorry, no speak English” was all they said. Mazur would spot them later at base camp, speaking English very well. “All I can say is, God bless their souls.”
It was almost noon when a dozen Sherpas finally arrived to help take Hall down the mountain. With a guide on either side of him, he was able to walk down to high camp. From there, he rode a yak to base, bumping down the mountain on a saddle made of foam sleeping mats.
Back to the base and back to health
It took Mazur and his team two days to make their own way down. As soon as they arrived, they went to visit Hall, who was recuperating in his tent before the 100-mile trip to a hospital in Katmandu.
I hope that after all this, he’s a nice guy, Mazur thought.
He wasn’t disappointed. Although Hall was still groggy and slurring his words, they clearly understood when he said thank you for saving his life.
Hall would need surgery to amputate the tips of six fingers. Still, he knows he’s a lucky man, that he could very well have become the 12th person to die on Everest this year—the deadliest season since the 1996 tragedy. Although his rescue is miraculous, it has sparked a debate about climbers who leave behind the sick and injured in pursuit of Everest’s grand prize.
Even Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to reach Everest’s summit in 1953, chimed in with disgust when he learned that 40 climbers had passed by Britain’s David Sharp.
“People have completely lost sight of what is important,” he told a New Zealand newspaper. “In our expedition, there was never any likelihood whatsoever if one member of the party was incapacitated that we would just leave him to die.”
Mazur doesn’t know whether much can be done to prevent future deaths. The allure of the world’s highest peak is so great, he knows, climbers will continue to gamble everything for a few minutes at the top.
“It’s such a personal challenge—once you’re up there, you feel as though you could do anything,” he says. “Sure, I wish I could have reached the summit again. But there’s no way we could have left Lincoln Hall on that ridge. If we’d done that, the odds are he wouldn’t be alive today. And I would have to live with that for the rest of my life.” Stories like this one are one of the main reasons some experts believe that climbers are ruining Mount Everest.