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Author Unconscious Near Top of Mount Everest

By: Allen Pierleoni, McClatchy Newspapers

Author Unconscious Near Top of Mount Everest

(MCT) - "The day I climbed Mount Everest was the day I died," writes veteran mountaineer Lincoln Hall in his adventure memoir, "Dead Lucky" (Tarcher/Penguin, $24.95, 336 pages). "If I was dead on the evening of May 25 (2006) but alive on the morning of May 26, what happened?"

The answer to that profound question is at the heart of his book. But Hall, 52, is understandably reluctant to talk about that answer before his upcoming international book tour.

In the book, Hall recounts his harrowing experience on Mount Everest - one that made international headlines. The mountaineering and medical communities agree: he should have died.

Essentially, he and his Sherpa guides had summited the 29,035-foot-high peak - the highest point in the world. They were making their descent and were at 28,000 feet when Hall was suddenly stricken with altitude sickness, which progressed to cerebral edema. Hall, who answered questions for this story via e-mail from Sydney, Australia, describes the symptoms as "a dangerous mix of hallucinations amid rare moments of wide-eyed lucidity. A sea of lethargy had overwhelmed my mind's ability to think."

He became disoriented and combative, not something you want to be in an atmosphere with only one-third the oxygen content as that at sea level, and in an environment that arguably is the most hostile on Earth. To compound matters, Hall and the Sherpas were still in the Death Zone - that is, above 26,000 feet.

Hall was already suffering from exhaustion and dehydration at that point, and now his hallucinations became uncontrollable. He kept removing his oxygen mask, tried to climb back up the mountain and thought it was a good idea to jump into a deep crevasse. The Sherpas finally tied him up with ropes "and pushed and pulled me down (the mountain) as if I were a sled. I bucked like a stubborn yak," he writes.

Unconsciousness soon followed. His desperate Sherpa guides worked to revive him, but could detect no signs of life. They even poked him in the eye, but got no response. They stayed with him for hours, until the expedition leader radioed for them to get off the mountain to save themselves. Hall was left for dead, but before the Sherpas departed they relieved him of his survival gear - a common practice in such circumstances on Everest.

News of his demise quickly spread throughout the worldwide mountaineering community, reaching his wife, Barbara, and their two sons back home in Australia.

Before news of his supposed death circulated, however, Hall regained consciousness and spent the night in the freezing elements, suffering from hypoxia and hypothermia, concentrating on staying alive.

"I was exhausted, frostbitten and alone on Everest," he wrote. "I had begun the decline, which would finish with me freezing to death."

Miraculously, another, unrelated expedition was approaching the summit and discovered Hall. The members were amazed that he'd survived the night in freezing weather and with no oxygen or other essential life-support gear.

Upon seeing the party, Hall said, "I imagine you're surprised to see me here. Can you tell me how I got here?"

Rescuers were called in and Hall was taken down the mountain - which sounds much simpler than his own description of that harrowing journey, part of which was on a yak. When at last he was in a place where he could phone his wife, he said to her, "I just hope you haven't started looking for another husband."

Barbara replied, "It really is you!"

Hall lost a toe and the tips of eight fingers to frostbite, and much of his general health, but he gained a lot, too, as he explains in "Dead Lucky."

I tried to phone Hall in Sydney during a brief window of opportunity before he left the country. The call wouldn't go through, so we had to settle on e-mails. Because he's saving the gist of his tale for live appearances, I asked him related questions.

Q: You've said you were glad the Sherpas left you lying in the snow, thinking you were dead. From what I gather, that's standard operating procedure on Everest.

A: The No. 1 rule of mountaineering is that you bring yourself down alive. I have always regarded my survival as my responsibility. The Sherpas and I had had a 19-hour day, half of it without oxygen. Four other climbers were left in almost exactly the same circumstances, and they are still up there. Nothing would be worse than me surviving while the Sherpas trying to help me died. No one understands what happens at 26,000-plus feet until they get there. Everyone experiences huge limitations in energy and clear thought. It's a totally different ballgame from climbing Mount Rainier.

Q: The numbers vary according to the sources, but I've read that 210 climbers have died on Mount Everest, and 120 bodies are still up there. Eleven climbers died in 2006, the year of your ordeal. You've appeared on international panels with other veteran mountaineers, discussing ethical issues. Some find the concept of "every climber for himself" remarkably brutal.

A: It's always been life and death on the mountain. It has always been brutal. Hard-core mountaineers know the score and take their chances. Since 1977, 12 of my climbing friends have died in the mountains.

There have not always been video cams, satellite phones and live blogs from base camps. Only in the last 10 years has the outside world been able to go online and witness the misfortunes of mountaineers. It is very easy to judge people, and people in general love doing that because it makes them believe that they, as online spectators, have a moral code – not that there is any proof of it. Judgments are made with no understanding of how easy it is to die up there.

Many of the people on Everest these days are capable only of looking after themselves, because they have learned their climbing skills from professional guides. A guide's job is to rein in the climbers before they have to face a battle for their lives. But the inevitable battles for life that happen to all hard-core mountaineers actually form the core of the resilience needed for them to survive desperate circumstances. Circumstances such as being trapped high on a mountain in a storm for days on end, or choosing to embrace an epic descent in a whiteout because it is the only possibility of getting down alive.

Q: Can you isolate the thing that compels people to climb Everest?

A: Mount Everest is the ultimate symbol of adventure, drawing in people who don't know what they are letting themselves in for.

As for me, I never had a life goal of climbing Everest. I loved rock climbing from age 15. What attracted me was meeting the difficult acrobatic and emotional challenges, rather than the incredible endurance and ability to tolerate danger and extreme discomfort, which is the nature of high-altitude mountain climbing.

Obviously, I did end up on Everest, because one rock climb led to one that was harder, which led to climbs that were bigger, and then led to mountaineering in New Zealand. New Zealand led to the Himalayas and the Andes, and in 1984 to Everest. I didn't summit then, and the fact that it was 22 years later that I did summit shows that climbing Everest was not an obsession for me. It was a goal I finally achieved, but it did not govern my life.

Ironically, my Everest experience is governing me now through my book and the (documentary) "Miracle on Everest."

Q: How has the experience changed you? Has it altered your relationship with your family?

A: My ordeal has changed me deeply. I don't think it's all that apparent to people who know me, except perhaps those who are closest to me. My experience has strengthened my Buddhism, because the Buddhist interpretation of reality sits in a much tighter fit with me now because I have a different appreciation of the nature of life and death. This has given me a more satisfying attitude to life – not that I found my pre-Everest attitude to be unsatisfying.

At a physica l level, I have lost the tips of all of my fingers – two joints rather than three, but my thumbs are fine. I also lost the big toe on my right foot. There are some issues with memory, which are not that inconvenient, but it is a change I have noticed.

I am still regaining the strength I used to have. I was too tired to exercise for the first few months, and unable to walk. My strength is coming back now that I can visit a climbing gym, but there is still a lot of fitness to regain.

As for my family, our relationship has only grown stronger, as we value each other more. They will never know what I went through, and I'll never know what they went through. There was never resentment, only relief.

Q: At the end of the book, you write, "The best thing about having climbed Mount Everest is not so much having done it, but more the fact that now I don't have to do it. I can move on." Is Lincoln Hall off the mountain for good?

A: I'll return to the mountains, but I don't know how serious that will be – whether it's in my capacity as a director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation or as a climber. There are beautiful, easy mountains that are safe, so I might go there. I have no hunger for mountains at the moment. However, for two-thirds of my life I've been involved in the vertical world, so I don't see me giving up yet.

Photo from Wikipedia

© 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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