As he lay dying, Everest climber radios pregnant wife

Published May 14, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

He had just conquered the world's tallest mountain.

But as his climbing party started back down, a blizzard brewed up, and he stayed behind to help a sick companion. Temperatures dropped to 40 below zero as the blinding snow whipped up a whiteout.

He was going to die. And he was experienced enough to know it.

Around dusk on Saturday, mountaineer Rob Hall made a satellite telephone call from a snowhole a mere 500 feet below the summit of Mount Everest. He wanted to say goodbye to his wife, who is seven months' pregnant with their first child.

His radio fading, his voice weak from frostbite and his legs paralyzed by the cold, the climber murmured what mayhave been his last words. "Hey look, don't worry about me," he said to his wife back in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The surprise storm had flashed across the summit and trapped several mountaineers.

In all, two Americans and six other climbers from separate expeditions are feared dead this weekend in the worst disaster since Everest was first conquered in 1953.

One of them was Hall, a man who had climbed the tallest mountain on every continent and who had once scaled Mount Everest with his wife.

His latest party of climbers had reached the summit. But in bitter cold and howling winds, Hall had let the rest of his group start down the mountain without him. He stayed behind in a futile effort to help 44-year-old Doug Hansen, a postal worker from Renton, Wash., who was ill and struggling.

Hansen, the American, died Friday night.

Hall, all alone at the roof of the world, was able to reach his wife, Jan Arnold, one last time on Saturday. In his final message to home in Christchurch, New Zealand, Hall radioed that he was trapped, frostbitten with no tent or sleeping bag and almost no oxygen, fluids or food, but was hopeful.

"It was a personal conversation between him and Jan," said Geoff Gabites, a family friend.

Friends said Hall was experienced enough to know he was going to die. They are convinced he would have made it down the mountain had he not stayed to aid his ill companion.

The 35-year-old New Zealander knew both triumph and disaster on the world's highest mountains.

With his friend Gary Ball, he succeeded in 1990 in scaling the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, including his first successful ascent of Everest.

Three years later, Ball died of altitude sickness in another expedition in the Himalayas, and Hall buried him in a crevasse.

"I think that was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life _ to have to knowingly lower my own mate into a crevasse and then to let the end of the rope go was just an incredibly difficult thing for me to do," he said.

In addition to Hall and Hansen, those presumed dead in his party include New Zealand colleague Andrew Harris, 31, and Japan's top woman mountaineer, Yasuko Nanba, 47.

Report's of Nanba's death shocked Japan, which viewed her as their finest female mountaineer. She became only the second Japanese woman ever to reach the top of Everest with her climb Friday. She had completed climbs to the tallest peaks on the seven continents over the last decade.

Those assumed dead from other expeditions include Scott Fischer, 40, of Seattle, who led a mostly American team, and three climbers from India who began an ascent from the Chinese side of Everest. They were Indo-Tibetan Border Police and had been the first Indians to reach the summit from the difficult Tibetan side.

Since Sir Edmund Hillary conquered it 43 years ago, Everest's summit has been reached 629 times. Thousands more climbers came close. Hillary himself has complained that the track is now so familiar it has become a tourist mountain.

In 1993, 40 climbers achieved the feat in a single day.

But mountains like Everest sometimes lash back, in ways that make those who love mountaineering question the fashionable turn their sport has taken in recent years, when high technology, clothing and equipment have made it far easier to climb the highest mountains, but also easier to get into situations that can become fatal.

More than 100 people have been killed on its icy slopes. Their bodies remain frozen and irretrievable in crevices or under shifting snow and rock.

Near the peak, most people need a tank of oxygen. Dehydration in the arid atmosphere can kill. High winds bring swift changes of weather.

At least 11 expeditions were on the mountain this weekend, with each climber paying $10,000 in license fees. Approximately two weeks remain in the annual climbing "window" between winter and the Himalayan monsoon season.

Nepal has no rescue procedures for climbers in danger. Each expedition takes responsibility for its own safety.

But heroic efforts saved one man and almost saved another. About 1,000 feet below where Hansen and Hall died lay the leader of an American expedition, Scott Fischer. Nepalese sherpa guides found him and Makalu Gao, the leader of a Japanese expedition. Both were unconscious.

The sherpas could not carry both men out. They revived Gao and brought him down. They then bundled Fischer, gave him oxygen and clipped him to a rope, hoping that rescuers could reach him later.

Before he left for Everest, Fischer, co-owner of Mountain Madness, which organizes climbs around the globe, had said his biggest fear was making a "bad decision and dying in the mountains . . . not coming home from a trip, leaving my kids without a dad. That scares me. We can control a lot of things, but even so, things happen."

_ Information from the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times was used in this report.