Asia, Tibet, Everest Ascents and Tragedy

Publication Year: 1995.

Everest Ascents and Tragedy. It was a difficult year on the north side of Everest in the spring of 1994, with a total of six climbers who reached the summit and three deaths. Five of our team members got to the top, but tragically one died. The core of our expedition was composed of 20 Americans, 10 guides and 10 clients. We were also joined by Dr. John Finley and Denise Deming, scientific nutritional researchers, New Zealanders Mike Perry and Mark Whetu, American Steve Swenson and Australian Michael Rheinberger, who were acting more or less independently. We had 12 Nepalese Sherpas and two Nepalese cooks. We traveled in two groups, one from Kathmandu and one from Lhasa, arriving in Xegar on March 13. We established Base Camp at Rongbuk and Camps I, II, III (Advance Base) at 17,000, 18,300, 20,000 and 21,400 feet with yak support. Camp IV on the North Col was established at 23,000 feet on April 2. April weather was cold and windy and we were glad for the fixed rope we installed on the north ridge en route to Camp V, which we placed at 25,600 feet, but not until April 28. A few days later, the camp was destroyed by high winds and had to be reestablished. Finally, by early May, we were ready to put in Camp VI at 27,300 feet. On the night of May 4, one of our Sherpas collapsed at Camp IV with a stroke. Over the next 36 hours, we evacuated him to Kathmandu, during which time he had seven grand mal seizures. We gave him 10,000 liters of oxygen, 10 liters of IV fluid and anti-convulsive drugs. Despite temporary paralysis on one side, he made a full recovery a month later. The evacuation down 12 miles of moraine to Base Camp took over 20 people from our group as well as several from other expeditions. This put us all several days behind schedule. On May 9, at the same time as we talked by radio to Ed Viesturs, who summited from Nepal, we watched by telescope dying Taiwanese Shih Fang-Fang a few hundred feet below him. Shih had reached the top the day before but got lost on the descent, necessitating a bivouac. We watched him crawl around on the snow terrace at 28,500 feet before he finally sat down and moved no more. A summit team was in position at Camp V a week later, but Sherpas had mistakenly carried down from Camp VI gear belonging to the Italian team. I sent Dave Hahn up to Camp VI in the middle of the night with our team’s oxygen regulators for the Italians to use with our oxygen bottles at Camp VI. In the early morning of May 19, Dave left for the summit with one of the Italians, despite deep snow. At the Second Step, the Italian turned back, but Hahn continued on, virtually climbing nonstop from the North Col. He reached the summit at 4:55 RM. Bob Sloezen met him in the dark below the First Step with food, water and more oxygen. A few days later, our next summit team was in position. Meanwhile, Steve Swenson had joined us after his team had found conditions on the east face impossible. [See below.] When, on May 25, our team decided to spend an extra day in Camp VI due to marginal weather, Steve felt he had to go for it. Windless, cloudy, warm weather was ideal for his oxygenless climb and previous wind had scoured much of the snow away that Hahn had encountered. Climbing with Steve were two Canadians, John McIsaac and Denis Brown, also attempting without oxygen. Unfortunately, they had to turn back, possibly because of the weight of oxygen bottles they had for emergency. As it turned out, it was good that they had them because McIsaac got pulmonary edema and had to be evacuated from Camp VI the next day, using oxygen. Swenson made it to the summit. On May 26, Michael Rheinberger, Mark Whetu and Dave Staeheli left for the summit. Despite excellent weather, they climbed slowly. Staeheli feared the pace was too slow and turned back at noon from the Second Step. The other two kept on, despite the slowness of the pace and lateness of the day. Whetu had summited in 1991 via the same route and was strong, but 53-year-old Rheinberger, who had tried Everest seven times before, was slow but determined. They reached the summit at 7:18 P.M. and spent the night in an open bivouac 20 meters below the top. The next morning was cold and windy. Knowing they were in trouble, I sent our next summit team up from Camp VI to assist. Strong winds prevented the rescue team from getting higher than the First Step. Meanwhile, in eleven hours Whetu and Rheinberger were able to descend only 900 feet and at dark on the 27th, they were only just below the Second Step. Rheinberger was blind, delirious and unable to walk. Whetu had to leave Rheinberger, whom he had virtually been carrying, to die. Jason Edwards climbed up to the First Step in the dark to assist Whetu down to Camp VI at night. Despite the bivouac and the rigors of the descent, Whetu made it to Advance Base the next day with badly frostbitten feet. A few days later, Bob Sloezen made the ascent, arriving on the summit at nine A.M. on May 31. He had also made the climb by the same route in 1991. He spent nearly an hour on top, throwing mementos left by previous parties down the Kangshung Face. At the end of the expedition, we hauled all our garbage down from Advance Base and out from Base Camp. All camps were completely removed except for one tent at Camp VI. We removed many old fixed ropes and refixed the First Step. We carried down about half of our empty oxygen bottles from the upper mountain. At Base Camp we built and used a dehydrating solar toilet.

Eric Simonson