Olympian Efforts
May 15, 1996
Too Crowded At The Top
June 19, 1996

Treacherous Triumph

FOR Mt Everest or Chomolungma, May 10 was a day of retribution for climbers seeking glory on the world’s highest peak. With eight deaths, the day ranks as the worst in Everest climbing history.

6 pm,May 10: For Inspector T. Samanla, 39, of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), 6 pm on May 10 was time for prayer and introspection atop Mount Everest. His two other colleagues and friends from Ladakh, Naik Tsewang Paljor and Constable Dorje Morup, who had made the summit with him from the treacherous north-east ridge (the first time Indians climbed the peak from the ridge), left before him for Camp 6 situated at a height of 8,320 m. But then the weather on the mountain deteriorated and as a blizzard struck, tragedy awaited the Indian climbers. There was no further communication with them after their walkie-talkie contact with team leader Mohinder Singh from the summit.

7.30 pm, May 10: Climbers from Advanced Base camp and Camp 4 spotted two torch-lights on the summit ridge, presumably belonging to Paljor and Morup. Though the summiteers had five oxygen cylinders, each sufficient to last them 20 hours, they discarded four on the mountain—but one was capable of seeing them through till midnight. Faced with the option of sending an ITBP support party from Camp 5 or requesting the Japanese team from Fukouka, which was at Camp 6 and therefore nearer the ill-fated Indian summiteers, the ITBP team leader visited the Japanese team at Advance Base camp and asked their leader to help in a rescue attempt. The Japanese leader promised him that the Japanese summit party scheduled to leave Camp 6 on May 11 would help in the rescue. Incidentally, the two Japanese summiteers and their three sherpas had arrived at Camp 6 before the Indians began the climb on May 10. Says Captain M.S. Kohli, honorary adviser to the ITBP: “Even on May 10 the Indians were generous to the Japanese by making the first attempt. Teams following have it easy as the route opens up and certain sections are roped. The two vertical steps are the toughest to surmount. The first Japanese summit party made it to the top on May 11 at 2.30 pm and the second on May 13 at 11:30 am contrary to the Indian summiteers who reached the summit at 6 pm.”

May 11, 4 am: The Japanese team at Camp 6 leaves for the summit.

May 11, 2.30 pm: In spite of assurances by the Japanese team leader to keep Singh abreast of the latest developments, the first radio contact with the Japanese team was at 2.30 pm when the team was already on its way down. It was then that the Japanese team disclosed that while climbing up, they had seen an ITBP climber lying dead near Step 1 (8,498 m) and another near Step 2 (8,598) m). The third climber, Samanla, was found entangled in a rope in between Step 1 and 2. One of Samanla’s crampons (climbing shoe) had also come off.

The Japanese helped him off the ropes, fixed his crampons, gave him some liquid to help his dehydrated condition, and then moved on. Samanla started descending on his own. It’s not clear whether Sam-anla had any oxygen left. During its descent, the Japanese team did not find either Samanla or anyone else.

Says Kohli: “Obviously, even the climber at Step 1 was only unconscious when the Japanese came up upon him but subsequently regained consciousness and tried to climb down. The Japanese didn’t even bother to feel his pulse or anything. He may have been saved with a timely supply of oxygen.” According to Singh, if the Japanese had abandoned their summit attempt as their leader had promised, at least two climbers might have been saved.

Critical of the Japanese attitude were eight team leaders of different expeditions on the Everest face. One of them was the Slovanian expedition leader Viki who was requested by the other expedition leaders to move down to Advance Base Camp on May 15 and hold detailed discussions with the Japanese leader about the incident. What transpired is not known yet. An AFP report inAshahi , a Japanese daily, claims that the Japanese summit party of May 11 did ask three sherpas to rescue the Indian climbers. But ITBP expedition leader, Singh, categorically denies such a gesture was made.

The bad weather on May 10 didn’t only affect Indian climbers. On the south face, a New Zealand expedition met with the same fate. Trapped in the blizzard were Robert Hall, 35, the only non-sherpa to have climbed the Everest five times, Andrew Harris, 32, co-New Zealander, Japanese woman climber Yasuko Nanba, 47, who became the second Japanese woman to climb the Everest after Junko Tabei in 1975, and American Douglas Hansen, 44.

In direct contrast to the Japanese attitude was Hall’s own behaviour. He slowed his pace and stayed at the rear to help Hansen whose condition was worsening. The last contact Hall made was with his seven-months pregnant wife Jan Arhold in Christchurch over radio, by which time he was crippled by frostbite and running out of oxygen at 8,700 m. No support team could reach him because of strong winds.

Harris, on the other hand, helped other members make it to South Col but himself hallucinated at Camp 4 and is supposed to have had a fall from a cliff. The New Zealand expedition, led by Hall, had eight members who paid $60,000 each to the Adventure Tourism Council of New Zealand—the organisers of the climb.

Another climber who died was Taiwanese Chen Yu-Nan whose body was removed from the mountain base early on Tuesday. The climbers brought to safety, in reportedly the highest emergency rescue at 5,900 m, were American Seaborn B. Weathers and Taiwanese expedition leader Gau Ming-ho, 47, both with severe frostbite. Speaking to Reuter, Gau said he spent 63 hours on the world’s highest peak at 8,300 m, the so-called death zone, without oxygen, food, water or a sleeping bag. Gau was rescued by a sherpa guide who went looking for him.

While the Nepalese government charges $15,000 for a team of five members on an expedition to Everest and $10,000 for each extra person up to a maximum of nine, there is no minimum expertise criteria for the climbers. This year, for instance, there were 60 climbers in 26 expeditions. While 15 were from the Chinese side, 11 were from the Nepalese side. And a lot of them were new to the sport. Over the years, there has been a distinct commercialisation of the sherpas too—they charge anything from $15,000 upwards.

While this is another example of the commercialisation of Everest, what is certainly needed, in the words of Kohli, is a code of conduct for all climbers where ambition is subservient to rescue efforts. Sudhir Sahi, editor of Indian Mountaineer , agrees: “In the increasingly competitive mountaineering environment, one should adhere to the safety levels and the requisite skill of climbers.”

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