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The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season
By Nick Heil
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Nick Heil
All rights reserved.
First, the climbers bought bottles of beer in the lobby; then they hiked the five flights of stairs to the hotel's rooftop terrace, where they faced west to watch the eclipse begin above Kathmandu. It was March 29, 2006, and at five P.M. that day the moon began to drift in front of the sun, casting the buildings in shadow. The blocky contour of the city's skyline was swept into silhouette, the distant foothills fading to a suggestion. This was the first instance when an eclipse like this had been visible from Nepal at the beginning of an Everest expedition. How could you not take it as a sign?
"At the time I was asked if this was a good or bad omen," Russell Brice, the fifty-three-year-old expedition leader, wrote in a press release that summer, after the season had ended, after David Sharp was dead, after the finger-pointing and accusations and incredulity, after he had hand-carried Sharp's passport to England and returned it to his parents and told them what had happened. "My reply was that it was good, but at the time my heart suggested that it was not to be. My inner instincts were to be true."
Astrologers had long held that a solar eclipse portended the overthrow of a ruler or king or, at the very least, that it signified changes to come. Not that Brice was particularly superstitious or inclined to buy the nutty prognostications of pseudoscientists who studied the alignment of stars. But big mountains were unpredictable, human beings even more so. Combine the two and the potential for catastrophe was always right around the corner. During his lifetime of climbing and skiing and ballooning and paragliding and high-altitude skydiving, Brice had known more than a dozen people whose lives had come to a premature end. These friends and acquaintances of his had exploded in their jumpsuits, or fallen into oblivion, or been swept away in a roaring wall of snow and ice, or simply sat down and never got up again. Brice had been lucky. He had not only walked through the valley of death, he'd scrambled up its slopes and ridges and stood on its summit and had never so much as lost a fingertip to frostbite. More important, on his watch as an expedition guide and leader, he had never lost a client—or another guide or a Sherpa, for that matter—though there had certainly been some close calls.
Brice was the founder and owner of Himalayan Experience, better known simply as Himex, one of the largest and most successful outfitters on Everest. He had been running guided expeditions on the mountain since 1994, exclusively on the north side, in Tibet. Over the years, Brice had poured millions into his business, building a small fiefdom that was the envy of many other operators, a source of inspiration and—sometimes—exasperation. The accommodations during a Himex expedition, both on and off the mountain, were some of the best available. He ran a top-notch kitchen, marshaled sophisticated weather data, employed the strongest Sherpas, and hosted raucous parties. During his twelve-year tenure on the hill, Brice had put more than 270 people on the summits of 8,000-meter peaks, more than any other single outfitter.
Brice had twice summited himself, in 1997 and 1998, but now he orchestrated his show perched on the North Col, at 23,000 feet, from which he had an unobstructed view of the Northeast Ridge, the most dangerous part of the route. He tracked his climbers' progress like a ship captain on the bridge, following them through a telescope peeking out of his tent vestibule, remaining in constant communication via two-way radio or, when that failed, satellite phone. His expeditions were emphatically not a democracy; if he believed a client wasn't going to make it, he would promptly turn him around. Ignore him and Brice insisted he would "pull the Sherpas off you and deal with it later in court."
Brice wasn't particularly imposing—about five-nine, 165 pounds—but he could be intimidating. He was barrel-chested and fit, strong enough to outpace Sherpas half his age while hauling a fifty-pound pack. No Westerner was more at home on Everest than he, and he comported himself with the air of a seasoned army general, even while he clung to the youthful persona of a mountain guide. On Everest, his typical uniform consisted of a rugby shirt beneath a down-filled parka, knit ski cap pulled low, wraparound sunglasses tilted high. Though he still had his roguish good looks and wry sense of humor, there was no mistaking his seniority and clout. Brice's temper could be swift and intense, but so could his sociability. Few climbers escaped a visit to the Himex camp without sharing a beer or a belt of whiskey—or both. The other guides on Everest almost universally respected him, even those who didn't particularly like him. The Sherpas simply gazed upon him with awe. Ban Dai, they called him: "Big Boss."
His years in the Himalayas had been rewarding, to be sure, but that hadn't made them any less rough. The dry air and harsh weather had etched his skin and silvered his hair. His teeth had been stained by countless cups of coffee and tea. He had ferried so many spine-crushing loads between camps that he had ground away the cartilage in his knees. By 2006 he had begun to contemplate selling the business, moving on to the next thing. But what was next? He didn't know. Brice had gotten married a couple of years earlier, though he didn't have kids. He was too young to retire but too old to truly enjoy the punishing work of high-altitude climbing anymore—or the heated controversies that often accompanied it.
Brice wasn't sure what to make of the coming season. He had agreed to participate in a television documentary being produced by the Discovery Channel—a six-part series in which he would feature prominently. The crew planned to follow the Himex team all the way to the top, replete with high-altitude cinematographers and Sherpas kitted out with helmet-mounted cameras. It was one of the most ambitious documentary projects the mountain had seen, and things were already shaping up to make it a highly promising year—for television audiences, anyway. Brice's client roster included, among others, a double amputee; an asthmatic who intended to summit without using oxygen; and a 220-pound biker from California whose back, knee, and ankle were bolted together with metal screws.
It was going to be either the best year in Himex history or the worst.
The day after the solar eclipse, the team members—most of them, anyway—gathered on the bougainvillea-draped patio of the Hotel Tibet, a day before their departure for Everest. It was the first time they had assembled as a group, and although they were intimately familiar with their itinerary by now, Brice introduced each person and reviewed the agenda for the coming week. On April 1, they would fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa, where they would be met by a liaison officer and a driver from the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association (CTMA), both of whom would accompany them for the next five days during their ascent to Base Camp. Brice himself would travel overland, accompanying a convoy of trucks full of expedition supplies along the Friendship Highway. Traveling by road was cheaper, but sending his clients through Lhasa ensured them of a more gradual acclimatization and, typically, high-quality accommodations and meals, with a little sightseeing thrown in for good measure. In general, the trip in from Lhasa was a more expensive but preferable warm-up for the next two months, during which they would endure steadily increasing discomfort and deprivation.
Himex had signed up ten clients, from all around the globe. Two of them were returning after a swing-and-miss the year before, including the asthmatic climber Mogens Jensen, a tall, tawny thirty-three-year-old Danish endurance athlete. Jensen was phasing out of his career as a professional triathlete and committing himself to high-altitude mountaineering. He had a generous sponsorship from the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which relished the idea that someone using its asthma drug Seretide was going to climb Everest emblazoned with the GSK logo while singing the benefits of the product. Jensen was relatively new to climbing, but he'd made a hard-charging debut on Everest in 2005: He'd run and cycled more than six thousand miles from his home in Denmark to Base Camp in Tibet before attacking the mountain. It was a noble effort, especially considering that he had forgone bottled oxygen. In the end, though, Jensen had pulled up shy of the top, at 27,700 feet, when frozen toes forced him to turn around.
The other repeat client was Brett Merrell, a forty-six-year-old captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department. Merrell was a strapping SoCal native with a powerful sense of fraternal devotion. He had grown up in a large family, and the emotional bonds he had experienced at home had laid the groundwork for his loyalty to his colleagues in the fire department. Merrell had been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001, and he had been vocal about dedicating his climb "to the men and women who sacrificed their lives on September 11, 2001." Merrell was articulate, patriotic, sensitive, and a natural on camera. The documentary crew was already counting on him to be one of their stars.
No one on the expedition, however, had generated more preclimb media attention than New Zealand native Mark Inglis. Inglis was an experienced climber and former search-and-rescue professional who, in November 1982, had been stranded in a storm near the summit of 12,316-foot Mount Cook, the highest peak in his home country. Inglis and his climbing partner, Phil Doole, burrowed into an ice cave barely larger than a refrigerator, dubbing their shelter the Middle Peak Hotel because of its proximity to the mountain's central spire. Their ordeal lasted thirteen days while the storm dragged on, keeping help at bay. They managed to stretch their meager supply of food—half a package of cookies, a can of peaches, a single chocolate bar, and two packets of drink mix—over six days, using their body heat to melt water. A brief lull in the weather on the seventh day allowed rescue workers, in touch with the men by radio, to air-drop additional supplies. But by the time the search party finally reached them, the climbers were hypothermic, emaciated, and suffering from frostbite so severe that Inglis and Doole ended up having both legs amputated just below the knees.
Inglis was in frequent pain for years afterward, but it hardly slowed him down. He went on to earn a degree in biochemistry while conducting cancer research at the Christchurch School of Medicine. In 1992, he made a dramatic career change, soon emerging as one of New Zealand's top vintners. It was almost as though his disability had become the source of his motivation: Inglis intended to set the world on fire—while standing on twin prosthetics. In 2000, he won a silver medal in track cycling at the Paralympic Games in Sydney. Two years later, fitted with special limbs that allowed him to attach crampons, he again climbed to the top of Mount Cook. When he reached the summit, on January 7, he burst into tears.
For his attempt on Everest, Inglis was accompanied by Wayne Alexander, a forty-four-year-old engineer from Christchurch, New Zealand, whom everyone called Cowboy. It was Cowboy who'd built the legs Inglis had used on Cook in 2002, and now he had fashioned an even sleeker pair, sculpted from carbon fiber, especially for Everest. Cowboy had limited climbing experience himself—he'd been to the top of only two peaks in New Zealand, Cook and 8,120-foot Mount Aspiring—but Inglis and other Kiwi climbers had vouched for his competency. Cowboy knew that this was going to be the most significant challenge of Inglis's life. If Inglis made it, he would become the first double amputee ever to stand on top of Everest. Cowboy was going to make sure his friend didn't fail because of the equipment.
Brice continued the roll call of clients: Max Chaya, forty-four, a sports retailer from Lebanon, was attempting to complete the Seven Summits and, on this trip, to become the first Lebanese to summit Mount Everest. Bob Killip was a fifty-two-year-old businessman from New South Wales making his second attempt on the mountain. Three of the team members remained in absentia: Kurt Hefti, a forester, and Marcel Bach, a real estate broker, who both lived in Switzerland, and Gerard Bourrat, a sixty-two-year-old retired computer salesman from Cannes, France. When Bourrat had gone in for his preclimb physical shortly before the expedition, his doctor had discovered a malignant tumor on his kidney. Instead of preparing for Everest, Bourrat prepared for surgery. The surgeon removed the cancerous kidney from the front, through Bourrat's abdomen, so that carrying a backpack would not aggravate the surgical wound. The procedure went so well that the doctor soon gave Bourrat the green light for the climb. It would take him a couple of weeks to recover from the operation, but then he would be hopping the first plane to Nepal and joining the expedition as soon as possible.
Brice came to the last client in the room, Tim Medvetz, a former bouncer who helped customize Harley-Davidsons in Los Angeles for celebrities like Mel Gibson and the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. When Brice introduced him, some of the Himex climbers were confused; they couldn't recall having seen Medvetz's name on any of the pre-expedition e-mails.
Medvetz had been a late addition—extremely late. In fact, he had paid Brice the fee for the trip—in full and in cash—just that day. Everything about him seemed unusual. Most strikingly, he was six feet, five inches tall and 220 pounds, much bigger than the typical mountaineer. He sported a goatee and straight, jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders. His skin was deeply tanned, almost brown, and his eyes were so green they looked like emeralds pressed into his skull. He was dressed in camouflage pants, pink Converse high-tops, and a black T-shirt over a white long-sleeved thermal top. A bandanna was cinched around his head, do-rag style, holding his long hair away from his face. "We kind of looked around at each other," Brett Merrell recalled, "and we were like, Who the hell's that guy?"
Medvetz didn't care what the others thought; he deserved to be there as much as anyone. With the exception of Inglis, no one at the meeting had endured what he had to reach this point, an odyssey that had begun five years earlier, on September 10, 2001. Medvetz had been roaring down a county highway near Los Angeles, on his way to meet a friend for dinner. It was a glorious Southern California evening, and he was letting his hog run, as he was wont to do—seventy, eighty, pushing ninety miles per hour. He certainly wasn't expecting the pickup truck in front of him, piloted by a gray-haired lady, to make a sudden U-turn.
Medvetz torpedoed into the side of the vehicle, the impact so forceful it broke the truck's rear wheel clean off its axle. He crumpled to the pavement, his bike finally spinning to a stop fifty feet away. Medvetz looked over at his busted rig lying on its side. Something wasn't right. I need to get my bike out of the road before someone hits it, he thought. But when he tried to get up he discovered he had no feeling below his waist. He fished his cell phone out of his vest pocket and called a friend. "Hey, man," he said. "You better come down here."
Excerpted from Dark summit by Nick Heil. Copyright © 2008 Nick Heil. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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