We all forget how mortal we are. A few seek to be reminded. Of these, even fewer live better as a result.
It was Fabrizio’s birthday and he was spending it in a tent that was meant for 2 people, but now held three. I occupied the awkward but not unfamiliar honor of official third wheel. Luckily, Fabrizio was ready and willing to provide birthday entertainment.
We all lay there in our sleeping bags trying not to move around too much and get comfortable in our claustrophobia at 20,000 feet. We observed three tent rules: no snoring; no coughing; everyone turn over at the same time. These rules aside, everyone was free to perform any number of disgusting bodily functions from blowing snot all over a sock or another handy piece of clothing, to urinating inside a bottle without leaving the comfort of your sleeping bag being careful not to overflow or spill, to grooming your beard with a fork. One member of our tent would not groom a beard that night.
Corinne Favre had proven herself to be an incredible athlete and a worthy candidate for a summit attempt on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, a peak just over 7000 meters near the Everest area of the Nepal Himalaya. She had won titles in the French Mountain Marathon and in ski mountaineering, and was as fit of an athlete as I’ve ever climbed with.
Fabrizio keeps the both of us entertained with a little game. He listens to his IPOD and attempts to sing whatever song is playing. Fabrizio admits that he is not a good singer, but I suspect that he purposefully is attempting to butcher these tunes even worse than necessary, and soon he has me in a fit of laughter that lasts for several hours. Corinne borrows one earbud and joins in, and in a French accent, the situation is way more hilarious than before. “you’re beautifow! It’s trew! Ah foun’ your face in (mumbles) place an I don know whah to dooo!” I have never laughed so hard in my life. I know that part of this is altitude, but right at that moment I recognize that Fabrizio has a gift.
I myself have spent many birthdays in the mountains. One time on Denali my partners for the West Rib got me a singing birthday card which we could not figure out how to silence. I remember listening to “happy birthday” through the snow where we failed to bury it deep enough. On other occasions we may have been near a bar or just returning from the mountains but I always found it depressing to be away from loved ones when I turned one year older. If Fabrizio was depressed, he didn’t say so and he kept us laughing until well into the night. Strangely, it was one of the best nights I can remember having in the mountains. I listened to the ipod as I feel asleep with Jerry Garcia crooning “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” Little did I know how true this would become for us in the next 24 hours, as more than one of us would be desperately clinging to life physically and emotionally.
All through the night, Corinne broke rule number two, the one about coughing. In the morning it was clear that she needed to descend instead of climbing to Camp 2 as planned, up the mixed snow and rock on the Southwest Ridge. Fabrizio said he would descend with her and come back up the ropes that night so that he and I could go to Camp 2 the following day. I was to stay at camp, dry the sleeping bags and organize the contents of the tent because “alpinism is about discipline” and our tent looked very undisciplined with clif-goo stuck to the floor, pee bottles mingling confusingly with bottles of gatorade, instant meal wrappers strewn about and a host of other messes to take care of.
As I watched them rappel from the lines fixed out of camp, I worried about Corinne because she looked shaky and fearful, perhaps displaying the first signs of altitude illness. A moment after they left, Fabrizio peeked his head in and said “maybe you’d better come down to basecamp with us” and we agreed that I would follow them in an hour or so.
I prepared to descend. When there’s no rush, I am famously slow. Once, when abandoning camp in the Paron Valley of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, I was taking my time and chatting to my climbing partner while chewing Coca leaves, and complaining at how they weren’t affecting me. “Maybe I need to chew more?” I asked my climbing partner, to which he replied “would that make you tie your boots any faster?” The only person slower than me is my Dad, and I’m probably the only person he knows who doesn’t nag him about it. So it could’ve been almost 2 hours from the time Fabrizio left with Corinne to the time I followed, zipping up the tent and shouldering my pack as I rappelled.
I didn’t want to take my time descending the fixed ropes under camp one. The terrain is exceedingly steep, nearing vertical for a few bulges of snow and ice. I handle this kind of terrain very boldly, having been on similar ground many times. The complexity of the snow formations on a steep face can be a frightening array of flutings and precarious gargoyles that taunt and threaten and dwarf the climber. I have spent time tunneling, straddling, or using pickets to climb snow like this, and I didn’t dawdle in my descent. I looked over my shoulder down the ropes and saw a tiny dot in the snow which I thought was Fabrizio and Corinne sitting on the less steep glacier below the headwall I was descending. After awhile though, the tiny dot on the snow hadn’t moved. I rappelled past what I didn’t realize at the time were blood stains on the snow.
When I reached the low angled glacier which traverses left to a series of gulleys which lead to the toe of a rock buttress where Advanced Basecamp sits, I found that Fabrizio and Corinne had tethered their packs to a picket for the traverse. I didn’t have much weight, so I repacked their gear into my pack and continued traversing. I rounded the corner, and that’s when I saw her. She was sitting in the snow with her helmet pushed back on her head, blood on her face and in her mouth--on her teeth which were visible as she moaned and gasped for air. “I need help!” he cried as I frontpointed over to their position with haste. She was slumped in her harness and having a hard time standing. Fabrizio didn’t explain right away except to mention that “it came from the left, from above” and “big piece of ice.” He downplayed the fact that the ice had struck him too and he soldiered on, engineering the entire rescue with a radio to basecamp telling our cook to climb to Advance Base Camp with a rope. He barked orders in an officious manner which was essential to the situation, not allowing for the all too well known rescue situation malady known as “analysis paralysis.” He took charge, instructing me to grab her harness and help to lower her onto the fixed lines. Several times he carried her when she couldn’t stand, exhibiting the kind of superhuman strength reserved for people in crisis situations whose blood chemistry is altered to contain massive levels of adrenaline-- the kind of people who lift cars to save a loved one. It was like watching something like that.
My job was to rappel and watch above constantly for falling rock and ice. When we reached the end of the ropes, I took the radio down to basecamp to try to organize a recue carry with Sherpas from another expedition who had arrived earlier that day. By that time, Lhakpa-Tshering Sherpa, our basecamp cook and sirdar, had arrived with a tumpline and basket. Over the next few hours, he and another Sherpa took turns carrying Corinne down the steep boulders and scree to basecamp.
Back in basecamp, the Sherpas from the other expedition made me eat some food and then they went in separate directions, one to get help and the other to help with carrying Corinne. I had the duty of awkwardly introducing myself to a friend of Corinne’s from France who had recently arrived in basecamp for a visit and had not yet heard the news. He insisted in participating in the rescue and left with me for ABC, where we could see them descending. I found the medical kit, the satellite phone, her passport and personal effects, the bag with the expedition’s money, and carried them up again to Fabrizio.
When I met them, Lhakpa had the tumpline across his forehead and Corinne was in the basket atop his back, and he was stumbling down the trail. I met Fabrizio who had sat down to rest for a moment, and I attempted to talk to him about his own injuries. His eyes had not the ten mile stare you would expect, but instead a keenly aware and panicked expression. He looked at me and said that he watched her tumble down the slope head-over-heels after she was hit by a falling piece of ice the size of a coffee table. “It just rag-dolled her” he kept repeating. “When I reached her from the fixed lines below and tried to resuscitate her, I thought she was dead” he told me. Long into that night, as we carried her into the town of Gorak Shep, where we tried to arrange a helicopter, he cried and broke down and asked if there wasn’t something more he could’ve done.
The Sherpas labor over Corinne, taking turns carrying her as she sits like a drunken queen inside the basket. We try to support her and prevent her from moving around too much as she moans and tries to find a position of comfort. I help by holding a Sherpa’s hand to support him as he struggles over the boulders. He is only 5 feet 5 inches tall and can’t weigh much more than 130 pounds himself. Sherpas are known for this kind of strength but sometimes their work overwhelms them. On Mt. Everest alone, Sherpas account for over a third of the deaths.
I feel a certain kinship for this man as we struggle over the ankle-spraining boulders. Several days later, this man and a few others will demand an exorbitant amount of money for the rescue, and I will come to see them as opportunists. If it were a Sherpa in that basket, I would be making the same effort right now, but this is something that years of struggle as a poor farmer within a country that still has vestiges of a caste system for Hindus have not prepared him to understand. Regardless, at this point he is admirable.
Corinne arrives at basecamp in time for Dave to stride up the trail. Dave has been sick for almost a week, and has been absent from basecamp affairs until precisely this moment when his training as an EMT becomes exceedingly necessary. He does a full exam while I fill in a soap note and he notices a large mass in her abdomen which is extremely alarming as it is a sign of internal bleeding. I am most worried about Corinne’s head injury, and I monitor her for signs in mental status as we load her onto a plastic SKED, which we have borrowed from the new arrivals in basecamp who stand there, mouths agape. The light fades, and we begin carrying her to Gorak Shep.
I hold one of the handles of the SKED alongside a Sherpa who has borrowed my headlamp so that we can both see. I carry one water bottle. The trek to Gorak Shep is arduous and crosses the unstable moraine, weaving in and out of huge boulders. We stop every few minutes to assess our patient, and some of the Sherpas drink chang “to keep warm” they say.
We arrive outside the lodges in Gorak Shep and we lay Corinne on the ground where a crowd of onlookers surrounds her and gapes, none of them needing to be there. I try to clear them away, but it is like shooing ravenous birds from a pile of sunflower seeds. They converse in languages I don’t understand while we look for a doctor. We rush into the tea house where there are maybe 50 guests. We ask for a doctor and several hands shoot up. We specify a doctor that speaks French, the language with which Corinne has the most ease in conversation, and a few hands remain in the air. These people’s occupation for the next 12 hours will be to attend to Corinne and prevent her death, which grows more and more imminent as she struggles to breathe.
The doctors work on her in a small and dimly lit room in the back of the tea house. The pulse oximeter tells us she has a blood oxygen saturation of 40 percent, which is dangerously low. My job becomes to go on a search for oxygen.
I run to a nearby lodge where I know Tim Rippel stores his equipment for Mt. Evferest expeditions in the Spring. I make a phone call to a lodge in another village and Tim comes to the phone but informs me that he has bottles, but no mask, so there is no way to put Corinne on oxygen using his supplies. I buy a Chinese made aerosol can of oxygen and return with that. Fabrizio gives me a look, and we put the primitive device to use by shoving a small tube up her nose. Her oxygen saturation rises by two percentage points for 10 minutes and then drops once more.
Things look grim until a mysterious Nepali gentleman arrives and offers to sell us his oxygen for 400 dollars. He is the deus- ex- machina of the moment, and Corinne has a chance now, the doctors say. I go to sleep on the small bench next to Corinne in Dave’s sleeping bag. He won’t need it, because he’ll stay awake all night to monitor her vitals. I lay atop some sliced sections of a once beautiful Kashmiri rug tailored to fit the narrow bench. My eyes scan around the room to the French doctors to the Kerosene can dangerously next to the fireplace which burns dried yak dung, to the poster of the Japanese guy dunking himself in the frozen lake with Mt. Everest in the background and a sign reading “Happy New Year 2008.” My gaze comes to rest on the poster of Ama Dablam’s Camp One, a frightening perch which seen alone as a snapshot of climbing presents a very exciting picture indeed and does not represent at all the doldrums that I myself experienced on that mountain in 2001. Perhaps, I think as I drift into sleep, a better portrait of climbing would be to picture a guy looking bored with a copy of War and Peace torn in thirds to limit weight.
The next morning I awake and find my friends still attending to Corinne with the French doctors. At considerable personal expense, Fabrizio has arranged for a helicopter evacuation. As usual, it is several hours past the estimated arrival time, being as how this is a country where nothing operates on time. Ask 3 different people on the street in Kathmandu for the time, and the answer will differ by up to 30 minutes, no doubt.
The helicopter touches down to a throng of onlookers. When we load Corinne into the helicopter, the pilot tells Dave that he cannot take additional passengers, so Dave’s plan of going along to make sure Corinne is in good hands and makes it to the hospital is impossible. He gives the pilot a note for the doctors. This note is never seen again. The helicopter takes off and stirs a cloud of dust from the empty lakebed that serves as a helipad. It struggles to get off the ground, and flies toward trekkers, who run away and for a moment we think it’s going to crash to earth. It gains a bit of height and flies over the nearby rooftop, clearing it by inches, then disappears down the valley. Later doctors tell us that Corinne had only a fifty percent chance of surviving that helicopter flight due to the change in pressure alone.
Fabrizio and Dave go to the tea house and sleep on the benches. Fabrizio’s tears do not serve to diminish my vision of him as a great hero. We repeat that there was nothing more he could’ve done, but he started walking back to Kathmandu later that night because he is determined to make sure that Corinne lives, as there have arisen many logistical problems relating to her care in the hospital. He left Dave in charge of money, told us what to pack in his bags and went running down the trail in the darkness.
Days later I find myself alone at camp one packing up Corinne’s remaining belongings from the tent. As I climb up a very steep chimney filled with ice I wonder why it wasn’t me that day. Why have I survived when others have not? At the exact point where I stand at this moment, a friend of mine, a Sherpa I climbed with on two expeditions, fell 1000 feet when the rope he was clipped to failed. As I clip the fixed rope, the only logical answer I can muster to this nagging of question of “why wasn’t it me below the icefall that day?” is that someday it will be. "Fuck it" I think and I snap a photo, turning around and thinking about the difficult task of descending with our supplies that now faces me.