Chapter 12

Don’t leave me

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. The area was in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me, difficult to see in its entirety. It jerked again, a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

You think you are travelling in one direction in life, and then without reason and warning your path suddenly shifts. You think you have one set of options and suddenly you have a whole new set to deal with, to deal with. Everything you planned for, everything you anticipated, has been summarily thrown away without your participation or consent. Reality is redrawn and you have to start making decisions about it immediately. We had been on a well-organised and so far successful trail towards the summit, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, demanding a totally different perspective on what would happen next. 

The body moaned. That screwed the tension up to yet a higher level of urgency. Disbelief and horror circled through my head. Who could it be? We had heard nothing of anyone in trouble. And what was I to do now? Lhakpa shouted down to me. I looked up at him and he waved at me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure. 

Each team, or solo climber, did, or should, arrive at the foot of the mountain self-sufficient. That was self evident. Any one who turned up assuming they could borrow food or clothing or tentage off others would receive short shrift. Similarly, you could not climb yourself to a standstill and then expect other teams to risk their lives to save you. 

Saving someone was not a straightforward exercise either. There was no one to offer aid. There was no 911 to call, no Mountain Rescue to whom the problem could be handed over. We would not be able to walk away, feeling we had done our civic duty and that ‘the experts’ were now in charge. 

Anyone who becomes immobile on a mountain as large and as remote as Everest is probably going to die. That was self-evident, and had been reinforced by the experience of 1996. Then Makalu Gau, and Beck Weathers, both severely frost-bitten, deeply traumatised by their experience, had still to climb back down the mountain to 6,000 metres. Only from there could they be evacuated by helicopter, and that evacuation was  highly risky to the helicopter pilot. Scott Fisher, Yasuko Namba and Rob Hall all collapsed, and all died. On this side of the mountain, we would have to get the victim all the way back to base camp, before we could contemplate trying to find a helicopter. If he had to be carried, that would require the co-operation of a number of teams, dozens of people in manpower, at least three days of climbing.

Whoever it was on the rocks in front of me, was so badly incapacitated that he had spent the night out on the mountain, rather than crawl down. Life lay in keeping moving, as it generated body heat, and with every metre of descent, moved you into thicker air.  I suspected we had virtually no chance of saving the life of this man. 

Should we then even try? 

We stood to throw away an entire expedition, the money, the time, the thousands of vertical feet of physical and mental effort. We had sponsors who expected us to go for the summit. We had personal ambitions that pointed in the same direction. We were only 240 vertical metres from the summit, only four or five hours in climbing time. We were so close to fulfilling everything we had set out to do.

Should we throw it all away for a rescue attempt that was doomed before it even started? The body was lying in a ghastly inverted V. It looked as if the climber’s spine might be broken. If he couldn’t walk he was probably condemned. Why waste time, stand around getting cold and demoralised when the attempt was destined to be futile? Why not just turn away and climb on?

It is one thing to have these kinds of debates in the comfort of the base camp mess tent, when the whole issue is theoretical. Or to analyse some famous incident that had happened to strangers and to wonder what you would have done in that situation. Nothing can prepare you for the real thing; for standing at 8,600 metres on the north-east ridge of Everest, at 5 a.m., in freezing cold, as you try to make moral choices.

This all ran through my head in the space of a few seconds. Time slowed down, the way it does if you are in a car accident, or fall off a rock-climb. The ground seems to approach in slow motion. You have plenty of time to think about the fact that you are going to hit it, very hard, very soon. 

But all the debates, the issues, the logical analysis was useless. I simply could not do it. I could not put the summit of a mountain ahead of a human life. I would not want to live with myself if I could. However hopeless this man’s situation might be, I had to try. 

I walked back to Ian, who was standing with Jangbu, watching Lhakpa climbing the First Step.

‘That body’s alive. I’m going to have a look.’

It took him a moment to understand what I was talking about. 

‘We can’t just leave him,’ I insisted.

He nodded and I stepped down from the trail and walked gingerly across the loose shale towards the body. He lay with his head towards me, long brown hair lying over his face. I thought perhaps he might be one of the Russian team. As I approached I saw he was lying with his harness clipped to a line of fixed rope. His stomach was uppermost, his head and legs dangling down on either side. I wondered if he might have fallen and broken his back.

The unstable rocky slope fell away steeply below him and I knelt down cautiously next to him. I brushed the hair away from his face.  

‘Don’t leave me,’ she said.

Her face had the waxy perfection of fairy-tale drawings of Sleeping Beauty. The skin was milky white, and totally smooth. It was a sign of severe frostbite but made her look like a porcelain doll. Her eyes stared up at me, unfocussed, pupils huge dark voids. 

‘Don’t leave me,’ she murmured again. 

I felt physically sick. With her long, dark hair, she looked a bit like me. For a shocked second I felt as if I was glimpsing a possible future. The fact that she was conscious both encouraged and appalled me. It might be possible to save her. Or we might yet have to leave her. 

‘I need to fetch the rest of my team,’ I said to her. ‘We have several people here. We will try and help you. I will come back, I promise.’

‘Why are you doing this to me?’ she asked. I looked at her in shock, and then realised that the question was not directed at me specifically, but seemed to be asked of life in general. Why, indeed? It was unanswerable.

Ian and Jangbu came back with me. Lhakpa, Pemba and Ci Luo, seeing the turn events had taken, began to descend towards us. Ian took over and I was happy to let him do so. The woman had no visible trauma injuries and her bizarre position turned out to be the result of complete muscular limpness. She was as helpless as a rag doll. It looked as if someone had clipped her harness to the end of a fixed rope, presumably so she would not slip down the slope, and had then left her to go for help. Next to her was an orange bottle of oxygen, of Russian make, and a mask. The bottle was empty. 

While Ian and Jangbu pulled her straight, I collected her down gloves, which had been thrown to one side. Her jacket was over her shoulders but her arms were not in the sleeves. Our bodies can be bizarre in their reaction to trauma. A fairly common occurrence with severe hypothermia is a sensation of extreme warmth. The victim may start tearing off his clothing, and it looked as if she might have done this. 

The men tried to replace her clothing. Her hands were swollen masses, her arms completely limp. She had no motor control. As Ian tried to get her arms into her jacket sleeves, she gave no resistance, no assistance. Jangbu was trying to give her some of the hot juice from his thermos.

They then each grabbed her under one arm and tried to pull her into a sitting position against the boulder. She was a complete dead-weight, unable to help in any way. The two strong men took several heaves to get her sitting, and then both were doubled over, gasping for breath. It put perspective on what it would take to try and actually carry her anywhere, let alone carry or drag her for days down the mountain.

We couldn’t give her oxygen. Her mask would not fit our brand of oxygen bottles. We carried spare bottles but no spare masks. For the oxygen to have any effect on her condition, she would have to be put on it, at a high flow-rate, and stay on it for hours. A few whiffs would have no effect. It would mean one of us would have to go off oxygen permanently, to give her a mask, and that we would run through all our spare supplies very quickly. Without establishing a real chance of saving her, the risk involved was too great. 

We had no means of communication with the outside world. Pemba tried calling base camp, but their set was not switched on. They were happily asleep in warm sleeping bags, with no idea we were so high on the mountain. Last they had heard, we were to stay at camp 3, and would call them at 9 a.m. That was still four hours away. 

I found one crampon lying near her, black crampons. Scratched on the inside of one of them was ‘Frankie’. Frankie? I had not known who she was. I had wondered if she might be one of the French climbers on the mountain. There were some women among their team. Ian was attempting to talk to her. So far she said only the two sentences she had said already to me: ‘don’t leave me’ and ‘why are you doing this to me?’ Now, she added one more. 

‘I am an American. I am an American.’

American? But the American team was below us. Their first wave of climbers had camped at 7,900 metres the day we moved up to camp 3. They were a full day behind us. My mind wandered back to the sight I had seen the day before, two tiny figures at the foot of the First Step, one still, one moving around. 

Could she be Fran? Could she possibly be the bubbly American woman who had sat in our ABC kitchen tent that one night, passing the hours while she waited for her husband, the Russian climber, Serguei. It might make sense. She and Serguei were climbing as a twosome. They had no Sherpas, no oxygen. They would not be in radio contact with other people on the mountain. That did not explain how she came to have an oxygen bottle lying next to her. Nor did it explain where he had gone. I stared over Ian’s shoulder at her face. She looked far younger than I remembered Fran as being, but that was probably the effect of the frostbite. I couldn’t be sure.

Three Uzbek climbers were approaching us. 

‘Will you help us?’ I asked. ‘This woman is dying. We might be able to carry her down. Would you help?’

The leader of the three looked down at me reluctantly. His voice was muffled behind his oxygen mask.

‘We tried to help yesterday. We left her with oxygen. She is too far gone to help.’

His words made little sense to me. He began to speak into his radio, presumably talking to his base camp. However, they did stay, watching Ian and Jangbu to see what decision they would reach.

Ian had her by both shoulders and was speaking directly at her, his face only inches from hers. 

‘You have to help us. If you can help us, we can try and move you back down the mountain. If you don’t, you are going to die.’

He was staring intently into her face, looking for some reaction, any reaction, to his words. There was nothing. 

‘You are an American. Americans fight. If you’re going to live you must fight.’

It was becoming clear that although she was aware that we were there, she was not mentally coherent. She did not understand what was said to her, and she could only say her three phrases. It was difficult to know what was left in her head.

As Ian continued to try and get some reaction from her, I noticed her other crampon lying a few feet below us. I took a tentative step down the slope to try and retrieve it, and immediately thought better of the plan. The slope was covered in loose rock shards, like a million smashed dinner plates. They were slipping away under my feet, rolling down the slope towards the Rongbuk glacier, which lay 4,300 metres below us. It was like trying to move across ball bearings. I could see how a climber, having once lost his balance, would not be able to stop the downward momentum. Was that what had happened to Serguei?

Ian and Jangbu had been trying to pull her into an upright position. Ian’s thought was that if she could take some of her weight on her feet, even if she could not actually walk, it might be possible to move her down the mountain with a climber at each shoulder. However, her legs simply crumpled under her weight, as useless as strands of spaghetti. 

We were all in the shadow of the First Step. The Step, however, did not block the wind, which still wound itself round us. We had been with Fran for nearly an hour, standing still in temperatures of around -30° C. Perched perilously on the steep, unstable slope, I could not even stamp my feet for warmth. I was beginning to feel deeply, profoundly cold. My fingers were almost totally numb. Orders from my brain for them to wriggle met with a lacklustre response, a minuscule, slow-motion movement. I had full body shivers and my teeth were chattering behind my oxygen mask. 

The strangest sensation, though, came from my chest cavity. There were ‘things’ floating inside it, things that were cold. In normal life I had never made conscious contact with the organs that lived in my chest, whose smooth functioning kept my body alive. Now they felt like grey lumps, discrete entities, and cold ones. The cold was attacking the very heart of my body core. It was time to start moving.

The decision to leave her came upon us without much discussion. The Uzbek climbers and Lhakpa had long been of that opinion. What hope I’d had, had faded in the face of her incoherence, her physical incapacity. Now Ian and Jangbu straightened up and turned away from her. She had stopped talking, and seemed to have sunk into unconsciousness. 

‘What do you want to do?’ Ian said to me.

‘I want to go down. Will you come with me?’ I said.

The thought of going on was intolerable. I had lost the will to summit. Besides the physical drain of the cold, which made thoughts of trying to climb the First Step unpleasant, I was emotionally shattered. I had never encountered anything like this. I had passed bodies, friends had not come back, but I had never watched anyone die. Nor decide to leave them. 

It was all that much harder for me because she was a woman. It is not that I thought women immune to the risk, but it was such a male dominated environment. Everywhere you turned, everyone you talked to was male. 

I climb because I enjoy it. I climb for the pleasure of the activity, of the surroundings. There was no pleasure left. I wanted to be down, to be off the mountain, to have both feet on flat ground. I could not push Fran to one side, mentally, and find again my drive for the summit.

‘Yes, I’ll come down,’ said Ian. I had assumed he felt the same way I did, and that if he didn’t, he would say so. Asking for company was a reflex action, out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. Had he said he wanted to go on, I would have readily accepted that. I did not expect him, or the Sherpas, to be as traumatised by the situation as I felt. They had all seen more of such things. I did not realise that he in fact wanted to go on, but put that aside to accompany me back down. 

Ian then asked the Sherpas what they wanted to do, encouraging them to go on if they wished. They had a brief discussion. Pemba decided to go down. It was the decision of a leader. Although they were all superb climbers, Pemba was first among equals. It was a brave choice. He had the least summits of the three, and was the only one who had not climbed the mountain from the north. A summit from the north would have made a difference professionally. But he felt his responsibilities lay elsewhere. 

That left Lhakpa and Jangbu. The two brothers looked at each other. Lhakpa had climbed Everest four times already. Jangbu had climbed it twice. Both had climbed it from the north before. To reach the summit this time would make little difference to their professional reputations, no difference to their expedition wages.

‘We go to the summit’ said Lhakpa. 

I had always wondered why the Sherpas climbed. The effort was enormous, the risks obvious. Yes, it was a highly paid job by Nepalese standards, but I had always wondered if they enjoyed the experience, if they felt the lure of the challenge. Now it seemed the mountain still called to them, despite multiple previous ascents. 

Lhakpa and Jangbu moved towards the Step. Ci Luo and three Uzbek climbers followed them. I turned away, retracing my footsteps back along the ridge. Ian and Pemba followed. Fran sat, half-slumped against the boulder. Thankfully she seemed oblivious of our leaving.

The descent was a haze of cold, disappointment, and emotional exhaustion. We moved slowly and made camp 3 around 9.30 a.m. I dumped my rucksack by the tent door and crawled into it. Nawang, who had stayed at camp 3, brewed up hot juice. Ian pulled out the radio and called base camp. They were oblivious of all the drama and he filled them in. He said we thought the woman to be the American, Fran, but were not sure, and asked Jan to try and find out where other teams thought Fran and Serguei to be. Jan had one question for me. The television director’s mind was already at work. Had I shot any video footage?

‘No bloody way!’

Practically, I had been too cold to try and operate any of my cameras, but it affected me more deeply than that. I had a purely instinctive revulsion to recording her misery for our gain. If she was the person we thought she was, she wasn’t just a sensational death high on a mountain. She was the bouncy woman who had drunk coffee in our kitchen tent at ABC. She was the mother to a son, still at school. His last memory of her was presumably an affectionate good-bye at the airport. Did I really want to be responsible for replacing that with a picture of her as helpless, incoherent, dying slowly and horribly on the mountain slopes? Within our team we had agreed to record whatever happened, and then sort out afterwards what we would use in any documentaries that were made. But she was not part of that agreement. She had no say as to how our material would be used. I had found watching her to be deeply traumatic. I didn’t want that turned into a twisted thrill for armchair viewers. 

Shortly after Ian had signed off from Jan, an excited voice came spurting over the radio, chattering at a million miles an hour. It was Lhakpa. I was surprised by the intense excitement. They had done it before, after all.

‘Summit, summit! South Africa on top,’ he shouted happily. 

Lhakpa, Jangbu and Ci Luo had reached the summit at 10 a.m. They were a few minutes behind the Uzbek climbers. With Ci Luo taking the photographs, they had even remembered to fly our sponsors’ logos, and the Nepalese and South African flags. 

The greatest pleasure of the moment for me, apart from their achievement, was their confidence of being members of the team. It didn’t matter to them what passports they carried. They were part of the South African team and the expedition had reached the top. It was a sweet ending to the trauma of the morning. I felt that something good had emerged from all that had happened. 

Three days later we were back at base camp. Already the razor-edge of the trauma was fading, and I was beginning to wonder if I should not have pushed on for the summit after we had decided to leave Fran. All I needed to do, though, was to re-live the feelings of that hour with her at 8,600 metres to know exactly why I had turned back. 

Word had spread fast across the mountain. As I descended from camp 3 I passed first the Americans, then Russell, then Mark Jennings. Everyone knew what had happened and offered their commiserations. They all seemed confident the woman was Fran, and so she turned out to be. She was alive when Lhakpa and Jangbu had passed her on their way down, but unconscious. She was dead when the other teams came upon her the following morning. They all went on to summit.

Fate feeds us a fickle line. If we had gone for the summit one day later, she would have been dead and we would have climbed on. If we had left camp 3 just two hours earlier, we would have passed her in the dark, not seeing her until we were descending. If we had left a day earlier, we would have found her in a better state and might have been able to save her. All we could do was live with the hand that fate had dealt us.

Slowly we pieced together some of the story of what had happened to her and Serguei. Members of the Russian expedition had, after two unsuccessful attempts, reached the summit on the 18th and 21st. The Arsentievs were the only members to go for the summit on the 22nd, and the rest of team had retreated back down the mountain. The couple had already spent one night at 8,300 metres, without oxygen. They had no radios with them. They had left top camp about 10.45 p.m. A Japanese climber, a Sherpa and an Uzbek also climbed to the summit that day. The Uzbek had passed the couple climbing up when he descended. He had advised them to turn back as it was too late in the day. They had replied that they were prepared to bivouac and had climbed on. They were seen on the summit from base camp through binoculars around 4 p.m. They had been climbing for over 17 hours. The next day five Uzbek climbers reached the summit. Around 7 a.m., on their way up, they had passed Serguei on his way down to top camp. He had not asked them for help. A little later they had found Fran at the First Step in bad shape, standing motionless and unable to speak. Two of them had given her oxygen and had made her sit down. After an hour, having got no response from her, they had climbed on. Although they had radios, they had not notified anyone else. 

Serguei reached top camp around 8 a.m. He left again, on his own, to climb back to her in the afternoon, carrying oxygen, medicine and drink. He was never seen again and his body has yet to be found.

When we found Fran she had been at an altitude of over 8,000 metres without oxygen for more than four days. It was 37 hours since she has reached the summit and she had spent two nights out above 8,600 metres. That she was still alive was a miracle.

We obtained information in bits and pieces, in discussion with various Uzbek and Russian climbers. The information raised as many questions as it answered. Who exactly I had seen below the First Step I will never know. Why Serguei did not make more effort to get other climbers involved we will never know. On his own he had no chance of getting her down to safety. Could the Uzbeks perhaps have done more? All I know is that it is incredibly easy to point fingers with hindsight, but far harder to deal with a situation as it occurs.

The end of the expedition was something of an emotional rollercoaster. The last few days of the season were calm and clear. From the comfort of base camp the mountain looked serene, benign. However, it continued to take its toll on human life. As I had descended from camp 3 I passed Mark Jennings on his way up to the top camp. He was taking a rest, lying back beneath a rock cliff, admiring the view. He was on oxygen, and seemed strong enough. The next day he was one of 10 people to reach the summit. Among them were Russell, Sumio and one of the Americans. Mark returned to sleep at top camp. The following day he left his Sherpa packing up his tent and began to go down, still on oxygen. His Sherpa found him a little later, sitting on a snow slope some hundred metres below the camp, dead.

On the same day a New Zealand climber, Roger Buick, was discovered on his way up from camp 1 to camp 2, at about 7,400 metres, also sitting hunched over the fixed rope, also dead. There were no explanations for either death. Their bodies had simply given up on them.

Why these two men should have had their bodies pack up on them so easily, when Fran was able to hold on for so long, with so little air and warmth, is a puzzle. The bodies we inhabit are wonderful creations, but they are also strange to us. Sometimes we are capable of such tenacity in the face of intense suffering, yet sometimes we snuff out as easily as a candle. 

The disappointment of neither Ian nor I reaching the summit sat heavily over our group. In 1996 we had fought hard, had fought on, and had succeeded. This time we learnt that the best laid plans could come to nothing in the mountains. We issued a press release to South Africa, explaining what had happened and why we had turned back. However, we did not release Fran’s name, as we could not ascertain whether or not her next of kin in the USA had been informed. The Star newspaper quickly found an ill-wisher to quote, saying the so-called female victim did not exist, and that she was simply an excuse we had created to justify our failure to summit.

To have the heart-rending end to Fran’s life reduced to a fabricated excuse for my ‘failure’ floored me. To be capable of assuming that someone would lie about such horrible events, events that I now felt to be burnt into my brain, took a peculiarly twisted mind. Once all the facts had emerged, several days later, and Serguei and her deaths had been reported internationally, it was old news in South Africa. Something newly shocking was having its 15 minutes of fame. Depressed and disillusioned, I tried to find sense in this expedition. 

In seeking an explanation for what had happened to Fran and Serguei, people were, as ever, casting around for somebody to blame. Nothing can happen without someone being held accountable for it. There are no right answers to questions of risk and responsibility. There is no set line, dividing the acceptable from the suicidal. We each create a line for ourselves. 

To some people climbing Everest using oxygen is unsporting, an indication you are not good enough for the challenge. To others to climb it without is simply stupid, a ridiculous risk. We are always searching for ways to quantify risk, searching for ‘experts’ and ‘arbiters’ who will create rules, who will decide what is or is not acceptable. In taking on a challenge like Everest, I assess the danger and do what I can to minimise it. I set limits that I do not go beyond. Climbing well above 8,000 metres without supplementary oxygen is one risk I choose not to take. Fran and Serguei took it. For them their personal balance of risk and reward was different. And I do not believe that, because I would not do it myself, I am in any position to condemn their choice, whether or not it proved to be the right one.

If they had lived, their ascent would have been a superb achievement. Fran would have been only the second (arguably the third) woman to have climbed the world’s highest peak without oxygen. But they died. What becomes of the achievement then? And who is to blame for it all? Perhaps blame is not a relevant issue. They made their choices and those choices didn’t work out as planned.

Mark climbed with oxygen. He was just another one of the 117 people who reached the summit that season. No particular hero back home, except in his personal circle. His choice didn’t work out either. His wife and children had to pay the price for that. But what does it mean to the rest of us, except to serve as a warning that this is a serious business? There are no ‘yak routes’ on the world’s great mountains.

As human beings we have a complex relationship with death. We love to discuss it, circling around its perimeter, but we are not good at facing up to its realities. That each of us, and everyone we know, will die, is the only complete certainty of our existence. We make choices throughout our lives, balancing out quality and quantity of existence. Why do we venture into the mountains, Ian, myself, Serguei, Fran? Presumably we find there something life-affirming, something that gives us far more than we risk in the venture.

Within a group of climbers who have chosen to tackle a challenge on the level of Everest, no one can be held accountable for the others. Each step higher is a personal choice and a personal responsibility. We need to be very clear about that before we venture out. If I walk on the narrow edges of life, I do it because I choose to. If that edge breaks under me, I accept that as a consequence of my choice. I cannot blame others for what happens. Nor do I expect that those who accompany me on that edge, if they do, should carry blame for my decisions. 

‘Why are you doing this to me?’ Fran had asked of an indifferent universe. I have no idea why she should have had to suffer on such a level before she died. Yet, when I hear of an acquaintance of my age, 30, dying of cancer, I’d take Fran’s choice, to die in the places I love, doing what I find most fulfilling. Life does not go easy on us just because we choose to play it safe. 

Ian and I did interviews with Jan about what had happened, but we did them separately. Later I sat in the comms tent, watching his interview on the monitor. I had not realised how badly he had wanted to go on to the summit, and felt guilty about having got in the way of that. Still, it had been his choice. What was more important to me was what he said next.

‘What keeps you focused as a climbing team is the trust between the two partners. When that trust is broken down, that team will almost certainly disintegrate. The mountain will always be here, but it’s not easy to find climbing partners. The loyalty and trust is more important. I’d rather have a climbing partner and a long list of future projects.’

Everything we had experienced on Everest had drawn us together. The trust we were building had been tested harshly by the fires of experience and it had come through unscathed. We might walk away from the mountain, but at least we walked away together.

The voyage of Everest 1998 had taken some unexpected directions, but nevertheless was overall hugely enjoyable. Up until the moment I saw Fran at the foot of the First Step, it had been a great expedition. The north side was far more attractive to me than the south. Perhaps it was the sheer magnificence of the north face or the incredible exposure of the climbing, the breathtaking situations of the camps, the technical challenge of the rock-climbing. Already I was wondering whether I might, someday, get the chance to return to the north side, to try and finish the climb.

Ian felt the same attraction to the route. Quite how we were going to find the time, and the money, to do a third Everest expedition, we had no idea. 

But the seed of the idea had been planted.


This is a web preview of the "Just For the Love Of It: The First Woman to Climb Mount Everest From Both Sides" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App