October 11, 2006

Miracle on Everest

2006 1528 page5 capf all the brave men and women who set out to scale Mount Everest in 2006, the most heroic never reached the top—as the events of May 25 demonstrated.
Everest is, perhaps, the ultimate challenge to mind and body. Every year a few hundred of the fittest, toughest adventurers on earth attempt the climb. Every year some die trying. The path to the summit has become littered with corpses.
The extreme conditions—the rarified air, the bitter cold, and the storms that sweep down with little warning—expose human nature in sharp relief. Everest brings out the best and the worst, the bravest and the basest, in all of us.
On May 10 a British climber named David Sharp lay dying on Everest. Forty climbers passed him by on their way to the summit. Had they invested too much time and too much money to stop? Were they so focused on attaining the 29,035-foot top that they could not help a dying man? Did concern for their own lives thrust aside compassion?
I can’t help wondering how many of those 40, when they tell their story, mention that they left David Sharp to die.
2006 1528 page5But that’s not all. Fifteen days after Sharp died, a 50-year old Australian mountaineer, Lincoln Hall, reached the summit. On the descent, however, disaster struck. At 28,000 feet a member of Hall’s team, Thomas Weber, suddenly collapsed and died. Almost immediately Hall also got into trouble.
He became irrational; he just wanted to lie down and sleep. Severe altitude sickness had taken over his body.
The two Sherpas with Hall tried to talk him down the mountain, but he refused to budge. They couldn’t carry him; they were too weak themselves from lack of oxygen.
By 7:00 p.m. the Sherpas had spent nine hours trying to get Hall to move. That meant they had spent a total of 19 hours in the “death zone”—the part of Everest above the 26,000-foot level. They were in danger of dying.
To confirm that Hall was dead, they poked him in the eyeball. No response. They collected his backpack, oxygen, food, and water and left him—another corpse only yards away from the body of Thomas Weber.
Word of Hall’s death instantly swept the climbing world via the Internet. And back in Australia Hall’s wife, Barbara, and their two teenaged sons received the cruelest telephone call.
The next morning guide Dan Mazur was approaching the 28,000 ridge. With two clients and a Sherpa he had been climbing since midnight. Now, at 7:30 a.m., the summit was only two hours away. Then they came upon an extraordinary scene. A man was sitting on the ridge, his chest bare, his head and hands uncovered! And then the stranger spoke: “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here.”
It was Lincoln Hall.
Left for dead at 28,000 feet and in the jaws of a –20° nightfall without a sleeping bag, Hall suddenly woke up. In the pitch darkness he realized that he was very close to death, and tried to keep his feet from freezing to the spot. All through the night he wandered in and out of delirium.
Mazur and the others gave Lincoln water and candy bars, and tried to get him to put his gloves on. But despite the biting cold, he resisted: he was hallucinating, thinking he was on a boat ride. And on one side of the knife-edge ridge where he sat was an 8,000-foot drop-off, with a 6,000-foot cliff on the other side.
Just then two more climbers approached. Dan hailed them. But they just looked away, mumbled “I don’t speak English,” and kept going.
Mazur radioed the base camp to send a large rescue party. It would take hours—hours he and his clients needed to reach the summit of Everest.
At that moment three men’s dreams of reaching the summit died so that Lincoln Hall might live. Mazur and his clients stayed for four hours, watching over him until the rescue team arrived.
So who were the heroes of Everest in 2006? Not those who made it to the top, but three men who could have but did not. This incredible story is biblical in its dimensions.
It’s the good Samaritan in a modern setting, and above all a miracle of grace.

William G. Johnsson is editor of the Adventist Review.