cover

About the Book

A gripping tale of high-altitude disaster and the quest for mountaineering’s ultimate prize

Each year, more and more people attempt the potentially lethal climb to the summit of Mount Everest. In 2006, eleven people died on the mountain, the highest number for ten years. But unlike 1996, there was no surprise blizzard, only the constant dangers posed by unstable ice, merciless cold, thin air – and human nature.

This is the shocking true story of David Sharp, a young British solo climber who was passed by forty people as he lay dying on the upper slopes of the mountain, and of Lincoln Hall, who was left for dead yet miraculously survived.

It is a riveting account of what climbing the world’s highest peak really means for those who take on the challenge and how far they will go in their single-minded pursuit of the summit.

title

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9780753515945

www.randomhouse.co.uk

Published by Virgin Books 2009

Published in the United States by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved.

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Copyright © Nick Heil, 2008
Maps © Jeffrey L. Ward, 2008

Designed by Meryl Sussman Levavi

Nick Heil has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
Virgin Books
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA

www.virginbooks.com
www.rbooks.co.uk

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at: www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780753515709

CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Author’s Note

Partial List of Teams and Climbers

Map

Epigraph

Prologue

PART I: DAVID SHARP

1. Kathmandu

2. The North Side

3. Base Camp: Tibet

4. Advanced Base Camp

5. The Northeast Ridge

PART II: LINCOLN HALL AND THOMAS WEBER

6. High Camp

7. The Second Step

8. Dark Summit

Epilogue

Source Notes

For Mom, Dad, Kayte, Jon, Taylor, Tannis, Ginny, and Minnie. My family.

“A certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”

—Luke 10:33–34

Partial List of Teams and Climbers on Everest’s North Side, 2006

7 Summits

Alex Abramov

Kevin Augello

Michael Dillon

Lincoln Hall

Christopher Harris

Richard Harris

Harry Kikstra

Sergei Kofanov

Ludmila Korobeshko

Vladimir Lande

David Lien

Ronnie Muhl

Igor Plyushkin

Andrey Selivanov

Slate Stern

Thomas Weber

Kirk Wheatley

Mingma Sherpa

Pasang Sherpa

Pemba Sherpa

Lakcha Sherpa

Dawa Tenzing Sherpa

Dorje Sherpa

Project Himalaya

Laurie Bagley

Duncan Chessell

Chris Klinke

Jamie McGuinness

Anne Parmenter

Hans Fredrick Strang

Scott Woolums

Chhiri Sherpa

SummitClimb

Andrew Brash

Phil Crampton

Dan Mazur

Juan Pablo Milana

Myles Osborne

Jangbu Sherpa

Asian Trekking Permit

George Dijmarescu

Lakpha Sherpani

Dave Watson

David Sharp (climbing independently)

Himex

Wayne “Cowboy” Alexander

Marcel Bach

Gerard Bourrat

Russell Brice

Max Chaya

Bill Crouse

Kurt Hefti

Shaun Hutson

Mark Inglis

Mogens Jensen

Bob Killip

Tim Medvetz

Brett Merrell

Terry O’Connor

Ken Sauls

Mark Whetu

Mark “Woody” Woodward

Tuk Bahadur Sherpa

Lhakpa Sherpa

Dorje Sherpa

Phurba Tashi Sherpa

Tashi Phinjo Sherpa

Sonam Sherpa

map

PROLOGUE

LATE ON THE night of May 10, 1996, a twenty-eight-year-old Ladakhi named Tsewang Paljor struggled slowly down Everest’s Northeast Ridge. The two teammates he’d been climbing with, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Smanla, were somewhere behind him, perhaps dead; he had not seen them for hours. Not that he could have helped them anyway. The storm bore down on the mountain with a primordial intensity unlike anything Paljor had ever experienced. The temperature plunged to minus 50, cold enough to freeze exposed flesh straight through in minutes. Gusts approaching eighty miles per hour ripped across the high escarpments, threatening to fling Paljor off the ridge like a bit of straw. Visibility was nil. His world extended just a few feet in front of him, snow swirling madly through the fading yellow beam of his headlamp. Paljor had run out of oxygen hours earlier, and now, fighting to complete each ataxic step, battered by dehydration and fatigue, his only chance was to make it to high camp, still a thousand feet below, where others would be waiting with extra gas and hot tea. If he remained here, above 28,000 feet, in such desperate conditions, he was doomed.

Paljor belonged to a proud expedition, some forty men strong, led by Mohinder Singh, a commander for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and one of India’s most accomplished mountaineers. Singh was vying to put the first Indian on the summit of Everest via the legendary Northeast Ridge—the route where Mallory and Irvine had vanished in 1924, a line of ascent that would thwart attempts for another thirty-six years. The Chinese had been the first to complete the ridge, in 1960, and many teams and individuals had ascended the route since, but it would hardly diminish the accomplishment pending for Singh and his climbers. Theirs had been an auspicious enterprise, almost entirely without setbacks during the two months they had been on Everest. Finally, at around six P.M. on May 10, Singh’s radio had crackled to life: Smanla, Paljor, and Morup reported that they were standing on the summit.

The tempest was approaching its crescendo, but Singh and the others gathered at Advanced Base Camp erupted into cheers. This is a magnificent achievement, for our expedition and for our country!, Singh shouted into the handset, the wind roaring, bowing the tent walls. Now, he urged, the climbers must hurry down without delay.

The next morning, Singh received word from high camp, at 27,300 feet, that the trio had not returned. This was devastating news, with an added complication since he had already phoned the Indian prime minister, Narasimha Rao, to inform him of their success; telling Rao that the three men were now lost was not a task Singh relished. But he didn’t give up hope. Although there had been no contact since the evening before, it was possible his men had been able to ride out the night.

That day, increasingly desperate to act, Singh approached a cluster of neighboring tents in Advanced Base Camp occupied by a Japanese expedition. The weather had still not relented, but word was circulating that two Japanese climbers, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa, and three Sherpas were in position at high camp and planning to depart for a summit attempt that night. Singh’s own climbers were of no use. Those back in their tents were exhausted from their aborted efforts on the ridge, and it would take at least two days for anyone from Advanced Base Camp to reach the stranded men. Singh had no option but to implore the Japanese expedition leader, Koji Yada, to assist him; if his men were still alive they most certainly wouldn’t be after a second night, and the Japanese summit team—relatively fresh, strong, and well supplied—might be their last chance. The conversation took place in three languages, English, Japanese, and Hindi, but Singh came away believing that the Japanese would do their best to provide whatever assistance they could.

The ensuing twenty-four hours were fraught with confusion. Communication on Everest was problematic even in the best conditions, and the storm had reduced radio contact to the most basic and sporadic dialogue. What few reports filtered down the mountain convinced Singh that a rescue was under way, yet he also learned that the Japanese had pushed on to the summit. How could this be? By 5:30 P.M. on May 12, as the last of the Japanese summit group pulled back into high camp, it became clear that none of the Indians were with them. There had been no rescue.

When the Japanese descended to Advanced Base Camp the following afternoon, the news was grim. They had, in fact, encountered Singh’s men, and while their lead Sherpa had helped free one of them, probably Smanla, snared in a tangle of fixed lines on the Second Step, little else could be done, they insisted. “They were Indian climbers—we didn’t know them,” Hanada told Richard Cowper, a journalist for the Financial Times in London who was accompanying a British expedition on Everest that year. “No, we didn’t give them any water. We didn’t talk to them. They had severe high-altitude sickness. They looked as though they were dangerous.”

“We climb by ourselves, by our own efforts, on the big mountains,” Shigekawa added. “We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality.”

Singh was apoplectic. How could a strong team of five have passed his men and done nothing? When had the summit become more important than another man’s life? There was still more bad news. Hanada and Shigekawa said that there had been no evidence of the Indians on the summit—no footprints, no prayer flags, no empty oxygen canisters. They speculated that in the poor weather and dwindling light of May 10 the Indians had mistakenly pulled up short, some one hundred vertical feet below Everest’s apex.

On May 13, Singh, still fuming, convened a meeting of expedition leaders at Advanced Base Camp, urging them to endorse a statement condemning the Japanese for neglecting his men. This was an outrage and a disgrace—tantamount to murder, Singh said. But the other team leaders, while sympathetic, weren’t so quick to take sides. It was a seasoned group, including veteran British climber Simon Lowe and Slovenian Viktor Groselg, and they understood the extenuating circumstances at altitude—the stark Darwinian reality climbers confronted above 8,000 meters. Several people at the meeting cited previous examples of individuals who had been left for dead on the mountain. They pointed out that Singh’s six-man summit party had left high camp at eight A.M. on May 10, dangerously late by any standard. What’s more, Smanla, Paljor, and Morup had continued to push upward in abysmal conditions despite protests from their three climbing partners, who had turned back midway up the ridge.

Even though he had garnered little support from the other team leaders, Singh released his accusatory statement to the press. If the Japanese believed there was no morality above 8,000 meters, then the world was going to know about it.

Singh’s plight might have drawn more attention had other dire events not been taking place simultaneously on the opposite side of the mountain. By the time the May 10 storm had cleared out, five more people had died, including commercial clients Yasuko Namba and Doug Hansen, veteran guide Andy Harris, and two expedition leaders, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. It was a disaster of such magnitude that it would eclipse everything else happening on Everest for months, even years.

Before long a small library of firsthand accounts emerged, most notably Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, Beck Weathers’s Left for Dead, Kenneth Kamler’s Doctor on Everest, and Matt Dickinson’s The Other Side of Everest. The mountain hadn’t seen such publicity since it had first been scaled by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, but the new light shining down on the world’s highest peak illuminated a very different place. Gone were the tweedy gentlemen climbers of yesteryear pioneering their way across a virgin landscape; this modern, commercialized Everest was overcrowded and largely unregulated, a high-altitude playground where conga lines of novice clients clogged the route, where deep-pocketed dilettantes of dubious ability were short-roped to well-compensated Sherpas and guides.

Mountaineering had long championed a keen sense of ethics and style, and this contemporary tableau represented the worst of all scenarios. Veteran climbers sniffed that Everest had become a “slag heap,” as Krakauer wrote in Into Thin Air, athletically and aesthetically unworthy, “debased and profaned” by the sheer number of amateurs flocking there, relying on regressive siege tactics, defiling the campsites and trailsides with their waste. And filth wasn’t the only problem. As more people showed up at Everest each season, the most serious hazards were less objective—rockfall, avalanche, weather, the vagaries of altitude—than subjective: misguided decision making, personal agendas, professional rivalries. The communal nature of climbing—the so-called fellowship of the rope—was frayed nearly to the snapping point. By the end of the 1996 season, the public perception of Everest had been altered for good. What had once stood as a symbol of what was best in mankind—determination, tenacity, teamwork—now represented something much darker: ego, hubris, greed.

After 1996, it was clear that the business of Everest had become deadly folly; given the enormously high stakes, it was amazing that anyone continued to show up at all. But show up they did. At first with some trepidation—the number of climbers on Everest dropped slightly in 1997 compared with the year before—but over the next few years business began to resurge dramatically. Despite the fact that Nepal, the port of entry for most climbers regardless of their intended route, was convulsing with civil war, effectively cutting tourism by as much as half, the number of Everest permits issued by the Nepal Mountaineering Association soon reached an all-time high. Between 2000 and 2005, more people climbed to the top of the world than had summited during the previous fifty years.

When I traveled to the Everest region in the spring of 2005, en route to a neighboring 21,000-foot peak called Cholatse, more than four hundred people had already descended on Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Another four hundred were stationed on the north side, in Tibet. My expedition was composed of big-mountain veterans, many of them sponsored athletes, including Pete Athans, who had made a total of fifteen trips to Everest and summited seven times. Another team member, filmmaker Michael Brown, had summited three times. Five others had each summited once: Conrad Anker, who had discovered George Mallory’s body in 1999; Geoff Tabin, an American ophthalmologist; Brown’s business partner David D’Angelo; and two Sherpas—Dawa and Ang Temba. The climbers claimed a grand total of fifteen Everest summits among them. Naturally, we were all interested in the activity taking place on Everest that year, and we entertained ourselves by monitoring radio traffic on the mountain from our own Base Camp, just twelve miles away.

Despite the cumulative experience of the climbers on my trip, no one could venture a concise explanation for Everest’s ever-expanding allure. If anything, this particular group seemed more puzzled and cynical about the mountain’s rapidly burgeoning popularity, perhaps because of the seriousness with which they approached climbing but also because they shared an acute awareness of the sustained misery, hard labor, and unnerving risk of high-altitude mountaineering—its propensity to freeze digits and delete brain cells by the millions, the way it could snuff out the lives of friends, acquaintances, and teammates with cold, capricious indifference.

That spring, during a brief side trip from the Cholatse expedition, I caught my first glimpse of Everest from a lofty knob called Gokyo Ri, a favorite trekking destination at the head of the Gokyo Valley. As is true for many scenic wonders, pictures hardly do Everest justice. I’d hiked up in the early-morning dark with half a dozen people I didn’t know, switchbacking up a trail through thick fog. We emerged from the cloud layer a little before dawn as if breaching a sea, just a few hundred feet from the top, our viewpoint the smallest island floating among an archipelago of 7,000- and 8,000-meter peaks—Makalu, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Nuptse. Above them all: Everest, a soaring black dorsal fin etched against the gloaming.

It was astonishing to me that anyone could climb that high; even where I stood at 18,000 feet, a relatively modest elevation by Himalayan standards, I was loopy with altitude, my temples thudding from the steep trail. I’d already spent a grueling night at a similar elevation wedged into a two-man tent halfway up Cholatse, catatonic in my sleeping bag, cymbals crashing inside my skull, waves of nausea welling up in my throat as the night stretched on interminably. The few times I dozed, the sleep was fitful, wracked by vivid and bizarre dreams, like one in which my dog, a perfectly sweet and healthy rottweiler mix in real life, had somehow acquired a peg leg and stainless-steel fangs and turned on me, drooling, ready to pounce. I descended the next day and quickly recovered, but that experience was as unpleasant as any I’d ever had in the mountains. The notion of ascending another 11,000 vertical feet into darker nightmares and more prolonged suffering was inconceivable in a way that no amount of goose down, fixed ropes, or bottled oxygen could alter.

By 2005, at age thirty-eight, I had acquired a moderate amount of climbing experience, mostly on glaciated North American peaks like Mount Rainier and assorted rock crags around the West, where I’d lived since my twenties. I had done just enough mountaineering to develop a dabbler’s appreciation for it, in the same way, I suppose, that receiving your driver’s license gives you an inkling of Formula One racing—the fundamental activity was similar but the intensity differed by considerable degrees. Cholatse provided my first exposure to Himalayan climbing, and I began to understand just how formidable it could be. On our trip, five of my team members managed to summit, but it required a strenuous twenty-hour push from the highest camp. One of those who made it, Abby Watkins, a professional climber from Golden, British Columbia, and as capable and fit a mountain athlete as I’ve ever met, told me later how someone at high camp had handed her a cup of hot tea as she’d collapsed in her tent on the way back down. She woke up the next morning wearing her boots and parka, a full cup of tea in her hand—frozen solid.

Few experiences rival a serious climb for bringing us into close contact with our own limitations. Part engineering project, part chess game, part ultramarathon, mountaineering demands of us in a way that other endeavors do not. After my trip to Cholatse, I came to think of high-altitude climbing not so much as a sport but as a kind of art or even, in its purest form, rugged spirituality—a modern version of secular asceticism that purifies the soul by stripping away worldly comfort and convenience while forcing you to stare across the threshold of mortality. It is our effort to toil through these hazardous and inhospitable landscapes that culminates with such potent effect, what humanistic psychologists have described as the attainment of self-actualization, a pinnacle of personal expression that dissolves the constraints of our ordinary lives and allows us, even if fleetingly, to “become what we are capable of becoming.” This transformative power is, in a way, why summits have taken on so much symbolic importance for those who pursue them. As the reigning mythology suggests, the higher the peak—Rainier, Cholatse, Everest—the more it fires the imagination.

In 2006, as the spring Everest season was winding down, I was asked to write a brief story about some breaking news just emerging from the mountain. Several deaths had occurred near the summit during the preceding weeks, but one in particular had sparked renewed outrage and righteous indignation. According to various reports, forty climbers had walked past a dying man on their way to the top. In the crosshairs of controversy was the “mayor of the north side,” New Zealander Russell Brice, Everest’s most successful commercial operator. Brice’s team was among those who had written off the dying man alongside the route. What might have been done to help him, and why more hadn’t been, became the focus of wild speculation, but it also served to confirm the hushed predictions that had been percolating for years: Everest’s problems were still on the rise, and another disaster was overdue. By the end of the season, eleven people had died (and another should have but had miraculously lived)—the second-deadliest year in Everest’s history, and arguably the most controversial: This time there had been no killer storm; this time the weather had been nearly perfect.

We produced our story, which quickly mushroomed to more than four thousand words, in just over a week, in the white heat common to magazine deadlines, but even that barely began to scratch the surface. Soon enough, I found myself immersed in the larger tale, embarking on a journey that would take me around the globe in search of the full account, leading eventually to Everest’s soaring north side and up its flanks, toward a small rock alcove where the destinies of a dozen climbers had braided together and sparked the debate that had resonated around the world. It was here that a young British climber named David Sharp had died, alone, next to the frozen body of another mountaineer who, years before, had also been abandoned to his own fate.

To most who ascended Everest’s Northeast Ridge, the figure next to Sharp in the alcove was known only as Green Boots, a nickname that illustrated mountaineering’s fondness for gallows humor but also reminded climbers of the peril they faced when ascending to such heights. By 2006 only a few individuals could recall Green Boots’ real name: Tsewang Paljor, the Indian who had remained where the Japanese team had last seen him alive ten years earlier, his ordeal long since swept away in the spindrift of the seasons.

PART ONE

DAVID SHARP

“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

Moby Dick

CHAPTER 1

KATHMANDU

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.”

The next morning, when he woke up from surgery, Medvetz was intubated, connected to a respirator. He was extraordinarily groggy but aware enough to look down toward his feet. His left foot had been almost entirely torn off in the accident, and—he could remember this much—the doctor had told him they weren’t sure if they could save it. Medvetz had pleaded with him before they rolled him into the OR: Whatever you do, save the foot. And there it was, wrapped in a cast, his toes, swollen and purple, peeking out from the end of the plaster. A group of doctors and nurses were with him in the room, but they were focused on the TV bolted to the wall. Medvetz followed their gaze to the screen. Through his medicinal fog, he dimly recognized the twin towers, smoke pouring from gashes in the side of each building. As he watched, to his astonishment, one tower collapsed in a billowing column of ash. He wanted to speak but couldn’t. Was he dreaming? No, no. He was conscious, he knew that much. Something horrible was happening—he would learn later of friends and acquaintances who were killed that day—but at the time all he could think was Christ, people, turn that shit off. Can’t you see I’ve got my own problems here?

For the next year, Medvetz grimaced his way through the long recovery. He would go through half a dozen operations; by the time the doctors were done with him, he had a metal plate installed in his head, a titanium cage wrapped around his lower spine, half a dozen screws in his knee, and bolts holding his ankle together, fusing his foot into a nearly immobile ninety-degree angle. “Airport security was going to be an issue for the rest of my life,” he said later.

But, then, so would the pain. That first year, Medvetz endured bouts of despair, craving normalcy, dosing himself with Vicodin, sometimes twenty pills a day, chasing it down with Jack Daniel’s. Then one afternoon, sitting glumly in his apartment, pondering what his future held, he spied the copy of Into Thin Air on his bookshelf, given to him by an ex-girlfriend. He rarely read books—they just didn’t interest him—but he had devoured this one, dreaming about one day climbing in the Himalayas himself. The fantasy had faded years ago, but now it came surging back, the tumblers clicking into place. That was it—the ultimate rehab. He was going to go climb Mount Everest.

By March 2006, Medvetz was on the verge of turning his big idea into an even bigger reality. He had reserved his place on an Everest expedition with an Ashford, Washington, outfitter called International Mountain Guides, which was leading a trip that spring up the South Col route, in Nepal. He’d already paid a $6,000 deposit but now the balance for the $30,000 trip was past due. Medvetz had wrangled several sponsors, sold his bike, and scraped together his own cash, but he was still more than $15,000 short. Eric Simonson, IMG’s owner and a veteran Everest guide, had stretched the deadline as far as he could. Medvetz had someone lined up to buy his truck; he’d have the balance in two weeks, tops, he assured Simonson—but Simonson needed to purchase the permits the next day. The clock had run out; Medvetz was off the expedition. “Maybe the mountain gods are trying to tell you something,” Simonson said, politely, over the phone.

Fuck that, Medvetz thought. He wasn’t upset with Simonson; the guy had done what he had to do. But Medvetz already had his plane ticket (a buddy pass he’d wrangled through a friend) and his equipment, and soon he’d have enough money to cover the expedition costs. Hell, he would just show up at Base Camp if that’s what it was going to take. Money was powerful persuasion. If IMG wouldn’t have him, surely someone else would.

In late March, he flew to Paris, where he holed up and waited two days on standby for his next flight. It was here that he remembered Russell Brice. They had met a couple of years earlier, in a bar in Kathmandu, and Brice had provided all kinds of salient advice, including suggesting that Medvetz consider a south-side operator because that pitch of the mountain would favor his injured left leg. Medvetz not only had been impressed by the generous free counsel, he’d admired the number of drafts Brice had consumed while dishing it.

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for the climb?” Medvetz had asked near the end of their conversation.

“This is preparing,” Brice had said.

In Paris, Medvetz tracked down Brice’s e-mail address and sent him a note explaining his situation. Brice was already in Kathmandu, but he replied almost immediately. He wasn’t sure he could help, but he told Medvetz to call him as soon as he arrived in Nepal.

Even that would prove difficult. When Medvetz reached Mumbai, he was promptly deported—his itinerary required him to enter the country but he didn’t have a visa for India. Authorities put him on the first flight back to Paris. By the time he touched down at Charles de Gaulle, he’d almost given up. Maybe the mountain gods were trying to tell him something, but then again, maybe the gods needed to see just how badly he wanted it. Medvetz was back on a plane three days later, rerouted directly to Kathmandu.

He called Brice as soon as he got to town. The team was meeting the next day, Brice informed him, and would be departing for Tibet the day after. Medvetz would have to wire the funds directly to the Himex account, a task that would prove to be yet another roadblock. Medvetz couldn’t process the transfer while abroad, so on March 30 he walked into the Standard Chartered Bank in Kathmandu and asked to see a manager. He told her he needed to withdraw $40,000 in cash. She nodded slowly. Yes, they could help him. Within the hour, a bank clerk wheeled the money out on a cart, 2.8 million Nepali rupees bound in fat bricks, which they soon loaded into his backpack. They stuffed and stuffed, the sides of the pack bulging. Medvetz could barely fasten the top by the time they were done. The pack had been empty when he came in; now it rose over his head. He shouldered the bag and strode out of the bank, walking proudly toward the Hotel Tibet.

Brice was in the lobby when Medvetz arrived. “I’ve got something for you,” Medvetz told him, and he dropped the pack on the floor by Brice’s feet. Brice unhooked the straps and looked inside.

“It’s all there,” Medvetz reassured him.

Brice laughed, then extended his hand.

“Welcome to the team,” he said.

Everest suffered no shortage of eclectics, eccentrics, and wannabes, but even Brice had to admit, once his team was all assembled, that he had attracted a particularly colorful group this year. But if anyone had constructed a foolproof system, it was Brice. He had been running expeditions on Everest for twelve years, and he had debugged the process as much as the process could be debugged. Each client would be paired with a personal Sherpa, and each summit team was typically bracketed by Western guides. Everyone would carry a radio, and the guides and lead Sherpas would bring satellite phones as backup. On summit day, Brice would diligently follow his team from his post on the North Col, charting his clients’ pace and oxygen supply as they made their way up and down the ridge. And he wouldn’t be bashful about pulling the plug if someone appeared to be climbing his way into trouble.

In 2006, Brice charged $40,000 for a full-service Everest trip—the only kind of Everest trip he ran. Because Himex operated exclusively on the north side, Brice was able to take advantage of the lower permit costs and pass the savings along to his customers. Navigating the Chinese bureaucracy had never been simple, but over the years he had developed a civil, if not friendly, rapport with the CTMA. Preserving that relationship was one of the reasons he’d grown so annoyed with the low-budget operators and half-baked private expeditions that were descending on the north side in ever-increasing numbers. Never mind that they had a troubling propensity to leave corpses behind; they also tended to cut corners or dodge CTMA officials, who controlled access to the mountain and monitored Base Camp during the climbing season.

Competing operators occasionally crabbed that Brice was a megalomaniac trying to establish a monopoly on the north side, controlling the fixed ropes, crowding out the little guys who threatened to take business away from him. Brice, not surprisingly, countered that he was simply trying to establish safe protocols and promote reasonable cooperation among all those sharing the route. He was appalled by the shoddiness of some of the expeditions, and it peeved him that others would criticize his operation while simultaneously exploiting his largesse—the equipment and manpower he paid for to establish the route each year, the medical services he provided to those climbing without a doctor or adequate first-aid supplies, hell, even the bottles of beer he handed out liberally at Base Camp.