It was on my fourth expedition to Mount Everest that the comet Hyakutaki passed over base camp. The Sherpas warned us it was a bad omen but we didn't listen. Two and a half months later, when we were up near the summit, Everest unleashed the worst storm in its human history. Throughout two days of relentless wind and cold, I was the only doctor high up on the mountain.
When disaster struck, Scott Fisher's American team and Rob Hall's New Zealand team were on their way from Camp IV to the 29,035' summit, moving along the Southeast Ridge, the most exposed and vulnerable part of the route. My National Geographic team, carrying The Explorers Club flag, was at Camp III, 2,000 feet below them.
The ridge is a precipitous, knife-edged, sinuous path, 1,500' long, three to six feet wide, angling about thirty degrees upward. When clouds pass through, climbers have to stop and wait until they can see where to put their feet. Climbers unrope for this most dangerous part because the slopes are so sheer, a slip would be a free fall. A climber would not be able to belay a falling partner and would be jerked off the mountain with him. If you fall to the left, you drop 8,000' into Nepal; to the right, you fall 12,000' into Tibet. So, as climbers like to say, it's better to fall into Tibet because you'll live longer ... but either way, you'll be falling for the rest of your life.
At Camp III, we listened by radio to their progress. The climbers had summited late. We could hear jubilation in the base camps far below but we were uneasy. Conditions were deteriorating rapidly and there wasn't much daylight left. Eighteen climbers had not returned to Camp IV and were unaccounted for. As night fell, the brutal storm descended upon us and we knew a disaster was unfolding.
In the morning our worst fears were being realized. Rob was just below the summit with an exhausted climber. They were out of food, water, and oxygen. Scott's entire team was missing. Climbers were lost in the whiteout and couldn't find the camp. The temperature had plummeted overnight and the winds were howling. The wind chill 2,000' above us was worse than a summer day on Mars. Our two strongest climbers, Todd Burleson and Pete Athans, quickly prepared a rescue attempt, beginning their conversation not with whether they should go but with how quickly they could get ready. Facing reality, they radioed Rob to abandon his partner and save himself. Rob responded, "We're both listening."
Todd and Pete reached Camp IV. They described a scene of chaos: ripped tents; gear strewn everywhere; exhausted, hypothermic, frostbitten climbers lying in the wrong tents. Among the missing was Beck Weathers. Two of the survivors said that yesterday they had passed his dead body lying in the snow. As Todd and Pete were rewarming and hydrating the survivors, Todd happened to look outside and saw someone in the storm, apparently trying to urinate. He went out to help him and discovered to his utter amazement that it was Beck, alive, but barely.
As the climbers improved, they were sent down to Camp II, at 21,000', to recover further. They passed by us, but Camp III is no place to treat anybody. The only medicines I had were pre-loaded syringes of pain killers and steroids. I unfroze them by placing them under my armpit and, for any climber that I thought could use one on his way down, I injected it right through his clothes.
In the morning, we re-established radio contact with Rob. His partner had died, but Rob was now too weak to move and was slowly freezing to death. He realized he was too high on the mountain for any chance of rescue. He asked to be patched in to his wife, who was home in New Zealand, seven months pregnant with their first child. They had their last conversation, named their baby, and then, finally, Rob said he's signing off "to rest."
Beck and a Tiwanese climber, Makalu Gau, were still alive but in critical condition. I down-climbed to meet them at Camp II, where I had more supplies, more space to work, and more help. Makalu arrived first, then Beck. They had the worst frostbite I had ever seen. Hands, fingers, toes, all dead white, and noses, brittle black crusts. But Beck was not only fully coherent, he was funny. As soon as we laid him down on a mat, he asked me if I accept his insurance. He then told me how he had gotten lost in the whiteout and collapsed in the snow, lying there for a day, a night, and another day, unable to move. His mind drifted to thoughts of his family and gave him the surge of energy he needed to get up and stagger back to camp. He said it quietly but the story was stunning. Medical science teaches that hypothermia cannot be reversed without external heat, and yet here was Beck, back from the dead.
We thawed out their hands and feet in tubs of warm water, not easy to maintain in a freezing tent. I stayed up all night with my patients, giving them IV fluids, medication and oxygen, and watching them breathe. They belonged in an ICU. I was hoping for a helicopter evacuation but learned in the morning that the winds were still too strong.
As we started an over-the-ice evacuation, I was startled by the sound and then the sight of a helicopter closing in. The wind had died down and the pilot was going to try a rescue at 21,000', a few thousand feet higher than the rating of his helicopter. He was flying low to the ice, depending on "prop wash", the rebound of the air forced down from the rotors, to give him an extra cushion of lift. He couldn't see the crevasses (huge splits in the ice) from the air, though, so each time he flew over one, he lost the rebound effect and skidded down along the ice.
One of our rescuers spilled out pink Kool-Aid to mark a spot that was safe to land. The pilot homed in on it. He could only take one at a time. We loaded Makalu first. Once he was in, I toss in a small purse with Makalu's personal effects. The pilot tossed it right back out. He didn't want to take any more weight than he had to. He ferried Makalu to base camp, then came back for Beck. Base camp was at 17,500' -- an altitude within the helicopter's rating. From there he could take them both. He got them to Kathmandu, and the rest of us got to base camp...except for five climbers left up near the summit, frozen in the snow.
Prayer flags, set up at base camp at the start of the expedition, were still flying when we got down. The Sherpas write prayers on them, believing the wind will carry them up to the gods - but that year Everest wasn't listening.
Throughout Dr. Kamler's history in expedition medicine, few events have tested his mettle as those tense days on Everest, now reflecting some 18 years later. More recently as the expedition doctor for Bezos Expeditions' F-1 Engine Recovery Team, Ken and his compatriots on the Bezos team are being honored for their successful recovery of the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 into orbit at this year's Explorers Club Annual Dinner (http://www.explorers.org/index.php/events/detail/110th_explorers_club_annual_dinner) in New York City.
Watch Ken Kamler's TED Talk, "Medical miracle on Everest," originally posted March, 2010:
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