Climbers who light out for the top of the highest mountain on Earth face countless dangers. But they go anyway, often for very personal reasons. Those who survive Mount Everest have tales to tell about enduring sub-freezing temperatures and fighting exhaustion, and about overcoming pain and hardship and fear. These climbers returned with stories that are both harrowing and inspiring.
Australian mountaineer Lincoln Hall was part of the first Australian expedition to scale Mount Everest in 1984. In 2006, he reached the summit yet again, but on his descent he was struck with a severe form of altitude sickness that caused him to hallucinate and eventually collapse. Sherpas tried to save him, but as nightfall neared, Hall’s death was deemed inevitable, and the sherpas were ordered to return to base camp.
But Hall didn't die. He was found by a group of climbers, including American Daniel Mazur. "He's got his arms out of his down suit, wearing just a thin fleece top," Mazur later told People magazine. "He's got no hat, no gloves and no goggles. There's no oxygen. He was just sitting there gaping." Mazur and his group abandoned their attempt at the summit, opting to launch the seemingly impossible rescue operation that would save Hall's life.
Hall went on to write several books about his brush with death on Everest. He died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, in March 2012. His inspiring tale will live on.
Journalist and climber Jon Krakauer took on Mount Everest in 1996 to report for Outside magazine on the growing commercialization of Everest attempts. Krakauer reached the summit under the guidance of New Zealander Rob Hall. Then a blizzard struck. While Krakauer was descending, Hall was still at the summit with four clients. The five of them perished on the way down.
Krakauer was lower on the mountain and survived the perilous descent. He published the Outside article and detailed his harrowing account in his best-selling book, "Into Thin Air." In it, he questioned the judgement of Everest guide Anatoli Boukreev and how the competition between the two expedition leaders may have contributed to the death of eight people that day.
Before Mark Inglis even began his climb, he was already overcoming serious obstacles. 24 years earlier, the New Zealand mountaineer had taken on New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki Mt. Cook, with climbing partner Phil Doole. A severe blizzard hit. The two survived in an ice cave for 13 days with very little food and water. While awaiting rescue, Inglis' legs became badly frostbitten and had to be amputated.
Undeterred, Inglis continued to take on challenging climbs, eventually attempting to be the first double amputee to reach the top of Mount Everest. Inglis encountered setbacks during the climb that would have tempted others to turn around. He broke one of his prosthetic legs in half and used duct tape to make a quick repair. He also lost five fingertips and flesh off his legs to frostbite. But he achieved his lifelong dream of conquering Everest.
Before setting off, he told reporters: "I'm not doing this to be the first double amputee -- if I am then it's the icing on the cake -- but it's more about I've been climbing most of my life and Everest is the achievement, really. And it gives you the knowledge of empowerment to do other things."
In May of 1996, Beck Weathers and two dozen other climbers were making their final push to Everest's summit with guide Rob Hall when Weathers was struck with a severe case of snow blindness. Unable to see even two feet in front of him, Weathers told Hall about his condition and the guide advised him to abandon his summit attempt. Hall told Weathers to wait on the mountain while Hall and the climbers continued their ascent. Then Hall would return and help Weathers down.
But as chronicled in Jon Krakauer's account, Hall never returned from the summit, leaving Weathers alone and nearly blind on the side of the mountain. Two groups of climbers found Weathers but abandoned him because carrying him would have been nearly impossible.
He was left alone to battle hypothermia and severe frostbite. In short, he was left to die. But somehow, against all odds, he came to and found the drive to carry on to camp, where he was rescued by a helicopter.
After his near-fatal attempt to conquer Mount Everest, Weathers underwent 10 surgeries, including a reconstruction of his nose, and lost most of both of his hands. But he was left with a new lease on life. In his 2000 biography, "Left for Dead," he wrote, "Everest in many, many ways was one of the best things to happen to me."
In May of 1998, Brits Ian Woodall and Cathy O'Dowd came across climber Francys Arsentiev on the brink of death. Only 800 feet from the peak of Everest, they decided to abandon their summit attempt so they could save Arsentiev's life. The two stayed with her for more than an hour, but it wasn't to be. Their perilous location on the mountain, along with Arsentiev's deteriorating condition, forced them to leave her and descend for help. By the time assistance arrived, she was dead.
As is the case with most climbers who lose their lives on the mountain, Arsentiev's body was left, exposed and uncovered. Her corpse is one of the nearly 200 that make up Everest's open graveyard, due to the difficulty of recovering bodies at high altitudes. This is why the body of George Mallory still remains visible and, as a result of freezing temperatures, mostly intact, nearly a century after his death. Woodall didn't want Arsentiev to suffer the same fate. He returned to Everest in 2007 to bury her, wrapping her body in an American flag and laying her to rest at 28,000 feet.
Before Bear Gryls was battling the elements on the Discovery Channel's "Man vs. Wild," he was fighting for his life in a near-fatal climb up Mount Everest. After 12 hours in the mountain's so-called Death Zone -- the area above 26,000 feet where temperatures and oxygen levels dip to debilitating lows -- Gryls was facing the possibility of hyperventilation. He found himself beside the preserved body of Rob Hall, the Everest guide who died on Everest in 1996.
There next to Hall, Gryls found the strength to do what Hall couldn't: carry on. Gryls continued to the summit, pushing through winds 40 to 50 mph, making the 23-year-old the youngest Brit at the time to successfully complete the climb. Gryls told the BBC, "It was a very special moment when I realized that there was no mountain in the world above me."
After six years serving as a U.S. Navy search-and-rescue swimmer, Brian Dickinson was well-acquainted with hostile environments, but none proved as challenging as his attempt to reach the top of the highest mountain in the world. In his quest to conquer the Seven Summits, Everest was the fourth of the Dickinson's challenging climbs. It was also almost his last.
Dickinson made it to Everest's summit only to realize at 29,035 feet that his broken goggles had exposed his eyes to high-intensity sunlight, leaving him to navigate the most treacherous terrain on the planet almost completely blind. Dickinson staggered down the mountain, his safety rope narrowly saving him from being pushed off the edge by an avalanche. But after enduring more than 30 hours without sleep, and with his supplemental oxygen supply dwindling, Dickinson knew his time to make it off the mountain was running out.
Miraculously, he used his final reserves of energy to rappel 500 feet down the face of Everest. In his blog, Dickinson recalls his initial hazy impression of stumbling toward safety: “Did I die up there? Is this heaven?" Thankfully, he'd reached camp, where he found his climbing mates shocked and relieved that he was alive. “I had a mission," he later said. "I had to get down. It was the scariest thing I ever faced.”
At 28,000 feet, Frank Smythe found himself higher up on Mount Everest than anyone had ever climbed. It was 1933 and the professional mountaineer had broken a world record, yet he hadn't even reached the summit. In fact, no one would reach the top for another 20 years.
He'd spent two nights in the grueling Death Zone just below the summit. He was in very thin air with no supplemental oxygen. As he headed down, he began to hallucinate. He sensed an invisible force beside him. He battled the hallucinations by recounting the names of the surrounding mountains.
Many years later, he told the Telegraph: "Those who have failed on Everest are unanimous in one thing: the relief of not having to go on. The last 1,000 feet of Everest are not for mere flesh and blood."
At 50 years old, many people dream of retiring and relaxing, but not Chris Bonington. He was fantasizing about icy peaks and high altitudes. He was dreaming of ascending Everest.
But Bonington's journey to the top would not be easy. Every possible problem that could arise during his 1975 ascent did: faulty oxygen masks, broken equipment, severe hallucinations, wayward boulders. Still, Bonington managed to complete the first ascent of Everest's Southwest Face, a side of the mountain that had proved deadly to every other climber who had attempted it before.
In an interview with the BBC, Bonington revealed what drives him and so many climbers: "I think an intrinsic, important part of the human psyche is this desire to stretch themselves into the unknown."
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The quintessential survivalist, Australian mountaineer Micheal Grooms wasn't exactly a stranger to close calls. Unthwarted by the loss of his toes and part of his foot to frostbite in 1987, he continued on with his quest to climb each of the world's five deadliest mountains without bottled oxygen. He wasn't about to let Everest stand in the way.
During his first attempt to summit Everest in 1991, Groom was swept away by an avalanche and fell 900 meters down the Lhotse Face. For a less resilient or less fortunate climber, the fall would have meant certain death. But for Groom, who escaped with a broken nose and several crushed ribs, it was only a setback. After an excruciating recovery, he returned to the same mountain and reached the summit without supplemental oxygen.
In 1999, after the publication of his book, "Sheer Will," Groom finally achieved his lifelong dream of summiting all five of the world's highest mountains.