The Story Behind Another Deadly Year on Everest


No one should remain in areas of very low barometric pressure for more than 24 hours, which is why the ascent to Everest from Camp 4 is a race against time. Friday, May 18:

At about 8:30 p.m., Irmak and his Sherpa get into an argument. The Turkish climber's oxygen mask is broken so Irmak grabs his Sherpa's mask, three oxygen bottles, his headlamp, a thermos and some energy bars, and leaves camp. Alone. At that point, he is the only mountain climber climbing without a guide.

At about the same time, Schaaf was putting on his equipment for the ascent. "Hook up with someone who's going slowly," Thelen advises his friend. Then Schaaf sets out, accompanied by two Sherpas who are carrying beverage and reserve oxygen bottles. Saturday, May 19:

At 6 a.m., Schaaf reaches an altitude of 8,600 meters. He is struggling, and he has already used up his first oxygen bottle. Irmak is also having problems. Three bottles of oxygen are heavier than he anticipated. He's also stuck in another traffic jam, at the end of a long chain of lights formed by the climbers' headlamps. More than 200 mountain climbers are on their way to the summit.

Irmak stares at the crampons of the man in front of him. He takes one step, and then another, and then the line comes to a stop. It goes on like this for hours. Those who still have enough energy are cursing by now. "Why don't you guys move?" one man shouts. "Get out the way, motherfucker!" says another.

At 7:55 a.m., Schaaf arrives at the Hillary Step, the most difficult part of the ascent, which only one climber can cross at a time. Schaaf is forced to wait at the end of the line, where he stands for two hours at temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius. By the time it's his turn, Schaaf is tired and cold. He strays off the path twice while climbing up the Hillary Step.

"Doctor, do you want to turn around?" his Sherpa asks. Schaaf shakes his head, determined to keep climbing. The summit is only another 250 meters away.

At 11:05 a.m., Schaaf is standing on Mount Everest. He seems very groggy and takes off his oxygen mask, even though his Sherpas have urged him not to, and he is talking to himself.

After a few minutes, Gia Tortladze arrives at the summit. Tortladze, 52, is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. Holding up a banner that reads "Georgia without occupants," he has his companions take his picture -- a politician protesting against the Russian occupation of his country on the top of Mount Everest. It was only a few months prior to Georgian parliamentary elections, held at the end of September.

Tortladze and Schaaf have become friends in recent weeks. After 15 minutes, the Georgian gets ready to leave, asking Schaaf if he wants to go with him. The German shakes his head.

"How much longer do you want to stay?" Tortladze asks.

"A few more minutes," says Schaaf. He is sitting on his backpack taking pictures, and he is losing track of time. The agencies recommend not spending more than 30 minutes on the summit. Schaaf will remain on the summit for about an hour.

During the descent, chaos erupts at the Hillary Step. Climbers on their way up are getting in the way of those trying to descend, and vice-versa. Someone shouts: "Please, please, get out of the way!" One climber is sitting on the ground, weeping. Everyone is slowly beginning to run out of oxygen.

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