The Story Behind Another Deadly Year on Everest


Again, Schaaf has to wait for two hours at the Hillary Step. By the time he has finally rappelled, at about 2:50 p.m., he can hardly stand up anymore. His Sherpas are supporting him. A little later, Schaaf can no longer see anything. A Sherpa radios down to the base camp, saying: "Doctor can't see."

His friend Thelen is sitting near the radio in Camp 4 and hears everything.

At about 3 p.m., Schaaf throws away his backpack and collapses. The Sherpas are powerless. They spend a few more hours with Schaaf, trying to revive him. But then they have to leave their client behind, knowing that their own lives are now at stake. They have to get out of the death zone.

Schaaf is still attached to the fixed rope when the Sherpas leave him.

Feet Portruding from the Doors

When Thelen learns of the death of his climbing companion, he packs up his equipment and descends, his thoughts racing through his mind. He leaves as quickly as possible. He has had enough of Everest.

In Camp 2, Thelen borrows a satellite phone from an Indian Army expedition team and calls Schaaf's family in Germany. Schaaf has apparently died of a brain edema.

Meanwhile, much further down at base camp, rescue missions are underway. More and more radio messages are coming in about climbers in trouble. Helicopter pilot Moro makes 12 trips to Camp 2 to pick up people who have had accidents or become incapacitated. The aircraft can't fly above 7,000 meters, because the rotor can't generate enough lift in the thin air.

Moro flies the exhausted Irmak, who was lucky enough to survive, back to base camp. He also flies out the frozen bodies of Shah-Klorfine and Won Bin, which only fit diagonally into the helicopter, their feet protruding from the open doors.

A few weeks after his Everest ascent, Irmak, who has just come from the doctor, is sitting in a café in Istanbul. It's warm outside. The fingers on his right hand were frozen on Everest, and now they look like burned matches. The tips of his fingers will have to be amputated. How is he going to repair bikes with mutilated fingers?

"Sometimes I wish that they had just left me lying up there," says Irmak.

Israeli President Shimon Peres awarded the country's Presidential Medal of Honor to one of Irmak's rescuers, Nadav Ben-Jehuda. Irmak has written a 300-page book about his experiences on Everest, and is now looking for a publisher.

Paul Thelen is sitting in a restaurant in Cologne. He lost his best friend on Everest. They were climbing buddies, and they wanted something special. They dreamed of climbing Everest, the world's tallest mountain.

Did they overestimate their abilities? "We often talked about the risks, but you always think that it'll happen to someone else. We thought it was out of the question that one of us wouldn't come back," says Thelen, with tears in his eyes.

197 Climbers on the Summit

Schaaf's family has decided not to have the body recovered from Everest. On May 25, two Sherpas with Asian Trekking attached the frozen body to a rope and lowered it over the southeast crest and onto a ledge: Schaaf's final resting place. The men wanted to bring the widow her husband's wedding ring, but it was solidly frozen to his finger.

Memorials and plaques dedicated to mountain climbers who have died on Everest stand near Dughla, a village on the way to the base camp. Some 233 people have already died on the mountain. Schaaf's family will also have a memorial stone placed there in his honor.

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