This year was the deadliest on Mount Everest since 12 climbers died on the mountain in 1996. But storms and avalanches were not the culprit. Instead, congestion in the Death Zone combined with inexperience resulted in a half-dozen deaths in just one May weekend.
He takes off his oxygen mask and takes a couple of careful breaths. His throat quickly begins to constrict. The air is so thin that Aydin Irmak, 46, feels as if he were suffocating. He quickly puts the mask back on. Then he looks around. Is this the place, he wonders? Irmak is walking across a slightly sloping area of ice, under a deep blue sky. He sees a small glass case with a Buddha statue inside. Yes, this is the place. Irmak is standing on the summit of Mount Everest.
The date is May 19, 2012, the temperature is minus 37 degrees Celsius (minus 34.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind is icy. The highest point on earth, at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), is a godforsaken place. Irmak is the last of 176 climbers to have reached the summit on this day. The others are already making their descent. When he encountered a group on his way up, one climber shouted to him: "Turn around!" But he kept on walking.
There is one rule on Mount Everest: Those who haven't summited by 1 p.m. should turn around. Severe storms often develop as evening approaches. Besides, it's extremely dangerous to spend too much time in the thin air of the so-called death zone, above 8,000 meters.
Irmak is standing on the summit at shortly before 3 p.m. He has never been on a tall mountain before, and he feels a little woozy. Irmak, who has a bicycle business in New York, doesn't know anything about the storms on Everest. Until a few weeks ago, he didn't know what crampons were, either.
Irmak has brought along a small flag, which he sticks into the snow. Then he pulls a digital camera out of the pocket of his down suit. There must be enough time left to take a picture of himself at the summit, he thinks, but the camera isn't working. Irmak removes his right glove to manipulate the battery compartment. A strong gust of wind hits him from behind, and his glove sails off into the abyss below.
Alive but Exhausted
Irmak is all alone on the peak of Mount Everest. He's up there much later than he should be. He has lost his right glove, and he has no idea how he's going to get back down.
When he begins his descent at about 3:30 p.m., the next expedition teams are already preparing for the ascent, 900 meters below at Camp 4, the last camp before the summit.
Pemba Jangbu Sherpa's agency has assigned him to 24-year-old alpinist Nadav Ben-Jehuda, who hopes to become the youngest Israeli ever to climb Everest. Pemba is being paid $6,000 (€4,608) for the job, and will get another $2,000 if his client reaches the summit.
Pemba and his client set out in the evening, hoping to reach the summit by the next morning. They're unaware of the tragedy that is unfolding above them.
The two men are making good progress. It's cold, and the wind is blowing at about 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph). At 10 p.m., at 8,300 meters, they encounter Chinese climber Ha Wenyi. The 55-year-old owner of an import/export business is sitting in the snow off to the side of the route, and his oxygen bottle is empty. He is alive, but he's completely exhausted. Pemba, the guide, helps him reattach himself to the fixed rope. Then he and Ben-Jehuda continue their ascent.