The Story Behind Another Deadly Year on Everest

This year was the deadliest on Mount Everest since 12 climbers died in 1996.

ByLukas Eberle, SPIEGEL
October 5, 2012, 2:28 PM

Oct. 7, 2012— -- 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.

A little later, at 8,400 meters, Pemba's headlamp illuminates a body in the snow. It's Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Canada. Pemba calls out: "Didi, Didi," or sister, sister. But the climber is dead. The two men continue on their way.

At 11:45 p.m., at 8,500 meters, the light from their lamps falls on a man crouched against a boulder. His thermal suit is torn open, and white down feathers are swirling through the air. He isn't carrying a backpack, he no longer has an oxygen mask, the crampon on his right foot is missing, and his lips are covered with ice.

Aborting the Summit Attempt

The man is Aydin Irmak. His eyes are closed, but he's still breathing. Pemba shakes his shoulder, and Irmak wakes up.

"Can you move your legs?" Pemba asks."I think so," says Irmak."Where's your equipment?" the Sherpa asks."No idea."

Irmak doesn't know what happened, or how he managed to reach this point from the summit.

Pemba and his client abort their summit attempt. They secure Irmak to the fixed rope, place him between them and begin the descent, fighting their way down the mountain. They climb over the dead Canadian woman and reach the Chinese climber. He has since died as well.

The body of Song Won Bin, a 44-year-old mountain climber from South Korea, is lying nearby. After becoming confused and disoriented, he fell off an overhang, which is why the three men can't see him.

They climb down from Camp 4 to Camp 3 and on to Camp 2, at 6,400 meters, which they reach at about 7 p.m. on May 20. There they learn that another climber, German doctor Eberhard Schaaf, also had an accident on Everest. During his descent, he collapsed at the base of the Hillary Step, an almost vertical, 12-meter cliff at 8,760 meters. Schaaf died at shortly after 3 p.m., when Irmak was still standing on the summit.

To be able to stand on the highest point on earth is one of man's biggest dreams -- like flying or traveling to the moon. Every spring, when Himalayan weather conditions are most favorable, alpinists from all over the world attempt to scale Mount Everest. They include professional mountain climbers and scientists, but also a growing number of adventurers who really have no business climbing the world's highest peak. They are people seeking an extreme experience, lured by an expedition industry that is marketing Everest as a tourist destination.

Anyone in halfway decent shape can book the tour to the top of Everest. High-altitude climbing experience isn't necessary, but courage and money are. Sherpas carry the equipment, prepare the route, set up the camps and lay the fixed ropes along which the clients, looking like a chain of pearls, make their way hand over hand toward the summit.'An Amusement Park'

That's how New York bike shop owner Aydin Irmak made it to Everest. That he managed to come back down alive, however, was a random stroke of luck. If Pemba and Ben-Jehuda hadn't found him in the inky blackness on the mountain that night, he would have been lost. They saved his life.

Since the first ascent on May 29, 1953, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, some 3,836 people have climbed Mount Everest, with almost three quarters of them making the ascent in the last 10 years. The Himalayan peak has become "an amusement park," says top Italian alpinist Simone Moro, who has summited Everest four times. This spring, 683 climbers from 34 countries attempted to climb the mountain.

It was also a deadly season. Eleven climbers died on Mount Everest in April and May, making 2012 the worst year for fatalities since 1996, when 12 people died.

But this year's deaths were not the result of mountain climbers being caught off guard by a sudden storm, being struck by falling rocks or being buried by an avalanche. They died because they were exhausted, because they were climbing too slowly, or because they ignored the symptoms of altitude sickness and did not turn around in time. More than 300 climbers set out for the summit on the weekend of May 19-20 alone. "I've never seen so many people on one mountain," says extreme mountain climber Ralf Dujmovits.

The crowded conditions led to congestion in the death zone. Six people died, with four of them perishing on the popular South Col route. They lost their lives because all of the adventurers, those who wanted to experience a moment of accomplishment at the highest point on earth, got in each other's way.

Nepal's Tourism Ministry is housed in a large brick building in downtown Kathmandu. Every mountain climber who wants to ascend Everest has to apply for a permit, which costs about $10,000, at an office on the third floor.

Biking to the Summit of EverestIn mid-April, a slender man with bushy eyebrows and a deeply wrinkled face turned up at the ministry. It was Aydin Irmak, and he told officials that he wanted to register an attempt to set a record. He wanted to be the first person to carry a bicycle to the summit of Mt. Everest.

There are many officially recognized Everest records: the first blind man to reach the summit, the first leg amputee, the first person to descend on a snowboard, the first overnight climb, the first wedding. The record for the longest time a person was able to last at the summit with his upper body exposed is three minutes.

The official sitting behind his white desk doesn't ask any questions. Instead, he collects an additional $1,000 from Irmak for the Everest record certificate -- stamped and signed.

Irmak, born in Istanbul, is what one might call a connoisseur of the art of living. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, studied finance in New York and then opened a shop selling designer furniture. When the shop went out of business and Irmak's marriage fell apart, he ended up on the street, sleeping under bridges in Queens. In 2009, he began repairing old bikes he found in the trash and selling them. A year later, Irmak began a trip around the world by bicycle. He arrived in Kathmandu in November 2011. While having dinner at a restaurant, he hit upon the idea of climbing Everest while carrying his bike.

There are about 100 companies in Nepal that organize expeditions to the top of Mount Everest, and 40 of them are headquartered in Kathmandu. The well-known outfitters charge about $35,000 for the climb, while trips with discounters that offer climbs on the Tibetan side can be had for about $10,000. To lower the cost, they cut corners with personnel and equipment, such as ropes, carabiners, radios and oxygen bottles.Fit and Experienced

Irmak booked his tour with Thamserku Trekking and paid $28,000, which he had borrowed from a friend in New York. The owner of Thamserku liked Irmak's bicycle idea, knowing that it would be good PR for his company. It didn't matter to him that the client had never even been on a mountain and didn't know how to put on crampons.

Some outfitters only accept clients for Everest expeditions who have already climbed a 6,000-meter peak. "But some people lie to us and don't admit that they have little experience in high mountains. There isn't anything we can do about that. In the end, we simply have to trust them," says Dawa Steven Sherpa, the head of Asian Trekking, one of the biggest agencies in Kathmandu.

Dawa Steven had no concerns about the two German climbers who had contacted Asian Trekking and arrived in Kathmandu in early April. Eberhard Schaaf, 61, a sports doctor from the western city of Aachen, and Paul Thelen, 68, a management consultant from nearby Wüselen, made a good impression. They were sophisticated men, in good shape and looking for adventure. Schaaf, a wiry man with a full beard, used to run marathons and even did 200-kilometer ultra-marathons. They were experienced mountain climbers. Thelen and Schaaf wanted to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. They had already been to the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Aconcagua in Argentina. Now, they wanted to take on Mt. Everest.

Thelen and Schaaf were sponsored by a German brand of food supplements called Doppelherz and had prepared well for Everest. They ran stairs at an abandoned factory -- 500 steps, ascending 80 meters -- carrying backpacks filled with soft-drink bottles and canned goods. On the deck in Thelen's yard, they arranged aluminum ladders to span between tables and climbed across them with climbing boots and crampons. This was to prepare for the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, where climbers have to cross giant crevices on ladders.

To test their thermal underwear, they had themselves locked into an indoor ski slope in the Netherlands, where they spent the night in a tent at minus 5 degrees Celsius. They performed regular lactate tests and stress EKGs, and for an entire year they took fresh water algae supplements, which are supposed to strengthen the immune system.

A Prosthetic Arm with a Built-In Ice Axe

For both men, Everest was the ultimate challenge. On April 7, they left for base camp, located in a national park 320 kilometers from Kathmandu, at an altitude of 5,365 meters. At the camp, there are hundreds of tents set up in an area of about one square kilometer. There is a medical station in the middle, there is cell phone reception, and in some of the food tents, guests are handed moist napkins after their meal.

There were about 900 people staying at the camp in late April. They included professional athletes like Swiss high-mountain climber Ueli Steck, as well as alpinist Simone Moro. For the last three years, Moro has had a second job as a helicopter pilot, and he has built himself a landing pad near the base camp. He picks up climbers from Everest who have had accidents. For the business, he obtained a Nepalese pilot's license and uses a Eurocopter AS-350 B3, with an 850-horsepower engine. Business is good.

Some 90 percent of the mountain climbers at the base camp were amateur alpinists. And, as usual, there were several would-be record-breakers in the group. They included a 16-year-old Nepalese girl who hoped to be the youngest woman to climb Everest, as well as a 73-year-old Japanese woman who wanted to go down in history as the oldest woman to climb the mountain. There was also a former soldier in the British army who had lost his left arm in Afghanistan. He had had a specialized, carbon-fiber prosthetic arm with a built-in ice axe.

Irmak arrived at the base camp on April 19, after having ridden his bicycle from Kathmandu. The higher he went, the worse the roads became. Eventually they turned into narrow paths and coarse gravel trails, and he often had to carry his bike. He usually sat by himself under a boulder on the edge of the camp. The other climbers referred to him as "that crazy guy," and they were concerned that they would end up having to rescue him on Everest if he ventured up there with his bicycle.

The ascent from the base camp to the summit of Everest takes four-and-a-half days, but first climbers have to spend weeks accustoming their bodies to the extreme altitudes. They do this by making repeated trips to one of the three camps at higher altitudes, where they sleep and then return to base camp.

Flag on the Summit

Schaaf and Thelen tried to eat as much as possible, hoping to counteract the adverse effects of high altitude on metabolism. On average, mountain climbers lose about 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) on Everest.

In early May, seven officials with the national park's environmental authority turned up at base camp, looking for Irmak. They had heard about his record-setting ambitions. The men took away his bicycle, which he had been keeping in his tent the whole time, saying that a bicycle didn't belong on Everest. Irmak waved the Tourism Ministry permit in their faces, but the officials were not to be persuaded. Irmak was furious. He painted a picture of his bicycle on a small flag, so that he could at least plant the flag on the summit.

There is no weather station on Mount Everest, because the cold temperatures would cause the equipment to malfunction. Since 1997, expedition leaders have been able to use reliable weather forecasts sent to them from halfway around the world.

A company called Meteotest has its offices on the ground floor of an old, brown building on Fabrikstrasse in the Swiss capital Bern, where seven meteorologists sit in front of their monitors. They use software that can predict weather at 10 different locations in the Everest region. The system spits out new data twice a day, and the Swiss experts then send emails and text messages to Everest base camp, providing expedition leaders with the latest forecast for the coming days.

On May 14, extreme climber Ueli Steck had a new message in his inbox. "The window from the 16th to the 19th appears to be stable," the meteorologists from Switzerland wrote. Stable means little wind, good visibility and no snowfall. Fourteen minutes later, Steck replied: "Great, I'll get going right away." Steck, who has already climbed several 8,000ers, was one of the first to begin the climb to the summit. Word quickly spread through base camp.Talking to Himself in the Death ZoneOn May 15, starting at 3 a.m., more than 300 climbers set out for the summit. They included Irmak and the two Germans, Schaaf and Thelen. They crossed the Khumbu Icefall. Like a giant procession, the climbers worked their way up the mountain, from Camp 2 at 6,400 meters to Camp 3 at 7,200 meters, and on to Camp 4, the last before the summit. The march kept coming to a standstill at the Yellow Band, a steep passage on Lhotse Face, above 7,500 meters. There were simply too many people climbing that day, leading to congestion and friction among the climbers. At times they had to wait more than 30 minutes for the climb to continue. Passing other climbers was almost impossible, because it would have cost too much energy. Besides, it's dangerous for climbers to disconnect themselves from the fixed rope. The average gradient along the wall of glacial ice is 35 degrees.

The march from the base camp to Camp 4, at about 8,000 meters, takes three days. Sherpas had already stocked the camp with oxygen bottles, where they sat waiting for climbers ready to take on the last stage to the summit. Almost all climbers at that altitude wear oxygen masks, which draw in ambient air and mix it with oxygen from the bottles, making it easier to breathe.

Normally, climbers reach Camp 4 at about noon. They rest a few hours, and then they leave that evening so that they'll be at the summit in the morning. But this time, the plan didn't work. Because of the congestion, everyone arrived late at Camp 4.

Irmak stumbled into the camp at about 3 p.m., while Schaaf didn't arrive until about 4:30. He went to his tent to lie down, while his Sherpas made him some hot oatmeal and tea. Although he knew that he would have only four hours to recover, Schaaf decided to leave for the summit that evening. Thelen reached Camp 4 at about 6 p.m. Exhausted, he radioed the manager of his agency at the basis, saying: "I don't have any energy left. I'll wait until tomorrow to continue."

Mental Capacity of a Small Child

In the death zone, barometric pressure is only about a third of what it is at sea level, meaning that there is less pressure to push oxygen into the lungs. Breathing is difficult and climbers can only move at very slow speeds, even though their hearts are racing. So little oxygen reaches the brain that climbers revert to the mental capacity of a small child. Their minds become dull and their ability to perceive their environment is limited.

Oxygen deprivation causes brain cells die off and the blood to thicken. There are two forms of altitude sickness that are life-threatening: pulmonary edema, in which water accumulates in the lungs, and brain edema, in which fluid collects in the skull. Within a few hours, a brain edema can trigger swelling of the head that puts the mountain climber into a coma. People who develop altitude sickness in the death zone have to descend as quickly as possible.

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.

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.

Another record was set on Everest this year. The 73-year-old Japanese woman summited, making her the oldest woman who has ever stood on the roof of the world and made it back down unharmed.

The Tourism Ministry in Kathmandu is considering imposing an age limit of 80 for Everest alpinists. It has also decided to stop issuing certificates for records that have nothing to do with climbing. "Otherwise there'll be a dance party up there one of these days," says a ministry employee.

Billi Bierling, a Swiss professional mountain climber who has been writing an Everest diary for years, doesn't believe that the carnival atmosphere on Everest will end. "The disaster in May was a signal that the mountain urgently needs a break. But it won't get it. There's too much money to be made on Everest," he says.

Six people died on Mount Everest on the weekend of May 19-20, four on the South Col route and two on the Northern Ridge route.

Just one week later, 197 found their way to the summit of Mt. Everest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan