U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Harold Earls was standing on the world’s tallest peak amid a roaring snowstorm when his Nepali Sherpa guide plunged off a 7,000-foot drop.
The pair had just reached the summit of Mount Everest and started their descent early Tuesday when clouds rolled in and 65 mph winds carrying ice and snow slammed into them. The Sherpa, An Doja, had developed snow blindness from sharing his goggles with Earls, who lost his own from a gust of wind. They were on a narrow ledge trying to hold on to each other when Doja stumbled.
“I thought he was going to die,” Earls, 23, based in Fort Stewart, Ga., told ABC News Wednesday.
But the safety rope caught on a snow ridge that had accumulated along the overhang, leaving the Sherpa teetering off the edge.
That’s when Earls’ military training kicked in, he said. The active-duty basic infantry officer immediately dropped to his knee to grip the rope that held them both. He was then able to swing Doja to safety onto a lower ledge about 10 feet below.
“That’s what we learn in the military,” Earls said. “You don’t ever leave a soldier behind. It’s the same thing with Sherpa.”
After hours of treacherous hiking, Earls and Doja made it safely down to the foot of the Lhoste wall of the Everest massif, where Advanced Base Camp straddles the Nepal-Tibet border at 21,000 feet. Earls suffered frostbite on his toes, which were also bloody from the difficult trek down.
He also couldn’t quite shake the haunting sight of dead bodies scattered several thousands of feet below him when climbing the Second Step, the most infamous of three rocky steps -- steep sections of rock and ice -- of Everest. One body had left what looked like a pattern of snow angels when it tumbled down the northeast ridge.
“It left a really eerie feeling in my mind,” he said. “I saw that and I mean, honestly, I was scared.”
Since the 2016 climbing season began last month, three people have died and two others are missing after attempting to scale the 29,035-foot-high mountain. Rescue teams said there have been repeated calls of climbers suffering from altitude sickness, frostbite, falls and injuries.
"The most common cause for death on Everest is the altitude. There's not enough oxygen there," said Dan Stretch, a senior specialist in the operations department at Global Rescue, which has evacuated about 30 people this season so far. "The weather can change very quickly. It can be fine one minute and then force winds and heavy snow the next minute."
Everest was practically free of climbers the two previous years, after fatal avalanches that canceled expeditions. More than 4,000 climbers have reached the treacherous summit since 1953, when Everest was first scaled by New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Earls climbed with Capt. Elyse Ping Medvigy, retired Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, 32, of Ridgeway, Colo., as well as drone pilot and award-winning filmmaker Dave Ohlson for nonprofit organization U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX) to spread awareness on the everyday struggle of veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. Earls, the co-founder and president of USX, said the team and their Sherpas formed a special bond.
Earls said he felt particularly inspired by Jukes, a single leg amputee because of an IED in northern Iraq, and how the veteran appeared to climb Everest with ease.
“He’s probably the best climber out of all of us,” Earls said. “I just remember seeing him in front of me and, you know, I’m sucking wind and struggling real bad. But then I look up and see Chad with one leg and how much harder he has to work to get to the top than me or anyone else.”
The team, which climbed with supplemental oxygen, was eventually forced to split up with their respective Sherpas due to weather conditions. Earls and Ping Medvigy summited together, but she and her Sherpa were a few minutes ahead of the rest on the way down.
Ping Medvigy, 26, of Sebastopol, Calif., an active-duty field artillery officer stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. who enjoys high-altitude climbing, said the weather was best during the trek up. In addition to shedding light on PTSD within the armed forces, Ping Medvigy carried with her a photograph of two soldiers who died because of an IED while serving in her light infantry unit in Afghanistan. She had told their families she would take that photo to the top of the world in their honor.
“That was the whole point of the trip for me was to bring that picture for their families to the summit,” Ping Medvigy told ABC News. “I climb because I love it. And on this particular expedition, I had the opportunity to climb for something more than myself.”