Book of the month: The Storms
- Thursday 3 September 2015
With Hollywood's $65 million Everest film due for release later this month, the events of 1996 are once again under the spotlight. No doubt the shots will be breathtaking and Jake Gyllenhaal's hair will look fantastic, but if you're after a candid account from a real-life witness, The Storms by Mike Trueman offers a unique personal perspective. Mike is a veteran of twenty expeditions to the Himalaya and bore witness to the tragic storm of 1996. In this extract from his book, he describes his desperate descent back to Base Camp from where he coordinated the subsequent rescue mission.
The last climbers to get to their tents that night arrived at about 4.30 a.m. on the morning of 11 May. By this time they had been above the South Col for almost thirty hours, they had been without supplementary oxygen for around ten hours and they had been in the teeth of a storm for up to fourteen hours. It is surprising that more climbers did not perish that day.
At 5.30 a.m. on 11 May we were all up and dressed, standing outside our tents gazing up at the storm raging above us. It was clear to us at Camp 2 that something terrible had happened. The priority now was to find out what had happened and to then make plans to make sure that the situation didn’t get any worse.
It was only a short time later that we learned more about the full extent of the disaster. Rob was still just below the summit with Doug Hansen, who, it was thought, had already died, but this was not absolutely clear. Below Rob, a further twenty-one climbers were unaccounted for. Shortly afterwards we heard that several climbers had made it back to the South Col, but some were in a critical condition. At least three climbers were missing and, we were told, another two bodies had been found.
The situation continued to remain far from clear. Those left at Base Camp were mainly volunteers who had come to Everest not to climb but to help with administration and logistics, and they were not experienced in dealing with disaster situations. To compound the problem, they had worked under enormous pressure throughout the night and by the next morning some were close to breaking point. Camp 2 that day was fortunately well stocked with experience. There were many professional, semi-professional and very experienced amateur climbers assembled there ready to make their summit attempts […]
The weak link was at Base Camp. It was thought that we had no one there who could give the necessary support and co-ordination which was going to be needed. An informal rescue committee was formed which included David Breashears, Mal Duff and Henry Todd, and I was asked to go down to Base Camp to co-ordinate the support that was required. I was no more experienced than many at Camp 2 that day, but, uniquely, I did speak Nepalese which we thought would be an important asset.
I quickly packed, but far from being buoyant and excited, as I had been the day before, I now felt depressed and mentally exhausted. I knew that by going down so quickly after I had returned from my recuperative period at Base Camp, my ambitions to climb Everest in 1996 were finished. This didn’t seem to bother me in the slightest, when saving further lives was the common mission of all of us on Everest that morning, but it had a subconscious effect and I felt very tired.
Mal sent me a Sherpa to help me carry my gear off the mountain, and we set off to get to Base Camp as quickly as possible. Looking back up, the weather above seemed clearer but the wind still howled across the mountain.
I have rarely felt so tired as I did descending Everest that morning. Despite knowing how important it was for me to get to Base Camp as quickly as possible, I found myself having to take frequent rests. These stops seemed to have no effect and I had to force myself onwards. Most worryingly I started to vomit, which alarmed the Sherpa who was accompanying me.
The Western Cwm passed and at last I was prevented by the western shoulder of Everest from looking back up at the South Col. I descended through the Icefall, my mind really unaware of the passing features. All I could think about was getting as far as I could before I had to collapse again and vomit in the snow. It took me twice as long to return downhill to Base Camp as it had to make the uphill journey the day before.
At last I stumbled into Base Camp. Gone was the sense of excitement which had pervaded the atmosphere only a short time before. It had been replaced everywhere by a deep gloom. It was difficult to imagine how on earth I was going to become dynamic enough to turn this sense of complete depression into an organisation that was going to be able to provide the support which I knew was desperately needed by those above [...]
The one thing that I have learned from my years in the army, and particularly from my time working in war-torn Yugoslavia, is that things will only get more complicated if you try and sort a bad situation out with a fogged mind. I was feeling exhausted and ill and if I was going to do the job I had been sent down to do, then rest was vital. In any case the situation on the mountain was still very confused and it was not going to be possible to organise the appropriate support until the situation we faced became clearer. I talked briefly to Guy and the head Nepalese liaison officer, and I scheduled a meeting at which I wanted all liaison officers and a representative from all of the teams on the mountain to attend.
I then went to my tent and attempted to close my eyes for two hours.
This text has been adapted from chapter eight of The Storms. Images (from top to bottom): Mike Trueman and Constantine Niarchos on the Everest summit, 1999; the view from Everest's South Col; The Storms book cover. All images and text © Mike Trueman/Vertebrate Publishing.