Close to Everest’s peak, a small group of climbers faced a pivotal choice: they could either up towards the summit, as they had intended for a long time, or stop to save an injured man. The group was being led by an experienced climber by the name of Daniel Mazur. He had spent seven hours crawling up the mountain through ice and snow. He was exhausted, to say the least, but he sensed that success – the summit – was near.
But little did Mazur and his team know that a mountaineer had been left for dead on the massive mountain. Sherpas pronounced Lincoln Hall, a 50 year old Australian, dead at sunset after he showed no signs of life for two hours. The five-strong team of Sherpas then left him behind at 28,000 feet high. The spot he was left in was, rather fittingly, called “The Death Zone.”
But the next morning, something incredible happened…
Daniel Lee Mazur, born in 1960 in Illinois, was basically made to be in the outdoors. As a boy, he spent his summers exploring the wilderness of Canada by canoe. Each summer, his family would load their Ford station wagon, and the kids and the dog would visit the national parks for a two-week camping trip. Mazur was an active Boy Scout for years, and his father Robert taught him how to ski.
At age 12, his mother, Mary, started to take in Chinese students to live in the house. And that’s when he learned his first words in Chinese, around the dinner table and while doing his chores. But he was 17 when he got his first taste of the high peaks.
Mazur was a student at the University of Montana when he climbed Gunsight Peak and the Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park. Mazur became one of the world’s most prolific climbers, having s climbed nine of the world’s highest peaks (above 26,000 feet). He has been involved in rescues of fellow climbers from these mountains.
He has led expeditions more than 15 times to the world’s highest peaks; 12 of those times on the almighty Mount Everest. The man knows his mountains, and he knows how to climb. He’s the perfect person to have around when things go wrong. And that’s precisely why Lincoln Hall was lucky to have Daniel Mazur nearby when he nearly died on Everest in May of 2006.
It was ten degrees below zero near the top of Everest that morning, but the early daylight gave a view of clear blue skies for miles around. It was the perfect climate and conditions for a climber. Daniel Mazur was sure that it would be the day that he was finally going to make it to the top.
That’s what the climbing guide told himself as he and his team were digging their crampons into the ice, taking a few more cautious steps. He and his team were less than three hours away from a place that very few of us ever get to see with our own eyes – the spectacular 29,035-foot summit that only Mount Everest has to offer.
It was 7:30 a.m., and as Mazur climbed onto a narrow ledge (called Mushroom Rock) to rest, he gave some encouragement to his “SummitClimb” co-climbers: Andrew Brash from Canada, Myles Osborne from England, and their Sherpa guide, Jongbu. As the men looked out onto the incredible view, Mazur saw something that he didn’t expect to see.
He saw a flash of bright yellow to his left. And keep in mind that this was during morning daylight, meaning it’s hard to see as it is. Mazur thought to himself: was it a tent? No way, it couldn’t be. No climber would camp out at such a high altitude. He squinted hard to make out what it was, trying to get a better look.
The blurry yellow light moved again, and that’s when Mazur’s jaw dropped. What the hell? He wondered. Perched quite dangerously on the edge of a jagged cliff was a man, sitting cross-legged. It looked like he was trying to change his shirt. He was wearing a thick snowsuit that was unzipped to the waist, and he had no hat, no gloves, and no sunglasses.
Mazur and his group were amazed. The man had no oxygen mask, no sleeping bag, no food, nor water. In essence, there was no reason that Lincoln Hall should still be alive. Not to mention that he was sitting at 28,000 feet, an altitude that makes breathing super hard. Mazur and his men made their way over to this mysterious man.
As he was pulling his frostbitten hands out of his shirt, Lincoln Hall looked up at Mazur, looking exhausted yet fully aware of his situation. “I imagine you are surprised to see me here,” he said to Mazur. As it turns out, Hall had been alone on the side of the mountain since 7:30 p.m. the evening before.
Following a grueling climb up the north ridge, Hall and his fellow climbers that were with him had reached the summit at nine the morning before. After the small group celebrated their victory of reaching an important point and enjoying the glorious view of the earth’s curve, they started their descent. The goal was to reach camp before dangerous storms were predicted to roll in that afternoon.
After climbing 28,000 feet, Hall’s feet had simply stopped moving, and he was overcome by fatigue. He knew that his body wasn’t going to let him climb down just yet. He turned to one of the Sherpas that he was with, telling him: “I need to lie down. I need to sleep.” And let it be known that Hall was no newbie.
The man had over 25 years of experience behind him. Like Mazur, he was a seasoned mountaineer. He already climbed Everest once before, back in 1984, but he failed to reach the summit. And now that he got to the point he was at now, his body was failing him. He was feeling sick and unable to move.
Hall didn’t have the presence of mind to realize it at the time, but he was suffering from cerebral edema, which is a severe form of altitude sickness. The condition can cause the brain to swell and can lead to a stumbling, intoxicated walk, with hallucinations and, eventually, death. The man was about to meet his end, right there on Everest.
In fact, that specific area on the mountain, right below the summit, is known as the “death zone.” It’s frighteningly steep and icy to top it off. It requires the most experienced of climbers to use fixed ropes and ice axes to hack their way up to the top and back down again. And due to the high altitude at that spot, if a climber gets sick, it usually happens there.
Normally, the descent from that spot to the advanced base camp takes around two hours. But Hall was very weak, and he was getting more and more uncooperative as the altitude sickness took over him. Two Sherpas had to carry him down between them, wasting precious daylight, as the rest of the group continued on to base camp.
After a long nine hours, Hall went limp. Unfortunately for him, he appeared to be dead. The Sherpas were ordered by their leader to just leave him on the mountain. That’s right – they were told to leave the man right then and there.
(Side note: it’s not uncommon for people to freeze to death when climbing mountains, but some have frozen and then came back to life).
The Sherpas checked one last time for any signs of life (one of them even poked Hall in the eye). When they saw that Hall wasn’t responding, they gathered his backpack, food, water, and the extra oxygen he had with him, and returned to the base camp. It may sound extremely harsh, but these men were used to people dying on the mountain.
In fact, just hours before, another German climber, named Thomas Weber, suffered comparable symptoms. He had collapsed and died, less than 20 yards from Lincoln Hall. Ten days before that, David Sharp, a climber from the UK, got seriously ill from the high altitude and died under a rock overhang. Tragically, 40 other climbers, eager to reach the summit, passed by, refusing to help.
Pretty much any experienced climber who’s ever taken on the challenge of the great Mount Everest knows somebody who didn’t make it back alive. Two of Dan Mazur’s own friends, Rob Hall (who has no relation to Lincoln Hall) and Scott Fischer, had unfortunately died in the epic snowstorm that killed six other climbers back in 1996.
Their bodies, along with 200 others, are scattered across Everest’s slopes, preserved there for eternity in snow and ice. Sounds too gloomy? That’s because it is. But it’s the truth. “There are times when you literally have to step over somebody’s body to get to the top,” Mazur said later. “It’s a grim reminder that you should never lose respect for the mountain.”
Near the peak on that crisp and clear May morning, which is any “mountaineer’s dream,” as Mazur describes, he and his team members quietly thought to themselves and realized that they were going to have to make a choice. Should they phone in this man’s predicament to his group, called “7 Summits” and continue on to the summit?
Or should they stay with the clearly helpless man and wait until help arrived? Each member of the team had to think to himself, and each one had his own factors involved in the decision-making process. As for Mazur, he had already visited the summit once before, in 1991. And thus, he wasn’t as “hungry” as the others on his team.
Both Brash and Osborne, who each spent $20,000 to make this expedition, had a lot more to reach for. Reaching the top was a once in a lifetime dream. Something that clearly cost a heck of a lot of money, effort, and time. Mazur knew that there was only one possible decision to be made. And as he put it, “Luckily, everyone made the right one.”
As the team stood there, contemplating to themselves, Osborne was the one who spoke first. “We can’t leave the guy,” he said. And they all nodded in agreement. They knew that if they were to continue selfishly, they would have to live with the decision for the rest of their lives. It simply wasn’t worth it.
If they were to make it to the top and back down, their victory would be tainted with the inevitable death of this man. And Hall clearly needed their help. Not only was he frostbitten and totally disoriented, he easily could slip and plunge down the 8,000-foot drop (of the Kangshung Face) at any moment.
“We found him sitting on a three-foot-by-three-foot platform covered with snow and ice,” Mazur said of the incident. “It’s hard to believe he didn’t roll over the edge during the night.” The men were able to get Hall away from the cliff’s edge and help him back into his snowsuit. They then rummaged through their backpacks, shared their oxygen with him, and gave him lemonade and a Snickers bar.
After they managed to get his vitals back to normal with oxygen, food, and water, they were able to ask him questions and find out how the hell he got himself in that situation. “Can you tell me how you got here?” Mazur asked Hall. Hall, confused and disoriented, responded by saying, “No.” Mazur then asked him, “Can you tell me your name?”
Hall hesitated before he responded, and then broke into a grin. It was as though he suddenly came to. “Yes!” he shouted. “My name is Lincoln Hall. Can you tell me how I got here?” Mazur was glad that Hall was starting to come around. But Hall didn’t stay as coherent for too long.
“This is a great boat ride we’re on!” is what Hall kept saying. The man was hallucinating and stretched out his arms like he was about to do a backflip. Hall tried again to take off his snowsuit. And then he made a dash for the cliff. But luckily, Mazur was there to stop him.
“Whoa! Where do you think you’re going?” Mazur caught Hall and grabbed him in a bear hug, tackling him onto the ice. Mazur wondered to himself: Does this guy have a death wish? But no, he wasn’t suicidal. He was delirious from the lack of oxygen he was getting to his brain. Mazur was instantly reminded of his late friend and former climber.
As Mazur was tending to the delirious Lincoln Hall, he got a sudden flashback to an image of his late friend Scott Fischer, who died on Everest. When climbers stumbled upon Fischer’s body, he was, like Hall, partially undressed. He had a bare arm sticking out of his unzipped snowsuit. Mazur was aware of this phenomenon.
Apparently, it was rather common for people in the last stages of hypothermia to rip off their clothes. Mazur also knew people in those conditions also tended to act like toddlers having a tantrum. Hall was acting belligerent, like a three-year-old boy. He wasn’t listening – or at least he wasn’t capable of processing what was being said. Either way, Mazur knew what he had to do.
Mazur, with all the knowledge he had accumulated, knew that he wasn’t going to let this guy that they were trying to save just kill himself. Mazur said to his teammates, “Come on, we’ve got to keep him away from the ledge.” The man needed to be saved from himself, in addition to getting rescued from the mountain.
In his delirium, Hall could easily have jumped off the cliff, not knowing what he was doing. He was extremely lucky to have Mazur and the team there. And it looked as though they were going to need to anchor him to the mountain, to keep him from jumping off. They hammered an ice ax into the snow, attached a “sling” (mountaineers’ lingo for a strong nylon tether), and tied to him with a figure-eight knot.
Now that the injured climber was secured and not able to jump off any ledges, Mazur radioed down to the high base camp, where their own team’s cook was waiting for them to return. His message: “Go over to the 7 Summits camp, get their guys out of bed and get them on the radio. Hurry!” Within ten minutes, the head Sherpa from Hall’s team came on the radio.
“Lincoln Hall is in big trouble and needs your help,” Mazur said. There was a long pause. “You mean he’s alive? How alive is he?” questioned the Sherpa. “Well, he’s moving around, he’s talking,” Mazur answered. “We need extra food, water, and oxygen to get him down. Otherwise, he’s not going to make it.”
Mazur then insisted that he put Hall’s team leader, a Russian climber by the name of Alex Abramov, on the line. “You’ve got some guys in high camp, right? Send them up!” Mazur ordered Abramov to do. He then got all the Sherpas that he could gather. Keep in mind that these were the Sherpas who left Hall for dead.
But according to Mazur, “You can’t blame the Sherpas for leaving Hall on the mountain. It’s their job to help us climb, but it’s not their job to die.” That’s the thing: if they were to stay with him, they could have died themselves, which would be of no help to anyone. They did what they had to do, and Mazur understood that.
Mazur and his team waited for more than four hours for the rescue team to reach their spot. They had to stay warm by stomping their feet and pacing back and forth on the small snow-packed ledge. The last thing that needed to happen was for them to lose their own lives as they tried to save the life of Lincoln Hall.
“We were all pretty quiet,” Brash recalled of that day. Brash had spent years (and thousands of dollars as well) to train for Everest. “It was disappointed silence. We knew we weren’t going to get to the summit.” They were there to save him, but no one really knew if Hall was even going to live. He was shivering uncontrollably as his head jerked up and down.
Hall was also suffering from something called snow blindness, which is common at high altitude on such a bright, clear day. His fingers were so utterly frozen that the climbers remembered them looking like pale yellow wax. The team was then relieved when they saw two Italian climbers suddenly appear on the ledge. But they weren’t the men that they’ve been waiting hours for…
“Good morning!” said Mazur. “We’ve got a guy in trouble here! Can you help?” The men just kept moving onward and upward, toward the summit. “Sorry, no speak English” was their response. The sad part about this exchange was that Mazur later saw them at base camp, and their English was just fine. “All I can say is, God, bless their souls,” Mazur said.
It was around noon when a dozen Sherpas finally showed up to help take Hall down the mountain. Hall was able to walk down to high base camp, but he had to have a guide on either side of him. From there, he rode on a yak to get to his base. He bumped down the mountain on the yak, with a saddle made of foam sleeping mats.
But it took Mazur and his team two days to make it down on their own. And as soon as they arrived at the base camp, they went to visit Hall. When they got there, he was recuperating in his tent. He had to regain his health and strength before making the 100-mile trip to a hospital in Katmandu.
As it turns out, Hall had severe frostbite, water in the brain, and a chest infection. But the man is a trooper. He managed to walk into the camp on his own two feet and even talk to his wife by satellite phone. As Mazur looked on at the man they saved, he thought to himself, “I hope that after all this, he’s a nice guy.”
And he was. Although he was still groggy and slurring his words, Mazur and the men clearly understood Hall when he said thank you for saving his life. Unfortunately, Hall needed surgery to amputate the tips of six of his fingers. But that’s a small price to pay. He could easily have become another statistic if it weren’t for the rescue team.
Lincoln Hall remained close with Myles Osborne, one of the men on Mazur’s team. According to Osborne, Hall was “a great guy, really laid back, with a penchant for bad jokes.” The story was made into a documentary called “Left for Dead on Mount Everest,” which earned an Emmy nomination in 2006.
Hall himself wrote two books about his experience. One was called “Dead Lucky: Life after death on Mount Everest” in 2007, and the other was “Alive In The Death Zone: Mount Everest Survival” in 2008. But Hall would only get to speak so much about his surreal experience. He died March 20, 2012, after suffering from mesothelioma. It was a result of being exposed to asbestos while he worked as a builder in the 60s.
Lincoln Hall’s rescue is miraculous, for sure, but it sparked a major debate about climbers who leave behind sick and injured peers in pursuit of Everest’s grand prize. Even Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to ever reach Everest’s summit in 1953, gave his opinion on the matter. When Hillary learned that 40 climbers passed by climber David Sharp, he was disgusted.
British mountaineer David Sharp died on May 15, 2006. His death drew a lot of attention to the questionable ethics of Everest climbers after 40 mountaineers were reported to have walked right past him on their way to the summit. Sharp was sitting there, close to his eventual death, in an ice cave 300 meters from the peak.
Sir Edmund Hillary said his team “would never have left a man under a rock” to die, as Sharp had. “He was a human being, and we would regard it as our duty to get him back to safety,” he said. “People have completely lost sight of what is important,” Hillary told a New Zealand newspaper. Lincoln Hall’s expedition experienced tragedy before he was abandoned on the mountain.
His climbing partner, Thomas Weber, failed to reach the summit. He collapsed and died seven hours earlier. Weber suffered blindness in low-altitude conditions, and what makes the story worse is that he was climbing the mountain as a disabled climber to raise money for the Himalayan Cataract Project, a Nepalese charity.
Lincoln Hall’s survival after spending over two days in the “death zone” is quite rare, especially because he spent nearly 12 hours without oxygen. Daniel Mazur doesn’t know himself whether much can be done to prevent future deaths. He knows of the great allure of the world’s highest, and that’s why climbers will continue to gamble everything for a few moments at the top.
“It’s such a personal challenge; once you’re up there, you feel as though you could do anything,” Mazur said. “Sure, I wish I could have reached the summit again. But there’s no way we could have left Lincoln Hall on that ridge. If we’d done that, the odds are he wouldn’t be alive today. And I would have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Since 1924, there have been a total of 295 deaths that occurred on Mount Everest. To prevent crowding on the mountain, some experts have suggested limiting the total number of permits per season as well as limiting the size of each team to no more than ten. But others are skeptical, thinking it’s simply unrealistic. Everest is a big business for Nepal, and they won’t turn down the money. Another way to make Everest safer is with technology. The good news is that the mountain is already high-tech where everyone at camp has access to a cell phone or the Internet.
But there has been a proposal to give identification cards to every climber with a permit. The Everest ID would hold information and data that could save the life of a climber or a Sherpa. It would have the climber’s photo and a QR code, a type of bar code that would reveal information like age, experience, health history, allergies, emergency phone numbers, etc.
A man named Mark Jennings wrote about his personal experience climbing Everest and seeing first-hand the destruction by eager mountaineers. They also saw, with their own eyes, bodies of climbers that succumbed to the mountain’s powers. He described their surreal journey in a very descriptive and eye-opening story. It is not for the faint-hearted.
An hour after leaving Camp IV on the Southeast Ridge of Everest, Jennings and Sherpa named Panuru passed the first body. The body was on his side as if taking a nap in the snow, goose down, blowing out of the holes in his snow pants. No more than ten minutes later, they stepped around another body, this time a woman whose torso was cloaked in a Canadian flag, with an empty oxygen bottle holding down the flapping fabric.
Trudging up the steep slopes, nose to butt, up the ropes that were fixed, Panuru and Jennings were wedged between strangers above and below them. Jennings was stunned to see an endless line of climbers passing near his tent. The slopes were busy that day, and it was thought they were in a traffic jam of sorts. The group was bumper-to-bumper at an altitude of 26,000 feet.
Climbers were forced to move at the same speed as everyone else, regardless of each one’s strength or ability. Jennings noticed, before midnight, a string of lights from climbers’ headlamps. Above him were at least a hundred slow-moving climbers. One section had about 20 people attached to a tattered rope that was anchored by a single bent picket pounded into the ice.
If that ice pick fell out, the rope would immediately snap from the weight of all those falling climbers, and they would all fall down the side of the mountain to their deaths. Seeing all the inexperienced climbers making their way up somehow only made Jennings want to get as far away as possible. So he and Panuru unclipped from the lines and swerved out onto open ice.
They started going solo, which is actually a safer option for experienced mountaineers. After 20 minutes, they again stumbled upon another corpse, sitting in the snow and frozen solid. A few hours later, they reached The Hillary Step (named after Sir Edmund Hillary), which is a 40-foot wall of rock, and it’s the last obstacle before the summit.
Later, Jennings discovered the names of the four dead climbers that they “met” on the way to the top. Ha Wenyi, 55, from China; Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33, from Nepal/Canada; Song Won-bin, 44, from South Korea; and Eberhard Schaaf, 61, from Germany. All four of them had died only days before, between May 18 and 20, 2012.
Why are people’s bodies just lying there? Well, there’s a reason. It’s because it’s very dangerous and difficult to transport bodies down the steep mountain. As a result, most people who die there remain where they fall. Some bodies are eventually moved by ice and wind, are covered with snow, or pulled to the side of the trail by climbers. Some care enough to create a makeshift mountain burial.
It’s unclear as to why exactly these four individuals died. But, many recent deaths have been attributed to a real lack of experience. Without the proper training at high altitude, many climbers are unable to judge their own stamina and simply don’t know when to call it quits. “Only half the people here have the experience to climb this mountain,” Panuru told Jennings.
With all the movies, articles, and books on Everest and its climbers’ incredible stories, people have been flocking to the massive mountain. But this is the result. It’s a different landscape from what it was like 50 years ago. On May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker, accompanied by only one Sherpa, Nawang Gombu, became the first American to get to the summit of the world.
Everest has always been a trophy, and nearly 4,000 people have reached its summit, with some reaching the top more than once. But this victorious climb means less than it did a half-century ago. These days, about 90% of the climbers on Mount Everest are there as part of a guided group, where a leader takes a team (many without basic climbing skills) up the mountain.
All in the name of a money-making business and personal goals. After paying $30,000 to $120,000 just to be on the mountain, many of these guided climbers are naïve to ever expect to reach the summit. Sure, some do, but under appalling conditions. Two of the standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are dangerously crowded and disgustingly polluted.
The overcrowding on Everest has created a gross amount of human waste and garbage, just leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids. That’s in addition to the already mentioned number of corpses that also litter the slopes. Clearly, the world’s highest peak is getting tainted. But that’s not to say that it’s beyond repair. There is still hope for the almighty Everest.
Russell Brice runs the “Himalayan Experience,” which is the largest and most sophisticated guiding operation on Mount Everest. Brice, the so-called Captain, is known for running a tight ship. Despite the large size of his teams (as many as 60 people), they leave a small footprint, removing their excrement and garbage. Unfortunately, though, this practice isn’t followed by most teams.
“We can manage the numbers if all the operators talk to each other,” Brice said confidently. “It’s all about good communication.” But communication is only one part of the problem. There are other factors at work. Another factor is advances in weather forecasting. Today, there are hyper-accurate satellite forecasts, which means all teams know exactly when it’s a good time to head out.
And they often reach for the top on the same days. Another factor is the expeditions’ budgets. Low-budget outfitters don’t necessarily have the staff, knowledge, or equipment to keep their clients safe. Cheaper outfitters often employ fewer Sherpas with less experience. “All of the clients who died on Everest this past year went with low-budget, less-experienced operators,” Willie Benegas said. He’s an Argentinian-American guide and co-owner of Benegas Brothers Expeditions.
Through Mazur’s non-profit NGO, the Mount Everest Foundation for Sustainable Development, he’s undertaken a bunch of philanthropic projects. One of his projects was the Deboche nunnery, which is located just below the world-famous Tengboche monastery. In 2004, philanthropist Marcia MacDonald went to the site and was shocked by their suffering.
They had no running water, electricity, or heating, and the buildings were crumbling with missing or broken windows. Most of the nuns were wheezing and coughing from respiratory disorders. By 2006, Mazur, Sherpa Mingma Tenzing, and MacDonald joined forces, and the Deboche Project was up and running. MacDonald’s mother asked her: “Why do you want to do something on the other side of the world when people are suffering right here in America?”
Marcia answered her mother, saying that suffering is global, and we need to teach our kids to do whatever they can to help. MacDonald’s mother ended up becoming one of the Deboche Project’s most generous financial supporters. Sadly, the 2015 earthquakes dealt a major blow to the convent, as well as much of Nepal.
But with the pro-bono collaboration of Seattle-based Architects Without Borders, the Deboche buildings were rebuilt. So while there is a real dilemma with inexperienced climbers, pollution, and unnecessary deaths on Everest, there is still hope for those who care about the great peak. Luckily, some philanthropists and experts want to make Mount Everest as great as it was and should be.