Mark Auricht & David Hume were the first Australian's to summit Mt Makalu on May 8th, 1995
This is Part 2 of their story...
Please read Part One in the preceding blog post - before continuing the story here.....
....So here we are, a couple of proud Aussies sitting at about eight and a half thousand metres above sea level where jet planes fly. I felt an incredible sense of privilege at getting this half hour on top of the world. All the factors had come together for us and we were finally there.
I remember feeling a great variety of emotions. One just of relief at having finally got there, after all the preparation we’d done at home and in the mountains, all the lugging of gear up the mountain and dealing with the hardship of actually just functioning at this altitude. There is an enormous amount of relief knowing that going down will be significantly easier.
The next feeling I remember was an enormous sense of appreciation for my physical body for getting me to this incredible spot. I’d punished it unmercifully beyond anything I’d done before and it had done everything I’d asked of it.
And then the next more overwhelming emotion was anxiety, just an incredible amount of anxiety. We were way too late to be sitting on this mountain at this time. We still had to get back to Camp 4 and there was only about an hour of daylight left so I knew it was going to get dark and I knew that descending, despite being physically easier, was the most dangerous thing we had yet to do. The unfortunate thing about summiting any mountain is that you know that the moment you get there your head’s thinking about heading back down.
Time started to go incredibly quickly now... the hands on the clock just took off... we were on the summit for about half an hour and in that time took a photograph of each other, panned the video around and that was a half hour gone. We were already starting to move a bit more slowly due to the altitude and fatigue as well. The last thing I remember doing was standing up with my arms outstretched above me (as per my company logo9) and then I quickly sat back down and we made our way off the summit.
Descending Into Darkness
We got back to the false summit and it was dark. We’d been climbing with our head torches all that morning, which is an okay way to climb on the snow and ice... your torches just glow beautifully... but now our torches were down to a dull glow on the ice. We had to traverse back along the summit ridge and find the steep gully that would bring us back onto the ice field above Camp 4. It was incredibly important that we found the correct gully because we had a couple of ropes there leading us back to Camp 4. Had we gone down the wrong gully we would have had no idea of the terrain we’d come into.
At about 9 o’clock that night we found the head of the gully and our footsteps. We were relieved to know that we were back on track. I remember sitting down at the top of this gully to have a rest... imagine now a big slippery dip of ice with a vertical rock step of about 50 metres, then another ice field... another rock step... then another ice field leading down onto the glacier below... all of it about 350 metres in height. Here we sat resting for a moment, not talking, hardly wasting an ounce of energy on a thought.
One of the things I remember about altitude is that there’s no daydreaming. I could focus on a thought... I knew what I was doing... I was absolutely clear on what I was doing... but there were no extraneous thoughts happening at all... no extra conversations... so I don’t remember talking to David as we sat there.
We then got up and I started heading down. I’m facing out now, and I’m walking down with my crampons gripping the ice and David behind me. All of a sudden this incredible impact took my feet out from under me. It was David sliding out of control down this ice slope. Fortunately he hit me low enough that my legs flipped out from under me but I was able to spin around and use my ice axe to stop my fall... just in time to look over my shoulder at David going like a steam train over this rock ledge that was maybe 20 metres below me... and just like that he was gone!
It was shocking and unreal... “is this really happening?” It felt unreal but again my mind did not waste thoughts. It was immediately very clear that I just had to do what I had to do to get down. In hindsight it was surprising that I wasn’t overwhelmed with panic... I got very nervous though and instead of facing out I turned around and used my tools to back down, which is the safer way to go but much slower. I got down to the rock step where we had a piece of rope only 20 metres away. This piece of rope may or may not have saved his life. I might have been in control of him... but when I think about it, had we been tied together I would have gone with him. It’s incredible the speed at which the ‘what if’s’ go through your head but it can’t change what has happened and I must focus on what I have to do now in this moment.
I abseiled down this rock step and saw the eeriest thing that still sticks in my mind... when you carry an ice axe, you have a lanyard that runs up and sits around your wrist in case you drop your axe so that you won’t lose it down the mountainside. When David fell and landed on the ice below his axe must have caught on the ice and skun his glove off while he kept going. So you can imagine an ice axe just hanging out of the ice with the lanyard and a bare glove on the end of it... just swinging. When I abseiled down I was confronted by this ice axe just hanging there... it was an awful sight... but it also set my mind crazy thinking for a moment that maybe he was alive?
I’d actually come to the conclusion by then that he was already dead before he went over the edge. What I think happened was that he had a cerebral oedema... an accumulation of fluid on the brain. Cerebral Oedema is a condition caused by high altitude where fluid starts leaking from cells into spaces it shouldn’t be and squashes the brain, causing the victim to lose consciousness which is often closely followed by death as the brain stops functioning. I think David just passed out after he stood up and started walking. He might have already been dead when he fell over and took off down the slope. The reason I think that was because he was on his back and your initial response as a mountaineer is to roll straight onto your front and use your axe to stop... but he was on his back... and he said absolutely nothing... he was completely silent. So I hope that he was unconscious when he went over the edge and I really believe that was the case. However when I saw his axe I thought for a moment... “Was he alive?... did he try to stop himself?”
Then I continued down to the bottom of this 350 metre gully. It was quite obvious where he landed, and he continued off down the glacial field and ended up in a crevasse that would have been some 150-200 metres down the glacier. Now that I was at the bottom of that gully I had to cut across the glacier to get to Camp 4 but the path of his descent had continued down the glacier... so then I sat and thought... “Do I go and look for him, or do I go home?” Fortunately I made a good decision at that point and I went for home. I figured there was a one percent or less chance that he would have survived that fall, and if he had done, there was nothing that I could have done for him.
In my head I remember thinking (and maybe this was just to help me make the decision) “I’ll come back... I’ll go to Camp 4 and rest up then come back to try and find him”... not expecting to find him alive, but expecting to put him into his sleeping bag. We’d had a conversation in the Blue Mountains about death and as a group we decided that if a person died we’d put them in their sleeping bag and lower them into a crevasse... so all that was going through my head was “I’m going to get a sleeping bag, come back and put him in it...” so I continued back across the glacier.
Following the Inner Compass
By now my torch was almost out and the moon had gone behind the Makalu Ridge, so it was really quite dark. This made it difficult to pick up the trail of my footprints that were now barely visible between the shadows cast by odd shaped bits of snow, threatening to lead me astray.
I seemed to walk for endless hours down this ice field and I remember distinctly two voices, one on each shoulder: one saying “you’ve gone too far, you’ve gone too far... you’re lost”, and the other voice saying “you’re doing fine just keep going, you’re doing fine, just keep going” and these two voices
were just battling... I don’t even know the time frame but had I lost my way then it would have been all over.
Eventually I was enormously relieved to find the fixed rope which led back to Camp 4 so I knew then that I was still on track and almost home. I clipped onto the fixed rope which cut diagonally across this large ice field and began abseiling down. Previously on the trip I had damaged my left ankle, twisting it quite badly. As I abseiled across the ice field with all my weight on my left foot, my ankle gave way and I tumbled off the slope and around the ice face; a sheer wall of blue water ice dropping down into a dark abyss. In my mind I could see myself falling off the ice field in slow motion, plunging sideways on the rope for what seemed like eternity before smacking into the hard cold wall of ice which brought me to an abrupt and painful halt.
My life was now literally hanging in the balance by this rope I was attached to and the ice screw that secured it tenuously to the mountain side. As I pictured the knot attached to the screw I thought “will it hold or will I fall helplessly into the darkness?”
Then a strange thing happened in that moment... I reached the point where I completely let go... I had no fear and I didn’t care whether it went one way or the other... I distinctly remember that feeling.
Then... “nup, it hasn’t gone... great... I’m still here!”
After feeling the rush of survival I realised now that the rope was anchored at the top and anchored again at the bottom of the ice field. Because I’d swung sideways down the side of this wall of ice, I had fully loaded the rope putting tension on the whole system and I was now jammed on the rope... locked off... hanging over this black abyss.
I’ve been on the go now for about 25 hours and into my second night without sleep with only a litre of water, a handful of nuts, some muesli. Again I just ‘let go’ and relaxed, thinking “Okay, I’ve got to solve this.”
This timeless moment is like the void between the trapeze bars where the outcome is uncertain – faith, hope and trust are all we have to rely on. All we can do is let go and be at peace with it.
Then came an answer from the silence... the only way I could solve this was to turn myself upside down and haul myself diagonally down the rope, feeding it into my abseiling device... like abseiling upside down basically. I did this with painstakingly slow progress until I eventually made it back onto the snowfield and collapsed. After recovering from this exhausting ordeal I got back onto my feet and completed the journey to the safety of Camp 4 where I collapsed into the tent that I’d left 27 hours earlier.
Then I spent this incredible 12 hours waiting for David to turn up... it was the strangest thing... I was now also on my third night either above or just below 8000 metres. Above about 5500 metres your body is gradually just shutting down and the higher you go the more your body just can’t survive as the oxygen level goes lower and lower. No one to my knowledge has survived longer than 4 days at 8000 metres... I was now on the end of my third day and was still thinking foolishly “I’ll go back and find David.” So I spent that whole day and night there before loading David’s sleeping bag into my pack after which I left the tent and started to head back up towards where he was.
I climbed for about an hour and probably only covered a distance of 20 metres. There was just no way that I was going to get back... so again I made a good decision... I had to get off the mountain. So I turned around... went back... dumped David’s gear in the tent and headed back towards Camp 3.
Fortunately it was that big bowl type section and after a bit of steep stuff I was onto some reasonably good snowfields. This was fortunate because I couldn’t walk further than about 20 paces without falling over. To keep myself going I started counting steps... I’d get up to 18..19..20 and fall flat on my face in the snow. Then I’d lie there and think “I’ve got to get more than 20”... so I’d stand up... 18..19..20..21... doof (a face full of snow)... and then get up and do it again. I was in no pain... I felt fine... I was warm... it was bizarre... I just felt great... probably the endorphins charging through my body again.
The Temptation to Sleep
Anyway, I was almost back at Camp 3 when I’ve fallen over again and I’m lying in the snow drifting in and out of delirium, thinking “It would be so nice to stay here... warm... peaceful... blissful sleep...”
And then as my gaze follows the moonlight across the surface of the snow, I find myself looking directly at the frozen Polish guy with the red jacket flapping in the breeze about 200 metres away. So then, still lying there in the snow I remember suddenly thinking “Get up Mark... get up Mark!” It was probably good timing seeing that guy. In a way he just may have saved my life, as I was about to surrender to the snow... but the ‘Icey Pole’ reminded me of what would happen if I stopped for too long. So I got up and kept going, eventually making it to Camp 3.
In the same way as the Polish guy had turned up when I most needed it, another incredible thing happened on my way down to Base Camp. As I recall it, there happened to be some Sherpas who were trekking with some other people up around the Makalu region who had heard about what happened. These three guys who I didn’t know from a bar of soap, didn’t have any gear or anything... they put some food and some gear in a pack and climbed all the way up to Camp 1 to meet me. They made me some soup and then guided me down in the dark that night with a torch... it was just sensational! I got back to Base Camp and these guys disappeared. I never saw them again!
Spiritual helpers are often anonymous
I remember feeling really different now. I was having these incredible swings between this great excitement at having achieved what we’d set out to achieve, and this incredible upset and anger about what had happened to David. I was blaming the Basques... I guess I had attached his death to them and that was the way it was in my head... so I was quite angry and my moods were swinging radically. I had also lost 10kg in bodyweight... mostly muscle digested by my own body to keep me alive. I was by now this skinny, ravenous rake.
Into the Arms of the Bear
I’m almost home now... walking into Base Camp when the Basques leap out of their mess tent... “aahhhh come in!”... I’ve caught them at their summit celebration meal... so they’re all sitting around this table with all this food and grog... and I haven’t eaten a decent meal in a week... I’ve had one night’s sleep... gone for three without... had one ravaged night on the mountain... I’ve turned up in the Basque tent... whisky straight into my hand as I sit down... “Strong Man... Strong Man” the Basques say as they pat me on the back... and this plate of food arrives with a mound of rice, chicken and lentils... so that’s gone... phoom... disappeared down the gullet in about three seconds. I managed to get down another two plates full in succession.
As I scoffed down all the food and drink I was picking up this mood in the tent...so I asked one of the Basques who could speak reasonable English, what the leader of their expedition was saying... “What’s Juanito saying?” He started to shuffle in his seat and was getting quite uncomfortable. I asked again “Tell me what he is saying?” His reply was astonishing...
“He thinks you should’ve shared your sleeping bags with us at Camp 4” he said. In a flash, all the hair on the back of my neck just stood up... and I’m out of the chair screaming at this guy. As I head around the table toward him, he leaps out of his chair and just grabs me...
He gives me this big bear hug and says, “That’s it, we’re not going to mention it again”. He then put me back down in my seat... and he sat down. It didn’t get mentioned again... but boy I was volatile... so I finished my meal... staggered back down to Base Camp... walked in and it was just elation... I said “I’m home... Thank God”
The New Comfort Zone
.... I’ve collapsed in my tent... and lo and behold... at about 3 o’clock in the morning the alarm bells go off in my tummy! So I leap out of bed... bear in mind the toilet tent is about 30 metres across all this rocky terrain... so I’ve put my ugg boots on... thermal underwear... and I’m sprinting!... across these rocks and I just wasn’t going to make it... I’m trying to get my pants off... and it was just too late... all this stuff just poured down into my ugg boots... down my legs and through my pants.
So there I am standing there with all this shit everywhere... full moon in a clear night sky shining down on me like a spot light on a stage... and I remember just thinking... “what have I become?”... “how basic is this?”... so I pulled it all back up and got back into my sleeping bag and went to sleep... that’s how basic things had become... “I’ll fix it in the morning”... my comfort zone was different now!
On May 8th, 1995 David Hume and Mark Auricht became the first Australians to climb to the summit of Mt Makalu. David will be remembered for his happy disposition, strong leadership and sense of humour.
Beyond the triumph and tragedy in the Himalayan mountains, this book is also about the journey that takes place within all of us, when we explore the limits of our self-imposed boundaries. May it serve as an inspiration and a compass for future leaders, adventurous souls and explorers of human potential.
Click below to read the whole book
The Spirit of Adventure Calls: A Compass for Life, Learning & Leadership
In North American Indian culture, the word 'Medicine' is often used to define the unique gifts of each person. It is considered a tragedy when people don't take the time to explore those gifts or don't have the confidence to express them. It is for this reason that I take the risk to express my truth in writing. Some years ago I lost my voice for a time and in the journey back to speaking again, I discovered that 'voicing' one's 'Truth' is a healing and health-enhancing gift that I once took for granted. Writing, art, taking journeys in nature and guiding life-transforming adventures, are my 'medicine'. This blog is an expression of this 'medicine'. I trust that the words I write, might inspire you to think about your 'truth' and your 'gifts' and I hope that you enjoy some of the 'adventures' I share.