The above photo of the Everest Region was taken from the Rodungla Track in the remote east of the Bhutan Himalayas in 2018, while we traversed the country of Bhutan from west to east, then down through India.
This is the closest I've ever allowed myself to get to Everest, as it both beckons me with its awe and sacredness, while also saddening me with the loss it represents for the families and friends of mountaineers such as Mark Auricht, David Hume and countless more. Everest itself is innocent and in someways its landscape and people are the victims of an unhealthy commercialisation of adventure and journeys into nature. I've been taking people on journeys into remote places for 15+years now and have always been mindful of the delicate balance between the benefits of adventurous journeys and the unhealthy impacts on the environment, local communities and, in the case of Everest and other extreme adventures, the toll on individuals and their family and friends when dreams turn to tragedy.
It is now 20years since Mark Auricht's death on Mt Everest on May 24th, 2001.
I was going to continue writing about Mark's journey on Everest after my last post (a year ago now) when I shared Mark's story about Mt Makalu and the death of his climbing partner and friend David Hume. I felt at the time that my posting of this story about how Mark died on Mt Everest might come across as gratuitous or inappropriate on the anniversary of his death, as it could be a painful memory for those who knew him. I still feel uneasy about this but my purpose for sharing an excerpt from the book I published in 2017 as a tribute to Mark, sharing some of the wisdom he imparted to myself and others, is to keep the spirit of his journey alive and to provide more insight into this tragedy and its impact. In the full version of this story, there is some commentary on the differing perspectives about the risks and rewards of mountain climbing and I explore some of the controversy around Everest, sometimes called the 'Dark Summit'.
Aside from the 'dark side' of Everest, she is revered with great respect by the Tibetan's who call her Chomolungma - Mother Goddess of the Universe and by the Nepalese who call her Sagarmatha - Goddess of the Sky. It is the overly commercialised approach to some expeditions that cater for ego-driven 'summit-baggers', that have tarnished this sacred mountain and the people connected to this beautiful landscape and one could say that sometimes even those who have the most pure intentions of climbing respectfully have unfortunately become part of this tragedy which on the other side of the sword, can also be experienced as a triumph of the human spirit for those lucky enough to survive a summit attempt. Mark and I often philosophised about moral dilemmas and the pros and cons of climbing high mountains like Everest. I had the safety of pondering this subject while dabbling in lower risk adventures. He on the other hand tested his philosophy with his life. Whatever your opinions about risk-taking and the virtues or pitfalls of adventure, you might find this story enlightening among the tragic reality of risk taken to its extreme. Sometimes the edge between triumph and tragedy is so sharp and a hint of breeze can push us one way or the other.
Understanding Leads to Healing
Readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, but I hope something will be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath.
John Krakauer―Author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild
In my personal experiences with grief and loss, it eases the heart and mind when we have more understanding about an event that disturbs us. With this in mind, I hope to shed some more light on what happened to Mark and perhaps, in the process, provide some catharsis for myself and others.
I start this story by sharing the last two diary entries from the 2001 South Australian Everest Expedition.
Everest ABC, Tuesday May 15
We returned to a snowy Advance Base Camp last night (14th May) after aborting our first summit push due to heavy snow falls. We reached a high point of 7600m but with high cloud rapidly approaching the decision was made to turn around. With both of us in good health and well acclimatised, it was a difficult but good decision. The ensuing snow fall and cloud has blanketed the mountain for the last 24 hours with no sign of improvement. All other teams have returned to ABC as the forecast predicts a further five days of snow falls and poor visibility.
On the 14th of May a large and very experienced American expedition failed to reach the summit ridge due to deep snow and dangerous avalanche conditions, from their high camp at 8300m. This would have been the first expedition to have reached the summit from Tibet this year.
The route above high camp has not been established yet so a strong large team will be required to force its way through the deep snow and fix the necessary rope. The general consensus in ABC is that if anyone summits this season, it will be late May. A couple of expeditions have self-destructed and have packed up and left already. Most other expeditions plan on waiting out the weather until the end of May and into early June. We hope to mount a second summit bid in a few days time.
Everest ABC, Saturday May 19
Our latest plan is to leave tomorrow morning at 6.00am for our second summit push. The weather forecast has been totally wrong today and instead of 40-50 knot winds with heavy snow falls as we have had for the last week, the day dawned clear and windless. Two American climbers and four climbing Sherpas, the only people on the mountain, were able to make good use of the unexpected clearance and summited at 10.00am today. These fortunate six people are the first to summit Everest from Tibet this year. Well done to the Sherpas and the American climbers. This caught the rest of the expeditions off guard as everyone else was in ABC or BC waiting for the clearance expected in 4 days time.
A full scale exodus from ABC to the Nth Col is now underway in expectation that the good weather will last for a few more days. Another storm is predicted for the 24th of May so everyone is aiming for the 22nd or 23rd. Let's hope the weather holds and the mountain allows us a chance to climb.
This was to be Mark’s final diary entry.
The Final Push
On Sunday May 20th the SA Everest Expedition left their Advanced Base Camp (6400m) for their second summit attempt. This would see them at Camp 1 on the North Col (7100m) that night, then Camp 2 (7900m) on the 21st and at High Camp 3 (8300m) by the 22nd, which would see them ready for their shot at the summit (8848m) on May 23rd, assuming Chomolungma and the weather gods allowed it.
A Prayer to the Moon
Three days later, on the 23rd of May, news came through that Duncan had made it to the summit and that Mark had about 200 metres to go. This was great news for Duncan and there was a sense of optimism mixed with anxiety for Mark.
I remember that night calling Mark’s wife Catherine to see how she was going. She was reluctant to say much and I sensed her anxiety.
I went for a walk in the park after the phone call. The moon was out and as I walked I remembered a conversation I had with Mark about his night alone on Makalu, trying to get back to his high camp after David Hume fell to his death. He spoke of how he used the moon to keep his bearings until it became obscured by the Makalu Ridge. Then he had to focus on the positive voices in his head to guide him home. As I recalled this I looked up at the moon and said a prayer as I wondered whether the moon would be there for Mark this time?
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
Excerpt from the book: The Spirit of Adventure Calls - A Compass for Life, Learning & Leadership
Chapter 4 Triumph and Tragedy on Everest
I imagined that night as I looked up at the moon, that Mark would somehow find the strength to inch his way, breath by breath to the summit. Part of me was excited at the prospect that he was so close to achieving his dream but like many of those close to Mark who knew how quickly triumph can turn to tragedy on high mountains, I did not sleep well that night.
Climber from SA Reaches Pinnacle of His Career
On the morning of May 24th, 2001 the local South Australian newspaper announced that Duncan Chessell had reached the pinnacle of his career by becoming the first South Australian to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain at 9.30am on May 23rd. It was reported that his climbing companion Mark Auricht, was poised to emulate Duncan’s accomplishment. Mark was less than 200 metres from the summit when the Media asked his wife to comment. Catherine said that Duncan had begun his descent and that her last information was that Mark was on his way up. It might be an hour or as we speak she said. We’ll certainly be very relieved to hear when they are down. Dr David Tingay, the expedition doctor was also cautious, warning that Mark would be exhausted and dehydrated as he strove to climb the last few hundred metres to reach the summit.
Two hundred metres doesn’t sound like much, but at the cruising altitude of a jetliner; where the oxygen levels and air pressure are not conducive to survival, let alone climbing through knee deep snow while exhausted, dehydrated and dis-orientated; two hundred metres can take hours... precious hours of life that is draining out of the body as the irrational mind says keep going, I’m almost there. Mark’s success was far from assured when the news broke.
Meanwhile on the Mountain
As most South Australians were reading the news about Duncan reaching the summit and that Mark was soon to do the same, they were unaware that Mark had already passed away that same morning, May 24th between 7.00―7.30am. Most of Mark’s family and friends received the shocking news of his death by phone during that day before it was reported in the news. It’s strange, but I can even remember the tiles on the floor where I was standing as I listened to the words I did not want to hear.
A Difficult Message to Send
The following day (Friday May 25th) a message via the SA Everest Expedition website from Duncan Chessell’s wife, Jo Arnold, confirmed early details.
I am deeply saddened to report the death at breakfast time yesterday, Thursday 24th of May 2001, of our good friend Mark Auricht, at camp two (7900m) on Mount Everest. It seems too early to speak about Mark, as the news is so recent.
Few details are available at this stage but the Australian Army Alpine Association Team was extremely generous in extending all assistance to Mark. We wish them luck with their own summit attempts. Scott Ferris at Advanced Base Camp and expedition doctor, David Tingay have been an invaluable help at this difficult time.
Duncan Chessell reached the top of Mount Everest early on Wednesday, 23rd of May, as did Tshering Sherpa. Duncan, Tshering and Pemba Sherpa, have now returned to Advanced Base Camp and are tired but well.
The last email I received from Mark was sent some weeks before on May 3rd while he rested in Base Camp after climbing to 7900m. As I tried to grapple with my disbelief, I hung onto the last words he shared with me:-
Hi Wayne, hope all is going well in Adelaide for you...
Thanks once again for your support, I think about you, your farewell words and your support often. Say hello to Gab and the kids and I look forward to sharing the stories with you in Adelaide.
Pieces in the Puzzle
Like many of Mark’s family and friends we never got to hear his stories, only snippets from the expedition diaries and what little was reported in the news. In the days following Mark’s death it was unclear what had happened, but as days passed into weeks, the details of what happened that day on the mountain gradually emerged and the pieces of the puzzle for Mark’s family and friends became clearer. The two parties that know most about what happened are the SA Expedition members who were with Mark between the summit and High Camp (8300m) and the Australian Army Expedition members who looked after him during the morning of his death at Camp 2 (7900m). The following interviews bring to light some of these details.
INTERVIEW WITH DUNCAN CHESSELL
By Julian Burton―September 17th, 2004
Everest is so hard to climb because of the lack of oxygen and the cold. You are looking at about 30% of available oxygen compared to that at sea level. The temperature on its own wouldn’t present so much of a problem. It’s about minus 40-45, depending on the day which is not too bad if you have the right gear but if there is a lot of wind that is not good. The wind chill factor can kill you pretty fast. The lack of oxygen is the real problem. It slows everything down, including your thinking. The oxygen level in your blood stream drops considerably. So much so that if you were in a hospital in Australia and they tested your blood they would put you in intensive care.
There is an incredible amount of effort required for each step at high altitude; which is the physical part of climbing, but then there is the mental part as well. Your physical and mental capacities need to match each other. That is the trick with climbing and mountaineering. If you have two columns and one has mental toughness and the other physical toughness; in climbing you want physical toughness to be slightly higher or equal to your mental toughness. If mental toughness is higher you will push yourself and push yourself to the point where you can’t go on and on a mountain you have to go on. You have to not only have enough to get to the summit but also enough in reserve to come back.
On the way up a mountain you break your walking down. You might walk for 50 steps, then stop and breathe, focus again and then breathe as hard as you can for 30 seconds and keep going. Your lungs are just trashed, because you’re respiration rate is so high. By the time you get to the last five minutes from the summit of Everest you are down to focusing on taking 10 steps and then 8 steps. As soon as you start to go more than a very slow pace, you get straight into oxygen debt and you can’t maintain it.
In front of you, you are looking at the snow ridge where the summit is. You keeping looking up at it every 30 seconds or so, take those eight steps, then look again to your goal.
When I finally got to the summit of Everest with my Sherpa -Tshering Pande Bhote, it was pretty weird... I remember going “Oh, I guess this must be it then”. No bells or whistles went off when I arrived. The summit is about 3 metres long and about 1 metre wide with three faces converging at the top; one very steep and the other two moderately steep; with a patch of snow that is fairly flat on top. You end up on this tiny perch at the very top of the world where there are prayer flags, pictures and rocks that have been left by other people. I sat down and looked around for about an hour and twenty minutes. We came from the Tibetan side but now all of a sudden I could see the other half of the mountain and down into Nepal where there were tiny villages that I recognised in the distance below.
At first it wasn’t too emotional... at the time you are focusing on what you have to do. For years you have been imagining it and visualising it and you pre-program what you will do when you get there. ‘If this happens I go to plan B, or this I use plan C’; so you have worked out what you need to do on summit day and are just rolling it out.
It wasn’t until I called Base Camp on the radio that it first started to sink in. I said “Base Camp, this is Duncan calling from the summit; do you copy?” and the response came from Base Camp, “we copy.” I could hear in the background all these chants and cheers. I then thought to myself, “I have climbed it!” It was then that I realised that all the guys that had helped us get to the top were as happy, if not happier, than we were. I was tired and buggered from the climb, so I didn’t fully take it in but I thought “I’m finally here, I have been waiting to do this for 10 years.”
Base Camp called Australia and the rest of our team on the mountain, they were all stoked. Everyone had put in such a big effort. I realised then that now that we’d actually gone through with our dream and I’d become the person standing on the summit, there were all these other people who shared in the dream with us: our fellow climbers and Sherpas; the base camp people; our sponsors and our families who had supported us on our way there. It was a victory for everyone and I assumed that Mark would soon be joining me.
I guess what I had achieved did not really sink in for about a week, partly because Mark and I had planned the whole expedition together and I had visualised a summit photograph with Mark, and our arms around each other’s shoulders, thumbs up, smiling and grinning... ‘Beauty, well done, off we go, let’s walk down now.’ So I had that picture in my mind and I sat there and waited for Mark for one hour and twenty minutes.
I looked at my oxygen bottle and it was going down and down and I knew I could not wait too much longer. I had to go. It wasn’t the completion that I had pictured. I hadn’t visualised it just being me standing up there without Mark, going ‘yahoo!’ I was always anticipating it to be at least the two of us and our Sherpas there together. That is what we had worked on for years before that day.
Picking Mark up on the way down was the greatest feeling of disappointment. He was pretty happy for the two of us who got there but for Mark, this was probably going to be his one and only shot at Everest. It wasn’t an option for him to come back in another year, so he was bitterly disappointed at having to turn around.
I remember on the way down we were talking about how we could set up another summit bid for him to get another shot in a few days time but we kind of all knew deep down that the season was about to close, the bad weather was about to come in and it was going to be pretty unlikely that he would get another shot at it. It would have been our third summit bid on that expedition. On our first try the weather came in half way up and we didn’t get anywhere near it so we came back down and rested for a few days and then the second attempt was when I and my Sherpa friend Tshering Pande Bhote made it to the top. For Mark, it was very improbable now.
Mark’s mental toughness was very strong and his physical ability was usually very strong too but on this day, having had a slight cold which may have reduced his physical capacity to cope with high altitude, his physical strength wasn’t able to match his mental strength and will to get to the top.
When Mark got down to the high camp at 8300m with us he was very tired. We all were, but Tshering and I were in a better state than Mark was. With this in mind we asked Mark if he wanted to go down to the lower camp where the impact of altitude would be significantly lessened. It’s always the best option to get down to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen, especially if you are already experiencing early signs of altitude sickness.
Tshering and I who had been to the summit were low on water and needed to stop at the high camp to melt snow and re-hydrate... and since Mark wasn’t feeling so good we offered him the option to continue down to the lower camp where there was also more tent space, a support Sherpa with another oxygen bottle and a radio. Had we all gone down, there wouldn’t have been much room in the tent at the lower camp at 7900m.
It was about a one hour walk on fixed lines down to the lower camp. The rope actually went passed the door of our tent and we had our support Sherpa in the tent below with a radio so that if Mark needed to call for assistance he could do so on his radio. All of our radios were on standby if he needed a hand. So we thought that everything was covered.
My best guess as to what had happened on the way down, was that Mark’s altitude sickness had started to affect him later in the day as he descended and he was so fatigued and disappointed that he no longer had the energy that had been driving him up. I’m pretty sure this was the case, based on a lot of other expeditions and seeing people in a similar place. I think he probably sat down on a rock just before sunset and just went to sleep. When he woke up he would have been out of oxygen and his altitude sickness would have gotten worse, to the point where his thinking would have been affected. This might explain why he didn’t use the radio and why he missed our camp as he continued down the rope.
He must have walked straight past our tent and kept going before he bumped into the Army expedition’s tent at about 1.00am. It had taken seven hours to walk down something that should have taken an hour. He must have been out for a long time so I knew his oxygen had run out.
It is my understanding that he bunked in with the Australian Army Expedition for the night and they didn’t think too much about it. They thought he was just tired and a bit out of it. The next morning they said “Right mate we’re heading off to go up to the summit.” According to them, Mark was a bit slow and floppy and not too together. He got out of their tent and was sitting against a rock and just put his head down and stopped moving.
Up until the tragedy of Mark’s death, every other aspect of the expedition went pretty well - we nailed all of our small and medium goals for the expedition and everything rolled out pretty well as planned. We’d already had a very fulfilling expedition prior to summit day. The one person who was missing at the top was Mark and he got within 150 metres which is an amazing achievement in itself.
Interview shared with permission from Duncan Chessell
Army Expedition account from lower down the mountain
Unfortunately, Duncan Chessell wasn’t with Mark when he died, so he could only piece together the events after Mark left their High Camp in the late afternoon of May 23rd, from accounts provided to him by the Army expedition members who looked after Mark the next morning. When I first wrote a draft of this manuscript 10 years ago, I felt that it would be helpful to include excerpts from media interviews done with the Army Alpine Association (AAA) team members to fill some gaps in my mind and the minds of others who wanted or needed to know and understand more.
I recently decided however, that it would be more accurate to get first-hand accounts from those who were involved. Even though some of the memories have faded after 15 years, those who were on the spot have some vivid memories etched in their minds. I interviewed Zac Zaharias, Brian (Henri) Laursen and Tim Robathan, who all played a significant role in looking after Mark on the morning of May 24th, 2001. I also had a chat with Bob Killip who helped with the return of a precious item to Mark’s family.
Following is a summary of their recollections, sewn together with details about the events of that day and May 25th, that were published in 2006 by Peter Maiden in his book, Anzac Day on Mt Everest. I have not used military titles with the names of the AAA team members, most of who were serving in either the Australian Army or Air Force, because rank was irrelevant on the mountain where all humans are equalised by the laws of nature. Leadership though, was tested many times in the case of Zac Zaharias, the Leader for the AAA Expedition.
For the full account of the army expedition go to Peter Maiden's book (I include a little more of the army story but Peter's book is an excellent account of what happened to them.)
It was a tough expedition, having to deal with death on numerous occasions.
AUSTRALIAN ARMY ALPINE ASSOCIATION EXPEDITION STORY
The AAA team members had gotten to know Mark and Duncan quite well as they shared space at their base camps. Despite being on different schedules while setting up their higher camps and going for the summit, they spent quite a bit of time together. Brian (Henri) Laursen―pronounced ‘Lawson’ (hence the nickname Henri), told me that the South Australians were welcome and regular visitors to the Army Mess Tent.
Tim Robathan also shared his recollections of meeting Mark and Duncan and becoming friends as they spent time together at BC and ABC.
I met Mark at Everest Base Camp, along with Duncan and the rest of their team, said Tim. We all became instant friends. We were all Aussies about to climb Mt Everest, he said. We spent most days at Base Camp hanging out together and I recall chatting to Mark a lot and really liking him. I was 23 at the time, so I was fascinated by the climbs that Mark had done, particularly Makalu. Some nights I'd be in Mark and Duncan’s tent watching movies on their laptop with them, while other nights they'd be in our mess tent playing cards, chatting, or having a drink. We became good friends.
Prior to his unexpected rendezvous with members of the AAA Expedition down at 7900m (AAA’s Camp 3 / SA’s Camp 2), Mark was descending with Duncan as we know, down the North Ridge which lead from the summit of Everest to their High Camp at 8300m. Along the North Ridge, all climbers have to negotiate three so-called ‘steps’ which are steep and technically difficult rocky sections that must be scaled slowly and carefully, leaving ascending climbers bent over double and breathing like a fish out of water, and descending climbers feeling anxious as they inch their way down to safety.
As if their journey back to the shelter of their High Camp wasn’t long enough, Mark and Duncan had to wait in line behind other climbers for over an hour in two places as they climbed down narrow ledges. When they finally got back to their High Camp, we know that Mark decided to continue down to lower altitude, while Duncan and Sherpa Tshering Pande Bhote stopped to re-hydrate and rest. It was 5.00pm and the walk down to Camp 2 at 7900m should have taken Mark only 60-90 minutes. Eight hours later, at 1.00am, the Army’s Zaharias, heard something outside his tent...
Members of AAA Team One that were camped there that night, were Zac Zaharias and Tim Robathan who shared a tent, and the other pair were Michael Cook (Cookie) together with Brian (Henri) Laursen. These four were to be the first of three AAA Expedition teams to attempt the summit for their expedition and had planned to get as restful a night as possible, in preparation for climbing to their Top Camp the next day.
At 1.ooam Zac Zaharias remembers hearing someone outside the tents. The night was pitch black and super windy as Zac stuck his head out of the tent into the chill. Spindrift threatened to fill their tent with snow. Zac was concerned enough to get his boots on and went out into the freezing conditions to discover that it was Mark Auricht stumbling around, trying to find his tent. Fortunately the wind had blown the fixed rope over the top of Zac and Tim’s tent, so he bumped into it as he followed the life line.
Mark looked knackered and confused, Zac recalls. He wasn’t sure whether his tent was above or below ours and I didn’t have a clue, so we thought it best to take him into our tent and help him warm up and re-hydrate with a cuppa. Perhaps then we could help him back to his tent.
A certain Samaritan came upon him.
He felt compassion... brought him in... and took care of him.
Mark was completely exhausted, said Tim. We were trying to understand what he was doing. It was really crowded in the two-man tent with the three of us on a not-so-level snow slope. I crouched at one end, while we got Mark into a sleeping bag for warmth, Tim said... I started the stove up to begin melting snow to get water for Mark. At sea level this is an easy process, but at our altitude and in the temperatures we were in it was hard work. It took about an hour to get 1 litre of water. As I was getting water heated we'd sit Mark up and get him to drink. Zac gave him his water as well. We were all suffering from altitude, and at the time Mark appeared to be more exhausted than anything else. He managed to explain to us that Duncan had made it to the summit but that he had to turn around and he left Duncan and the Sherpa at their High Camp at dusk I think. It should have been maybe a two hour descent at the most, but he’d been going for maybe 7-8 hours and had run out of oxygen.
No Silent Night
Zac reports that while they were giving Mark a cuppa and he was relaying his story, he seemed lucid and there were no obvious signs that he was critically ill.
He was exhausted, dehydrated and talking slowly but that was to be expected at that altitude, especially after what he’d been through. At the time we thought he’d be okay after warming up, re-hydrating and having a good rest, said Zac. I remember him going back outside again to have another go at finding his tent. He staggered and fell over, so I suggested he spend the night with us in our tent, even though there was little room. He had a better chance of finding his tent safely in the morning, said Zac.
So they rode out the rough night in the cramped tent together, with Mark wedged between Zac and Tim. There was no ‘heavenly peace’ that night!
The Dawn of Silence
When sunrise came, Zac and Tim began the slow process of getting their boots and other gear on, so they could let Henri and Cookie know what was going on. Hopefully Mark was feeling better and they’d be able to start the climb to their Top Camp.
Zac got out of the tent first, said Tim. Then we moved Mark to the entrance of the tent and stuck his legs out so we could get his boots and crampons on. He was a bit incoherent and just wanted to lie down.
Mark was leaning on his elbow, talking slowly and drifting in and out a bit as he was trying to get dressed, Zac said. I was saying to him, ‘Here’s your glove, make sure you put it on’... He was responding and doing things under his own steam, but kept drifting off to sleep. While I was glancing down, putting on my boots, I talked to him but got no response. I looked up to see that he was lying down with the top half of his torso inside the tent and his legs outside, Zac said. I checked him for a response but there was none.
Tim recalls getting a bottle of oxygen set up and putting the mask on Mark to see if it would help him but he was lifeless. At the same time we yelled out to Henri and Cookie for assistance, said Tim.
Henri remembers having no time to cover his own hands, so he had difficulty detecting a pulse, whether Mark had one or not. My hands were like cold hard plastic, he said. I checked Mark’s pupils too but they were not responsive. It was difficult to determine whether he was still alive, so I started compressions, while Zac took care of Mark’s airway, said Henri.
After some time trying to revive him it was obvious that Mark wasn’t coming back and so I had to ‘call it.’ I think it was about 0700 or so.
Tim Robathan distinctly remembers the moment:
We were holding Mark when he passed.
It was pretty devastating as we sat there with him in silence.
Despite other tragedies that Zac Zaharias had experienced previously, he said he was taken aback by Mark’s death. I was shocked because I’d never seen this happen. I’ve seen all sorts of accidents in the Himalayas but I’ve never seen someone die in front of me before, he said.
Tim and Zac then commenced communications with the other team members further down the mountain. Tim asked his Base Camp to see if they could communicate via the SA Base Camp to get a message to Duncan on the radio but wasn’t sure if they were able to reach him.
The first that the rest of the expedition heard about the drama unfolding 1000 metres above them, was when Tim Robathan rang down to Bob Killip at Camp 1. It was just after 7.30am when Bob took the call. He shook his head with sorrow as he relayed the message to the others - Mark from the South Australian Expedition just died at Camp 3 in the arms of our boys... He slipped into unconsciousness fifteen minutes ago.
As a flurry of questions went back and forth between team members around him, Bob was kneeling like a silent statue inside his tent, staring into space in disbelief. Bob was clearly moved by Mark’s death, as were most of them who had gotten to know Mark. Tim said that when he made the call to ABC he was deeply upset but tried not to show it. I got to know Mark pretty well during the trip and I really liked him, so it was a difficult moment, he said.
The issue now was whether to try and bring Mark’s body down or leave him on the mountain as was the usual practice at that altitude where it is very difficult to bring someone down without risking the lives of those who attempt the task. We really couldn’t take any decisive action until we heard from Mark’s family, so we wrapped Mark in a tent-fly and waited for Duncan to arrive or to hear from the family, said Zac. There wasn’t much more we could do.
Henri Laursen and Michael Cook were ascending above the tents where Zac and Tim were with Mark, when Duncan Chessell came down with his Sherpa looking for Mark. Henri gave Duncan the distressing news of Mark’s death. According to Henri, Duncan was having a hard time processing it at first. He’d heard some of the radio chatter but didn’t seem to be fully aware of the gravity of the situation until I told him, said Henri.
Duncan was in shock and disbelief as he continued down to find Mark. When Duncan arrived at about 0800, he was just stone-faced. I guess he had the shutters up, said Zac. He sat down next to Mark and spent quite some time grieving. Duncan had now seen for himself that Mark was gone. We just sat there in silence and cried.
Eventually contact was made with Mark’s family and the decision was made to lay him to rest among the mountains he so loved. Both Zac and Henri told me that there really wasn’t anywhere to bury Mark at that location, so the best they could do was move him off the main ridge onto the western face of the mountain, where he could be placed in a rock fissure not to be disturbed by passing traffic.
Becoming One with Chomolunga
I recently spoke to Bob Killip who had taken the radio call at the lower camp that morning and was on his way up the next day. Bob said that he didn’t remember much about those few days, except for the sad task of having to remove Mark’s wedding ring from a necklace he was wearing, so that it could be returned with other personal effects to his family. Bob said that he found this difficult. He also remembers being there when a group of Sherpas from Russel Brice’s team helped to move Mark to his final resting place.
Mark was laid to rest on the western face, in the direction of the setting sun. He would over time, become at one with the mountain, covered in snow or taken by an avalanche back into the arms of Mother Nature. Like a burial in the ocean or ashes taken by the wind, his spirit would become one with Mother Goddess of the Universe.
I took to the mountains to find myself.
In fear of death I did my best. Now all fear is laid to rest.
The Ascent of Angels
Those who attended to Mark at 7900 metres on Everest would probably squirm with embarrassment at being referred to as angels but I think it is an apt description for those who put their own needs aside to help others, especially in extreme circumstances.
According to those who know him, it seems that Zac Zaharias rarely participates in an expedition where he does not help somebody in distress. He left himself seriously dehydrated after giving his drinking water to Mark, and as the rest of the team continued up the mountain after doing what they could, Zac remained with Mark to keep vigil over him until Duncan arrived. He arrived quite late at his Top Camp where for the second night he had almost no sleep. The AAA Team’s readiness for the summit was less than ideal.
Later that night they prepared to leave for the summit but delayed their departure due to misgivings about the weather. Henri Laursen and his two Sherpas (Chhewang Nima and Ngima Nuru) eventually led the group into the night, after initially climbing with Michael Cook until Cookie was set back by a problem with his head torch. Cookie and Zac ended up behind Henri, with Tim Robathan following a short distance behind them.
It is not uncommon for high altitude climbers to end up being spread apart due to differences in how they feel on the day, variation in pace, frequency and duration of rest stops, issues with gear, and having a staggered departure due to the fact that just suiting up and getting out of the tent takes time. At that altitude you can’t stand around waiting for too long, you need to get moving, saving oxygen and time for stops later.
Tim wasn’t happy with his rate of ascent and didn’t like the look of the weather when he got to the first step and saw that Zac and Cookie had already climbed it. His intuition told him that he needed to turn around. He had set a turnaround time for himself and knew that he wasn’t going to make it... I really wanted to reach the top but wasn’t prepared to risk my life, he said. As Tim took his decision to turn around, the other three continued up over the second and third step. It is very technical climbing at that altitude when the mind is not sharp and fatigue is setting in, not to mention the weather. Cookie said the second step is possibly the most daunting obstacle on the north side of Everest, at the top of which is a vertical face.
As Cookie continued winding up through the rocks and snow on the ridge, he stopped to wait for Zac to catch up. Time was ticking away as they were about to start climbing the final snow slope to the summit. They had slowed down now, the weather was deteriorating and it was getting close to their time limit. There was still a long way to go as they wondered whether they should continue. A night on Everest near the summit without a tent and sleeping bag or negotiating the rock steps in the dark where they might get caught on the ridge in a storm, were not probabilities they were prepared to dismiss lightly.
By now they were the last climbers on the higher stretch of the North Ridge after Henri Laursen had passed them on his way down from the summit, and they felt very isolated. Cookie was sitting there at over 8,700m, the highest man on earth at that time, and Zac was climbing up to him. They were no more than 150m from their goal, which was about where Mark was when he turned around after Duncan came down from the summit.
As Cookie sat in this spot, so tantalisingly close to the summit, he had already realised a dream (what was another 150m in the scheme of things!). He may not appear in the historical records as an ‘Everest Summiter,’ but he had overcome the three most technically difficult sections that confront climbers on the North Ridge and he was still alive. To continue might put him in the history books but would probably kill him. He had made up his mind that this would be his summit today.
Zac hadn’t quite got to the same pivot point yet and wanted to push on. Let’s just go on for one more hour, we’re so close, he said. By then it would be 3.00pm and even if they did reach the summit, they would face hours of difficult descent. Cookie agreed for the moment, but remained where he was at the edge of the snow slope, as if it were a shoreline to deeper waters. He watched as Zac waded into the waist deep snow.
After 20 minutes Zac had only managed to make about 5 metres of progress. Cookie pulled his oxygen mask off and yelled out to Zac to come back. They both kept looking up at the summit... it was so close. Come back to the rock, please Zac, and let’s talk. It’s not for us today mate. After assessing their situation as rationally as you can with impaired thinking and summit fever, they reluctantly turned around and headed back to safety.
The Challenge of Morality
There is more of this tale to tell but you’ll have to read Peter Maiden’s book Anzac Day on Mt Everest,to get the whole story. The point of sharing this much of AAA Team’s push for the summit after helping Mark, is to illustrate the challenges of decision making, teamwork and leadership in extreme environments, and also to acknowledge that these four men somewhat sacrificed their own chances of reaching the summit to look after Mark as best they could. Unfortunately they couldn’t save his life but at least they did what they could and delayed their departure long enough to ensure that he was laid to rest with some semblance of dignity. There are other bodies on Everest that have not been offered such respect.
We climb by ourselves, by our own efforts, on the big mountains...
Above 8,000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality
Japanese climber Eisuke Shigekawa
There is probably some truth to the above statement, in circumstances where trying to help someone else in such a challenging environment would threaten one’s own survival, but for me, Zac Zaharias, Brian Laursen, Michael Cook, Tim Robathan and other members of the AAA Team, together with Sherpas from Russell Brice’s American Himex Expedition who helped to lay Mark to rest, demonstrated that there are moments when morality can indeed survive on high mountains.
In Part IV of my book, I tackle this question of morality and values in more depth, with regard to leadership. It seems that it is not as straight forward as we’d like to think, especially when competing priorities prevail.
One and All
Brian (Henri) Laursen was the only one from the AAA Team to physically reach the summit with his climbing Sherpas Chhewang Nima and Ngima Nuru. When Henri arrived at the top at 11.30am on May 25th, there were eight other climbers there who had summited from the south side. Henri had 35 minutes on the summit so after the others left, he did get some time alone on the patch of snow at the highest place on earth.
While his two Sherpa friends watched silently, he knelt down and gently placed a sprig of wattle on the snow. After the Annapurna tragedy, the AAA Team had been given this wattle from Governor-General William Deane’s garden in Canberra. A small white card with the names of the three who were killed in the avalanche, signed by Sir William Deane with his condolences, was attached to the wattle sprig by a green ribbon. The Governor-General suggested that the expedition could take it with them up the mountain and place it at the highest point that they were able to reach.
It was decided the night before the group of four departed from their Top Camp that Henri would be the one entrusted to carry it because he had been moving well up the mountain. Back at Base Camp the whole expedition team had previously had a discussion about the composition of their teams, during which Henri essentially said: If some of us get to the top, we all get there. We’re all part of the summit team.
When one man climbs, the rest are lifted up.
When We Were Kings―Brian McKnight.
As it happened Henri was the ‘one man’ to get there in the end and managed to take Peter, Michelle and KC with him all the way to the top. He fulfilled his commitment to them and the rest of the team when he placed the small but significant memento on the summit of the world.
To have reached the top was a very emotional experience. It was a huge relief, he recalls. Physically and emotionally, I was drained. The emotion that he felt on the summit was a mix of relief and elation for having finally arrived there after a 9 year journey, and grief for the lives lost.
Henri sent a heartfelt message of thanks to the support teams below him, before sticking his axe in the snow, then hanging his backpack, water bottle and camera over it. He could then finally take in the moment he had been dreaming of for almost a decade. The depth of emotional intensity that Henri experienced during those few minutes of solitude at 8,850m must have been palpable by his two Sherpa friends, as they too had experienced the journey of tragedy and triumph.
When Henri returned from the summit, weary and euphoric, his emotions were up and down as he recounted his experience. He was asked if he would come back. I would think hard before coming back, Henri said, as he visibly choked back his emotion. This mountain throws everything at you; horrendous weather, deep snow, and rock climbing all the way to the summit. You’ve gotta have your wits about you to make sure you get back to your tent, he said. At 8000m it is a different game. To have finally overcome all of that is a pretty good feeling... climbing mountains is an emotional thing, he said as his voice broke.
When I finished interviewing Henri on the phone, he said he had two young boys now and he had given up climbing big mountains. I couldn’t put them through that, he said. Tim also said that the 2001 Everest expedition had a huge effect on him. It totally changed my life, he said. It took me two years before I went back into the mountains. The psychological scars have an impact. The hardest thing was coming home. No one can really understand what you’ve been through. One minute you’re below the summit of Everest struggling for life and 2 weeks later you are in suburbia. You think you’re okay but small things can bring it all back, Tim Said. I still think about Mark now and again, usually May 24 each year. Mark's passing had a pretty big impact on me.
Sacred Mother Mountain of old
Keep loving care of our brother’s soul.
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.