After walking and climbing for weeks under treacherous conditions, Nadav
Ben-Yehuda was just a few hundred meters away from reaching the summit
of Mount Everest when he saw his Turkish friend, Aydin Irmak, lying
unconscious on the slope.
At 24, Ben-Yehuda hoped to become the
fifth – and youngest – Israeli to reach the summit. A professional
mountaineer, Ben-Yehuda takes his challenges seriously and he spent
months in intense training, preparing for the attempt.
climbers on Everest today are simply wealthy adventure enthusiasts eager
to “conquer” the summit. Their presence on the mountain poses a great
danger to serious mountaineers whose pace is slowed by the inexperienced
climbers. Having served in the Sayeret Golani elite reconnaissance
unit, Ben-Yehuda was physically and mentally prepared for the challenge
in a way that many other climbers are not.
In March, before
leaving for Nepal, Ben-Yehuda broke a record in stair climbing when he
ascended 76 floors in a tower in Ramat Gan – 13 times consecutively.
he passes his time in the hospital waiting for doctors to determine
whether his frostbitten fingers can be salvaged, Ben-Yehuda is kind
enough to devote some of his time to speak with me about his arduous
As he stood on the face of Everest, so close to his goal,
he had to choose between going for the summit and saving a life. Few
truly understand the immensity of his decision and the awesome mental
strength it takes to carry a heavy body down Everest. Few understand the
type of physical and mental duress he must have been under and how
incredible this story is. All climbers know that helping anyone down
Everest could be the last nice thing they do, and few attempt it. Taking
this into consideration, his life-saving decision becomes nothing short
MOUNT EVEREST (long known
to Tibetans as Chomolungma), situated in part of the Himalaya mountain
range along the border of Nepal and Tibet, is the highest mountain on
Earth, standing at 8,848 meters (29,035 feet). It is one of 14
“eight-thousander” mountains in the world that reach and exceed 8,000
meters. Its summit reaches a height at which commercial aircraft
For many, it poses a challenge to be conquered. For many, it has meant death.
since Sir Edmund Hillary became the first climber confirmed as having
reached the summit in 1953, at least 236 people have died while
attempting to scale the mountain.
No one really has a good
explanation of why a person would want to risk his life just to climb a
mountain, but it was probably put best by English mountaineer George
Mallory who, when asked by a reporter in 1923 why he wanted to climb
Everest, immortally replied “Because it’s there.” (His body was
discovered on the mountain 75 years later.) Everest has two main
climbing routes: the southeast ridge from Nepal and the north ridge from
Merely getting to the base camp on the southeast ridge
requires seven stops – each with an overnight stay to allow the body to
acclimate itself to the high altitude and prevent altitude sickness.
Climbers often experience exhaustion, sleeplessness, vomiting, diarrhea
The harsh weather conditions dissipate for just
four weeks a year, two in the fall and two in May, and it is then that
people congregate before there is a mad rush for the summit.
leaving base camp (5,400 meters), the first major obstacle is what is
known as “the Icefall.” Literally a moving glacier of ice, the Icefall
has deep crevasses and shifting blocks of ice that make it one of the
most dangerous sections of the route. Many climbers and Sherpas (members
of an ethnic group in Nepal) have died while trying to traverse this
To reduce the hazard of falling into a deep crevasse or
being hit from above by falling ice, climbers usually begin their ascent
well before dawn, when the freezing temperatures glue the ice in place.
the Icefall, the climbers arrive at Camp I (6,100 meters), also
referred to as the Valley of Silence. Depending on the type of
expedition, Camp I will be stocked either by the climbers as they ascend
and descend the Icefall, or by Sherpas in advance.
The area between Camp I and Camp II is known as the Western Cwm.
the climbers leave Camp II (6,400 meters), they travel toward Lhotse
peak. It is 8,516 meters high and the fourth-highest mountain on Earth –
after Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga – and is connected to Everest
via the South Col (Col means “pass” in Welsh). Climbers ascending the
standard route on that peak spend some time on its northwest face, which
is a steep, shiny, icy wall. Though not technically difficult to climb,
one misstep or slip could mean a climber’s life. Indeed, many climbers
have lost their lives through such mishaps.
THE UPPERMOST 848
meters of Everest is known as the “Death Zone.” Camp IV, which is at
8,000 meters, is typically the climbers’ first overnight stay in the
Death Zone. It is at this altitude that most human bodies lose all
ability to acclimate. The air contains only 30 percent of the oxygen
that exists at sea level, which necessitates using bottled oxygen.
minimal level of oxygen leaves climbers confused and eventually causes
bodily functions to shut down. Sleeping becomes very difficult,
digesting food is near impossible and the risk of high-altitude
pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema increases greatly.
Wounds cannot heal at this altitude, as the oxygen level is too low.
extended stay in this zone - even with supplementary oxygen - will
result in deterioration of bodily functions, loss of consciousness and,
This area is extremely dangerous to climbers,
as exposure to the freezing temperatures can cause severe frostbite and
one slip on the ice can prove fatal. Everything is exceedingly difficult
in the Death Zone and the margin of error is minimal.
climbers approach the summit, they are blasted by strong winds, known as
jet stream – a constant wind force at seven to 10 kilometers above the
Often blowing with the strength of a hurricane at over 160
kilometers an hour, winds blast the rocky, icy summit of Everest nearly
all year long. Observers can tell when the jet stream is blowing on the
summit from the long white stream of ice crystals extending out from
the tip of the mountain. Those wishing to actually stand on the summit
have to choose their moment carefully, as windows of opportunity to make
the final ascent and reach the summit are rare.
Snow drifts often bury the ropes needed to assist in ascending or descending the mountain.
death zone is literally littered with the dead bodies of climbers who
did not make it to the top or who did not manage to descend in time.
deaths on Everest occur on the descent – not on the ascent. The return
trip is often more dangerous than the climb to the summit because
climbers exert so much energy climbing up that they have little left for
the way down.
Climbers are advised not to try for the summit
after 11 a.m. and cannot stay for more than 30 minutes since the weather
can quickly deteriorate, oxygen is limited and it is important to get
back to camp before nightfall.
On May 18, having reached the
South Col, an important way station, from Camp IV, Ben-Yehuda was
delayed 24 hours as he waited to avoid the human traffic jams farther up
the mountain, causing significant loss in energy. As far as he knew,
Irmak, who had started for the summit 24 hours earlier, was already on
his way back to camp.
At 9 p.m. on May 19, Ben-Yehuda started out on his
attempt to reach the summit the next day (It typically takes
approximately 10-12 hours).
On his way up the steep slope toward
the South Summit, he passed two dead bodies on the rope, one of which
was probably Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a 33- year-old Canadian who was one
of the three climbers to die that day (two more died the next day).
don’t think about what you do. You are far from civilization and the
oxygen level is so low that it muddles your thinking,” says Ben-Yehuda.
head lamp is on and you are moving forward one step at a time, looking
straight ahead. If you turn your head, the headlamp would occasionally
illuminate a dead body on the side of the trail. Some frozen bodies were
still attached to the rope.”
Up ahead, he noticed another body,
but this one was alive. It took him a few minutes to realize it was his
friend Irmak, who should have been much farther down the mountain at
Irmak had only one crampon, no gloves, no oxygen mask
and no supply bag. It was a miracle that he had managed to survive so
long without supplemental oxygen.
Forsaking his summit attempt,
Ben-Yehuda made the momentous decision to stop and help his friend, and
immediately got to work. He removed his own gloves to assist Irmak and
just 30 minutes into the rescue his oxygen valve froze. In trying to fix
it, Ben- Yehuda ripped the rubber. He nearly panicked at the
realization that he was in the Death Zone without oxygen and with
another person to help down the mountain.
“It was shocking, but you cannot quit,” he says. “I knew I could not rest.”
Ben-Yehuda knew it was a race against time.
lifted Irmak and began to descend the mountain. He had to furiously
fight past climbers making their ascent and he yelled at climbers often
as a way to get them to temporarily unhook themselves from the rope so
that he could get by.
Many climbers have a
get-to-the-top-nothing-else-matters mind-set called “summit fever” and
often ignore others who are in need of assistance.
Ben-Yehuda, some climbers even view the number of dead bodies on the
trail as proof of the challenge, so that the greater the number of
bodies one needs to traverse, the greater the achievement.
descended, Ben-Yehuda noticed a Malaysian climber suffering from
pulmonary edema. He yelled over to four British climbers nearby to see
if they could supply the suffering climber with extra oxygen. They
hesitated at first, but they eventually appeared to come to their senses
and gave him oxygen.
While he humbly denies doing so, Ben- Yehuda saved two men on the mountain that day.
managed to carry Irmak down to Camp IV where other climbers assisted in
the rescue. After making his own way down to Camp II, Ben-Yehuda and
Irmak were flown by helicopter to Kathmandu, where they received
immediate treatment for severe frostbite.
Five people died on
Everest last week – not seven – because of Ben-Yehuda’s extraordinary
ability to rise above selfinterest and the numerous physical and mental
challenges that confronted him.
THE IMMENSITY of Ben-Yehuda’s
decision to save Irmak’s life in the conditions just described is
crystal clear, but there is so much more to his remarkable feat.
May 1996, in what became known as the “1996 Mount Everest disaster,”
eight people died in the Death Zone when the weather turned bad.
disaster was partially caused by the sheer number of climbers (34 on
that day) attempting to ascend, causing bottlenecks at the Hillary Step
(one of the last points before the summit and where only one person can
climb at a time) and delaying many climbers, most of whom reached the
summit after the usual 2 p.m. turnaround time.
Rob Hall, an
experienced guide for one of the expeditions that season, did not manage
to save a fellow climber and died himself when a blizzard struck.
2006, serious controversy arose when double-amputee climber Mark Inglis
revealed in an interview that his climbing party, and at least 40
others, had passed a distressed climber, David Sharp, sheltering under a
rock overhang 450 meters below the summit without attempting a rescue.
Sharp subsequently died.
The revelation sparked wide debate on climbing ethics, especially as applied to the harsh conditions in the Death Zone.
The climbers who left him said that rescue efforts would have been useless and would only have caused more deaths.
of this controversy was captured by the Discovery Channel while filming
the television program Everest: Beyond the Limit. A crucial decision
affecting the fate of Sharp is shown in the program, where an early
returning climber (Max Chaya) is descending and radios to his base camp
manager (Russell Brice) that he has found a climber in distress. Brice
assumes that Sharp is part of a group that has already calculated that
they must abandon him, and informs his lone climber that there is no
chance of him being able to help Sharp by himself.
interview, Inglis said, “Trouble is, at 8,500 meters it’s extremely
difficult to keep yourself alive, let alone keep anyone else alive.”
In the video, Russell explains that it would have taken 20 Sherpa to carry Sharp down to safety.
Graham Dingle is quoted in The New Zealand Herald as saying that people
should be helped but that the circumstances of a climber in trouble
have to be considered. If he is close to death and close to the summit,
there is probably very little that can be done.
Two years ago,
Peter Kinloch, 28, from Scotland went completely blind during his
descent in the Death Zone and fellow climbers made the decision to leave
him to die to save their own lives.
And just two weeks ago,
while Ben- Yehuda was on the mountain, five mountaineers died, likely
due in part to the high volume of climbers on the mountain attempting to
reach the summit while the good weather lasted.
Shah-Klorfine likely died of exhaustion as she descended from the
summit. As many as six Sherpa were involved in efforts to bring the
Canadian woman’s body down the mountain, according to reports.
German doctor Eberhard Schaaf, 61, who was part of an ecological team
clearing 30 years of trash and debris from the mountain, died at the
south summit due to altitude sickness, Sherpa Ang Tshering, chief of the
Asian Trekking company that had organized the adventure, said his
company was exploring ways of recovering the body “but it is very
difficult to do so from that altitude... Climbers spend their energy on
the ascent and they are exhausted and fatigued on the descent.”
did not succumb to this way of thinking. He triumphed over the mental
and physical challenges these other professional mountaineers could not
and carried Irmak 500 meters and eight hours down the mountain to
Instead of going down in history as one of the many who
conquered Everest, Ben- Yehuda will be known as one of the few who were
not conquered by
Everest. The odd selfishness often displayed by climbers has now been countered by an extraordinary act of selflessness.
He may not have summited Mount Everest, but Ben-Yehuda conquered his own personal Everest.