Carrying his dream and 50 pounds of equipment, the temperature in late May an
unbreathable minus 58 degrees Celsius, 24-year-old Jerusalem-born Nadav Ben
Yehuda was within a few hours of reaching the 29,028-foot summit of
Ben Yehuda wanted to become the youngest Israeli ever
to conquer Everest – and only the fifth of his country’s climbers to scale the
world’s highest mountain. Suddenly, a few feet away, he noticed a Turkish
climber, Aydin Irmak, 46, who lay dying. They had met and become friends two
months earlier in Kathmandu. Ben Yehuda’s quandary was all too obvious. He had
just passed the dead bodies of two other climbers discarded frozen on the
windswept slope in the brutal Everest tradition.
routinely avoid trying to save those dying on the mountain: To do so would
likely kill both them and their comrades in need of rescue and it would keep
them from achieving their dreams. The moral dilemma for Ben Yehuda, a mountain
climber since age 20, was anguishing but, as he tells The Jerusalem Report, the
answer was simple. “Aydin Irmak was my friend,” he says.
Sitting on a
couch in his home in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv, a month after his remarkable
rescue of Irmak, Ben Yehuda says he is resisting the doctors who want to
amputate the tips of two of his frostbitten fingers. He has also refused to
remain in the hospital, despite the insistence of his doctors.
in a tent for two months in minus 50 degree weather,” he recalls defiantly. “I
don’t want to be cooped up in a hospital.”
Ben Yehuda does not look
rugged or muscular muscular enough to be a world-class mountain climber. But
looks are deceptive. After climbing Everest, his weight dropped from 202 to 153
pounds. Since his return home, he has regained 19 pounds on his wiry
Slim but not gaunt, he utters sentences that
suggest his brain has not suffered from oxygen deprivation. He seems in no
visible pain, though he wears a glove on his still frostbitten right hand. His
non-climbing attire is casual: a black T-shirt, jeans, and orange
After deciding to rescue the 190-pound Irmak, Ben Yehuda tied
the Turk’s nearly lifeless body to his harness and dragged him down the mountain
to base camp eight hours away. Inside Irmak’s backpack was a Turkish flag that
he had intended to hold while being photographed upon reaching the top of the
world. Ben Yehuda carried Irmak on his shoulders part of the way, and sometimes,
while harnessed to Irmak, gripped the stricken climber between his legs as they
descended. At times they tripped over one another and fell 50 yards at a
When word trickled out among other Everest climbers that a
young Israeli had saved someone’s life rather than complete his dream of
reaching the summit, Ben Yehuda became an instant hero, a title he steadfastly
“My goal was not to become a hero, but to bring Israel back to
the mountains,” he says.
“I am not a hero but I am completely
Still, Ben Yehuda bristled when a British newspaper described
his Everest trek as a failure since he had not reached the summit.
Yehuda hopes that people will understand that for him the saving of a life was
more important than reaching the top of the world. “We Israelis are always on
the good side. This time we were on the side that we mean to be on every time. I
didn’t get to the summit, but I saved someone’s life.”
The young man who
saved that life began his own in Jerusalem. At the age of two, Ben Yehuda moved
with his parents to Rehovot.
His father became the chief psychologist of
the ID F, his mother, deputy mayor of the nearby town of Holon. Nadav loved
exploring, seeking out the country’s caves and its sweet water spots.
oldest of five children, he has two brothers and two sisters. Acquiring outdoor
skills as a teenager, he began training other young countrymen to become, in his
phrase, “super-Israelis.” He gained more outdoor skills during military service
in the IDF as a member of the Sayeret Golani commando unit.
His dream of
conquering Mt. Everest came relatively late. Near the end of his three-year IDF
stint, he read the 1997 best-selling account of Jon Krakauer’s Everest climb,
Into Thin Air. After reading Krakauer’s comment that “attempting to climb
Everest is an intrinsically irrational act,” Ben Yehuda told himself that he
would never go to such places. “It was so remote to me, it seemed like flying to
the moon. It was like a nice fairy tale of people dying on the mountains,” he
As he began to enjoy outdoor activities, he found he had a skill
for climbing and the fairy tale edged closer to reality, especially during a
mountain-climbing course in the Alps, when he grew disenchanted with his
instructors who had lost their passion for scaling giant peaks. If the risks and
costs of such adventures seemed too daunting for the instructors, Ben Yehuda
viewed those obstacles as challenges that could be overcome: “I was angry with
them for losing their passion. It was then I realized you cannot live
your life without dreams.”
Assessing the human toll that Everest had
already exacted on climbers – 200 among the 4,000 who had climbed Mt. Everest
died trying to reach the summit – Ben Yehuda vowed that he would overcome any
“Mountain climbers do not have a death wish. We don’t come to the
mountains to die. I go to enrich my life, not to die. If you think about dying
all the time, you won’t be able to move one step further from base camp. But I
don’t say ignore it.”
The training for mountain climbing, says Ben
Yehuda, is straightforward. “The only way to train to climb a mountain is to
climb a mountain,” he says. But mountain climbing is not for the faint of
spirit. In the army and later, while training for the big climbs, Ben Yehuda
suffered one injury after another.
Rock climbing in Italy in 2010, he
fell and dislocated his shoulder. He thought his mountain climbing days were
Because Israel has no tall mountains to scale, Ben
Yehuda got into shape by climbing the stairs of the country’s tallest
skyscraper, the 76-floor Moshe Aviv Tower in Ramat Gan.
Twice a week he
ran 20 miles, once a week 30 miles, in the fields near his home. He ate far more
than usual and made sure that he had eight hours of sleep each night.
November 2010, Ben Yehuda felt it was time to test his skills by trying to
conquer the less challenging but still forbidding Ama Dablam, the 22,294-foot
peak 15 miles south of Everest. Though Edmond Hilary, the first man to reach the
summit on Mt. Everest in 1953, had called Ama Dablam “unclimbable,” Ben Yehuda
reached its summit, one of only nine people to scale the peak that
Buoyed by that conquest, Ben Yehuda began to focus on how he
might raise funds to conquer other heights. Scaling the redoubtable Mt. Everest
still seemed to him, if not elusive, then at least a good way off in the
Returning to Israel in January 2011, he searched for corporate
sponsors for the $50,000 he required. He had secured another $15,000 from his
family. His goal was to scale one of the world’s 40 highest peaks.
to his chagrin, potential sponsors were only interested if he tried to scale
Finally, committing to take on Everest, he secured funds from an
anonymous patron in the fall of 2011.
Around that time he enrolled in a
four and-a-half year undergraduate program in government and law at the
Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya. Poring over books and
papers, he still let his mind wander to Everest’s snowy peaks. Needing to train
more, he could not afford to get injured, so while ice climbing in Scotland in
January 2012, he avoided anything too dodgy.
Why climb Mt. Everest? For
Ben Yehuda, it was not simply, as British mountain climber George Mallory had
famously said in 1924, “Because it is there.” Doron Erel was the first Israeli
to scale Everest in 1992, followed by just three of his countrymen.
Yehuda says his decision had more to do with returning Israel to the
mountain-climbing game than with achieving a mind-boggling goal at such a young
Ben Yehuda’s Everest climb was to last three months – from March to
At the base camp he became friendly with Irmak, a 46-year-old
Turkish-born, childless divorcé. Irmak had lived in the United States for two
decades before bicycling around the world for three years. Speaking English to
one another, Irmak called Ben Yehuda “my brother.” Climbing his first mountain,
Irmak hoped to become the 15th Turkish person to scale Everest.
For the final ascent, Ben Yehuda was pretty much on his own. He was due to
make the final push for the top from Camp Four, the highest way station on the
South Col of Everest, about 3,000 feet from the summit, at 10 p.m. on May 18. At
the last minute, he postponed his departure for 24 hours to allow a nearby
bottleneck of 100 or so other Everest climbers – hard-core and novices – to
dissipate. He knew that the weather would worsen but he would be able to travel
faster. Choosing not to use his summit oxygen, he “sipped” oxygen from fellow
He took no food and no sleeping bag for the last two-hour push
to the summit and was accompanied only by Sherpa Pemba, a guide. “Your body is
shutting down,” Ben Yehuda explains. “You do not see clearly because you are
dizzy. The idea is to get to the summit as fast as you can.”
10 p.m. on May 19 from Camp Four, he hoped to reach the top of the world by
sunrise at 6 a.m. Throughout the final ascent, Ben Yehuda remained far ahead of
his guide. The Israeli wore goggles, a headlamp, crampons for gaining traction
on ice, and a backpack. Moving along in darkness, he heard the distant sound of
snow falling on to the ice on the ground: avalanches.
Three hours after
departing, he came upon Irmak, who was dying.
Moments earlier he had
passed two supine climbers and checked to see whether either was alive. They
were not. Upon seeing Irmak, Ben Yehuda’s first thought was to push to the
summit, then aid him on the way down. He quickly vetoed such a plan: “I knew
that if I continued to the summit, he would never have a chance of
Ben Yehuda shook Irmak. The Turk moaned slightly, indicating
he was still alive. “When I realized that I knew the guy, it was not like a man
in trouble, it was a friend in trouble.” But, knowing he was abandoning his
dream of reaching the summit, he grew angry and shouted at Irmak, “You are
killing us. You are killing me.”
Attaching Irmak to his harness, Ben
Yehuda began the eight-hour descent to safety. To be able to use his fingers,
Ben Yehuda removed two of the three gloves that covered his right hand, causing
almost instant frostbite that might still lead to partial amputation. Thirty
minutes later, Ben Yehuda’s oxygen mask broke and two of his oxygen cylinders
froze. “That was the one moment of true panic,” he recalls with palpable emotion
in his voice.
There the two climbers were, without oxygen, in the
so-called death zone of Mt. Everest – that part of the mountain 26,000
feet above sea level where the amount of oxygen in the air is not enough to
sustain human life. But it never occurred to Ben Yehuda that they might perish.
“I felt I would not die on the mountain,” he says.
While descending with
Irmak, Ben Yehuda encountered his guide Pemba, who was surprised to find that
Nadav had abandoned the summit. Because they both knew it was impractical to add
a second rescuer to aid Irmak, Ben Yehuda and Pemba parted company and the
Israeli made his descent alone, carrying the unconscious Turk.
back at Camp Four on the night of May 20, Ben Yehuda was as much in need of
rescue as Irmak. One hundred yards from the camp Ben Yehuda collapsed in the
snow. From frostbite, his right hand had ballooned, his cheeks contained huge
holes, and his feet were paralyzed.
Fortunately, medical teams at the
camp reacted swiftly and gave them both the emergency treatment they needed to
save their lives.
After resting for an hour, Irmak regained
consciousness, already on the road to recovery. “It was a miracle,” says Ben
Yehuda. He called for rescue helicopters and eventually he and Irmak reached
The hardest part for the young climber was just beginning.
“There was no adrenaline, no dream. I was carrying all this weight. I was
conflicted.” Phoning his parents at home, he asked them to get advice from
doctors on how to deal with his frostbite. The doctors suggested he return to
Israel immediately and get proper medical attention.
Back in Israel, Ben
Yehuda listened as doctors suggested amputating four fingers on his right hand.
Rejecting their advice, he said he preferred to give his fingers time to
Later, as the fingers began to recover, the physicians
proposed cutting off the tips of two of them. His left hand, while at first
desensitized, has been recovering nicely.
“I don’t ask the doctors. I am
saying the fingers will come back to normal. This is my goal right
Just as crucially, Ben Yehuda worries that traveling through the
death zone without an oxygen mask may have killed his brain cells: “I am sure my
IQ has dropped 40 points,” he quips, hoping that he is wrong. Ben Yehuda worries
that Irmak may have suffered brain damage as well.
“We don’t know if he
will be OK,” he says of his rescued friend, now recuperating in
Will Ben Yehuda climb again? He laughs, pauses, and says: “No.
Yes. This is something you shouldn’t ask.” Before the Everest climb in May, he
had planned to travel to Tibet in September to try and break the world record
for the youngest Westerner to climb a 26,000-foot mountain without oxygen. He
has scuttled that plan for now.
Despite the frostbite and the anguishing
conundrum as he gazed at his dying friend, Ben Yehuda continues to
“There are many more summits and goals to achieve. I am working on
the next project already because if I do not plan the next project I will not
get healthy, ever.”
Everest is not his next project, but his eyes light
up as he says, “I believe I will return to Everest.” But even if he does reach
the top of the world, he will forever be remembered as the Israeli who gave up
his personal dream to save a life.