The man who saved the world

Agonizingly close to the summit, Nadav Ben Yehuda gave up his Everest dream to rescue a friend

By ROBERT SLATER
July 10, 2012 14:57
The man who saved the world

The man who saved the world. (photo credit: GRAYSON SCHAFFER / OUTSIDE MAGAZINE)

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 Mt. Everest.

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.

Everest climbers 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.

“I slept 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 six-foot-two-inch frame.

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 sandals.

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 time.

Dream

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 rejects.

“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 Israeli.”

Still, Ben Yehuda bristled when a British newspaper described his Everest trek as a failure since he had not reached the summit.

Ben 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.

The 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 recalls.

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 fear.

“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 over.

Skyscraper

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.

In 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 season.

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 future.

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.

But, to his chagrin, potential sponsors were only interested if he tried to scale Everest.

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.

Ben 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 age.

Ben Yehuda’s Everest climb was to last three months – from March to June 2012.

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.

Shutting down

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 climbers.

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.”

Departing at 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 surviving.”

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.

Arriving 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 Kathmandu.

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 normalize.

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 now.”

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 Turkey.

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 dream.

“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.


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