A View from Israel: A personal triumph

Nadav Ben-Yehuda forfeits his Mount Everest summit attempt to save a fellow climber's life.

Mount Everest (photo credit: Luca Galuzzi/Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Everest
(photo credit: Luca Galuzzi/Wikimedia Commons)
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.
Many 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.
As 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 ordeal.
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 of extraordinary.
Here’s why:
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 typically fly.
For many, it poses a challenge to be conquered. For many, it has meant death.
Ever 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 Tibet.
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 and dehydration.
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.
Upon 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 section.
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.
After 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.
As 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.
This 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.
An extended stay in this zone - even with supplementary oxygen - will result in deterioration of bodily functions, loss of consciousness and, ultimately, death.
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.
As 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 Earth.
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.
The 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.
Most 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).
“You 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.
“Your 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 this point.
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.
He 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.
According to 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.
As he 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.
He 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.
In May 1996, in what became known as the “1996 Mount Everest disaster,” eight people died in the Death Zone when the weather turned bad.
The 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.
In 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.
Much 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.
In the 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.
Mountaineer 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.
Shriya 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.
When 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.”
Ben-Yehuda 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 safety.
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.