MOUNTAIN WITHOUT MERCY

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It was clear to anyone listening to the Mount Everest radio traffic that Rob Hall had decided to die. For Hall, there seemed to be little drama in the decision--but for someone in his position, there rarely is. In the brutal cold and almost oxygen-free air found at Everest altitudes, a sort of woozy resignation sets in. Decisions to climb or descend, rest or trudge on, get made with a fatalistic shrug. At the moment, Hall was shrugging toward death.

David Breashears and Ed Viesturs were in radio contact with Hall as he made his decision. Filmmakers and climbers who had known the famous guide for years, they were 8,000 ft. below him, in the relative safety of a mountainside campsite. Hall, on the other hand, was 400 ft. shy of Everest's 29,028-ft. summit--the highest peak in the world--stuck on an outcrop where he had spent the night after a sudden blizzard pounded the mountain. The situation was probably not survivable, and yet the other climbers were determined to help Hall live through it. "Think about Thailand," Viesturs said. "Once you come down, we'll tour the beaches and finally see those skinny legs of yours out of a snowsuit."

Hall laughed weakly, but didn't stir. Quickly, someone in camp patched a satellite call to New Zealand, where Hall's wife, pregnant with their first child, was waiting. "I'm looking forward to making you completely better when you come home," she called to her husband when the connection was made. On top of his mountain, Hall may have smiled. "I love you," he said. "Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much." No one ever heard from Rob Hall again.

It was May 11, 1996, when Hall spoke his last, and he was not the only one the mountain claimed that day. Just 36 hours earlier, 33 people had set out for Everest's peak. When the storm at last subsided, eight had perished. The story of that disaster, one of the worst in climbing history, became the subject of magazine articles, television specials and a growing collection of books, notably the best seller Into Thin Air, by journalist Jon Krakauer, who was a survivor of the murderous climb.

But part of the story has never been told. Breashears and Viesturs were on the mountain that week to try something never before attempted: to capture the ascent to Everest's summit in the highest-quality movie film available, the dizzyingly realistic 65-mm IMAX format. Resting at their campsite in preparation for the grueling mountaintop filming, they became unintended participants in the tragedy, as well as unexpected heroes. Their film, which tells the story of Everest and the drama that unfolded on it, will premiere next spring. This week they offer an advance look at it as the book Everest: Mountain Without Mercy (National Geographic Society, $35), authored by outdoors writer Broughton Coburn and filled with IMAX images, appears in stores.

As the book was being shipped, Breashears was nowhere to be found. Having already visited Mount Everest 10 times, he flew back again last month to film a documentary for the PBS series Frontline. Two weeks ago he talked to TIME by satellite hookup from the base camp on the northern, Tibetan face of the mountain, and discussed the making of his film, the creation of his book and the lessons taught by the fatal climb. "We passed some hard nights the last time we were here," he said, "thinking about the nature of the mountain, why we were on it and, most important, about our dead friends up on its roof."

Even under the best of conditions, scaling a mountain like Everest is an act of near madness. Standing on top of the peak is roughly equivalent to stopping a passenger jet in mid-flight and climbing out onto the wing. The altitude is the same, the 40[degrees]F- below-zero temperature is the same, and, most disturbingly, the lung-shredding, brain-addling atmosphere--barely one-third the pressure of sea-level air--is the same. In the 44 years since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa climber, Tenzing Norgay, first scaled the peak, more than 700 people have followed them to the top; at least 150 others have died in the attempt.

Despite this fearsome history, Everest is big business these days. Tibet and China, recognizing a moneymaking natural resource when they see one, have thrown the peak open to tourism. Expeditions charge climbers, often unskilled, up to $65,000 to be walked to the top. In the spring of 1996, 14 groups from 11 countries swarmed Everest's lower campsite, digging in 17,600 ft. above sea level in preparation for an attempt on the summit. Among the expeditions was a 26-member New Zealand team, headed by Hall, that included Krakauer, Dallas pathologist Beck Weathers and Doug Hansen, a U.S. postal worker who had failed in a previous climb. Also on hand was an American group led by guide Scott Fischer and teams from Japan, South Africa and Taiwan.

For the filmmakers, the climb would be especially hard. The lightest camera designed for 65-mm work weighed at least 60 lbs. Worse, the system fairly devoured film, going through 5.6 ft. every second. A 10-lb., 500-ft. roll lasted only a minute and a half. When Breashears' film company, Arcturus Motion Pictures, was approached by U.S.-based MacGillivray Freeman Films about making the movie, Breashears knew he couldn't do much about the film, but he insisted that the camera had to be rebuilt.

"I gave them two conditions," he said. "No piece of equipment could exceed 25 lbs. And when loaded and frozen at 40[degrees] below, the camera had to run every time." The producers went to work and built Breashears precisely what he had requested, and in 1996, with Viesturs, a climbing leader, walking point and a team of eight in tow, he set out for the top of the world.

The first sign that all would not go well came on the night of May 10. Though the established route up the mountain's south flank is precarious--barely wide enough to accommodate one climber at a time--no fewer than three expeditions had announced plans to begin their trek to the top that evening. Making things worse, two of the teams--Fisher's and Hall's--were the two largest on the mountain. All together, 33 people would be tramping the upward trail at the same time. For Breashears, this was reason enough to stay put. "We didn't like the way the weather looked," he says, "and now we were going to be crowded by all these other climbers. We decided to wait."

For those who decided to go, the climb to the top began not from the lower campsite but from the last of four ascending camps, just 3,000 ft. below the summit. Teams preparing to make their final climb usually bivouac there for a few days to allow their systems to become acclimatized to the wispy mountain air. Other teams slowly ascend through Camps 1 through 3 until they too are ready for the final push. On the night of May 10, the filmmakers slept at Camp 2, a mile below the summit, while the 33 other climbers trekked out into the darkness.

When the sun rose the next day, word came down that the climbers had made surprisingly good progress during the night. While some had turned back early, at least 20 were pressing on toward the summit. Breashears grabbed a telescope from his equipment tent, trained it on the peak and saw that the report was true. In his eyepiece was a flyspeck line of climbers inching up the last 1,000 ft. of Everest's five-mile rock pile.

Turning from the telescope, Breashears flashed a smile to Viesturs. But his relief was short-lived. At noon, he checked the peak once more, and was stunned to see that the group hadn't moved. He checked again at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Each time the climbers looked stuck. "This was way too late to be up that high," Breashears says. "They'd be fatigued, out of oxygen and descending in the dark. Things did not look good."

A few thousand feet below and two hours later, matters started to look worse. Paula Viesturs, Ed's wife, had been making potato soup in the cook tent at the 17,600-ft. base camp and stepped outside for a moment. Looking down, she saw a bank of huge, bruise-colored clouds rolling up the mountain. Clouds like that were almost certainly carrying a storm, and this storm appeared to be climbing fast. Before long, a high-altitude blizzard would lash one camp after another, until it finally reached the unprotected climbers clinging to the peak.

At 4:30 p.m., as the clouds continued to rise, the situation got worse still. According to radio traffic, Doug Hansen had collapsed, and Hall--who knew better than to linger near the top of the mountain in weather so ominous--was staying to help him. Five of Hall's other clients, including Weathers, had turned back. Where they were now no one knew. Guides Fischer and Harris were unaccounted for too. In all, 19 of the 33 people who had set out for Everest's top 16 hours earlier were stuck outside.

By 8:30 p.m., the blizzard had smothered the mountain, bringing paralyzing cold, 70-m.p.h. winds and needles of snow and sleet. At base camp, Paula Viesturs and others huddled together in the empty tents that Hall's expedition had left behind, calling into the radios to the imperiled climbers. At Camp 2, Breashears and Ed Viesturs did the same. No one got any response more than electrical-storm static. For eight hours the blizzard played out, with no word at all from the peak. Finally, at 4:45 a.m., as the storm began to quiet, there was a crackle in the base-camp radio. "Is someone coming to get me?" Hall's voice called weakly from above.

According to Krakauer's account, Caroline Mackenzie, a camp doctor, seized the radio and asked how he was feeling. "I'm too clumsy to move," he said. "How is Doug?" Mackenzie asked. "Doug is gone," Hall responded simply.

Soon other grim reports began to trickle in. Harris was presumed dead; so was Fischer. Yasuko Namba, a Japanese climber, had apparently died in the snow outside Camp 4. Near her was Weathers; he was probably dead too. Even climbers who had managed to struggle back into Camp 4 were in grave danger. "The wind was howling, the tents had collapsed," says Breashears. "It was chaos up there."

For the filmmakers, encamped far down the face of the mountain, there was no way to reach the climbers in time. But there were other ways to help. Days earlier, Sherpas had climbed to Camp 4 and stocked a tent with batteries and oxygen canisters in preparation for the film crew's summit push. With so many climbers swarming about and theft not unheard of on the overpopulated Everest, the Sherpas had locked the tent flap shut. Now Breashears called Krakauer at Camp 4 and instructed him to rip open the tent, load the batteries into the radios, distribute the oxygen and get as many people as possible breathing and moving.

While Krakauer went to work, Breashears, Viesturs and Schauer set out for Camp 3, hoping to turn it into a field kitchen serving tea and soup to climbers who would soon be staggering down from Camp 4. Around noon, as they headed out, they got some good news about three other climbers they had all but given up on: Fischer and Makalu Gao Ming-Ho, the Taiwanese team leader, had been spotted above Camp 4, and a team of Sherpas was planning to hike up and rescue them. Another team was set to climb higher still in hopes of saving Hall. "I'll see you tomorrow," Viesturs happily radioed Hall as he trudged out of Camp 2.

Two hours later, much of that hope was dashed. The first team rescued Makalu Gao but found Fischer dead. The second Sherpa team climbed within 800 ft. of Hall but was beaten back by the weather. In a gesture both hopeful and hopeless, they left a ski-pole marker and a clutch of oxygen tanks at the highest point they reached--a lifesaving cache that turned out to be utterly beyond Hall's grasp. Reluctantly, someone in Camp 2 radioed the news to Hall, adding a hollow promise that another rescue attempt would be made sometime tomorrow. "I'll hang in there," Hall said grimly, but he knew Everest, and he knew what a second night on top of the peak would do to him. Nobody--least of all Hall --harbored any illusions that he'd be alive in the morning.

If Hall was fated to die, one dead man refused to stay that way. Late in the day, as the Camp 4 climbers got set to trek down, they noticed what appeared to be an apparition: trudging toward them, his parka open, his mittens missing, his arms held before him like the vampiric undead, was Beck Weathers, risen from the snow. Somehow, inexplicably, he had survived the nightlong storm, living through bitter, anoxic conditions that should have killed him hours before. To be sure, his condition was grim. His hands, frozen and long past useless, had the white, waxy look of a cadaver's. His nose and cheeks were black with frostbite. He was, however, indisputably alive.

"I woke up in the snow, opened my eyes, and directly in front of me was my ungloved right hand, which was clearly dead," he remembers. "It looked like a marble sculpture of a hand. I hit it on the ice and realized that so much of my tissue was dead, I wasn't feeling any pain. That had the marvelous effect of focusing my attention. I had an innate awareness that if the cavalry was going to come rescue me they would already have been there. If I didn't stand up, I realized, I was going to spend eternity on that spot."

The next day, while Breashears stayed at Camp 3 to assist descending climbers, Schauer and Viesturs hiked to Camp 4 to help bring Weathers down. For most of the morning, the Texan was half-led, half-carried down the slope, at one point sitting still while he was secured with rope and lowered like a 200-lb. rucksack. When the team reached Camp 3, they were joined by Breashears and a group of Sherpas bringing Makalu Gao down. Together they trekked to Camp 2, where they learned that a helicopter--which could never have stayed aloft in the tenuous air near the top of the mountain--would now be able to meet them and evacuate the wounded. Before long, the climbers heard the whap-whapping of blades and saw a dark green chopper struggling up to them. When it landed, the able-bodied loaded first Makalu Gao, then Weathers aboard, and the pilot flew off, dropping gratefully down to lower altitudes where there was thicker air for his blades to bite. With the helicopter gone, the most grievously injured climbers were at last on their way to safety. Back on Everest, the ambulatory ones were left to make their own way down--and the fallen ones were left to remain forever where they lay.

In the end, two Sherpas, two clients and four guides died on Mount Everest. Weathers lost his nose, which was surgically rebuilt, as well as his hands, which can never be replaced. For several days, the weary filmmakers did little more than knock about base camp. Finally, on May 23, they made their trip to the summit and finished their filming. On the way, they passed the frozen bodies of Fischer and Hall. While Fischer was still exposed to the elements, the upper half of Hall's body had drifted over. Breashears and Viesturs paused to spend some time with each of them, sitting beside them for a respectful half-hour in the punishing summit air. They wanted to do more.

"If you find a body on Everest," says Viesturs, "it's [accepted] practice to drop it in a crevasse or gather rocks to pile into a grave. With Rob and Scott, we couldn't do either, so we simply had to leave them as they were." The IMAX climbers did just that, finishing their filming and descending the mountain, all the while aware of what they were abandoning. If there was any consolation as they headed for home, it was that within a year the snows of Everest, in a final act of mercy, would provide the lost climbers with a proper and permanent burial.