e had fallen into the same crevasse. During the two hours we guide [teammates] down by voice, Lute and I hang
exhausted over our ice axes. I feel what little strength
remains in me drain away. My feet, warm and comfortable
throughout the entire climb, now begin to freeze. I stamp
ponderously in the snow. No help. The pain in my toes
sharpens. Then, as it skirts the edge of agony, it dies in a
merciful numbness. I recognize the classic sequence of
frostbite. Our plight is precarious and we know it. With
oxygen all but exhausted, and with Toms expiring flashlight
our sole illumination, we join forces to head down the
We feel our way with cramponed feet and ice axes down the
knife ridge of snow that Lute and I had ascended 11 hours
before. In our weakened condition we can barely tell one
side of the ridge from the other. Yet amazingly, while each
of us tumbles frequently, no serious mishap mars the
descent. At 12:30 on the morning of May 23, we decide to
bivouac until dawn.
We plunk down on a sloping outcrop of rock, too tired to
prepare ourselves with any care for the coming ordeal. Our
site is nearly 2,000 feet [610 meters] above the highest
previous bivouac in history.
By this time Lute and I have slipped into a stupefied fatigue.
My feet have lost all feeling and the tips of my fingers are
following them into numbness. We curl up in our down
jackets as best we can. With his frozen fingers, Lute cannot
even close his jacket. He wraps it tightly and hopes for the
For the next five and a half hours we remain anchored to that
rock. [Our teammates] Willi [Unsoeld] and Tom [Hornbein] occupy a spot where they can move a
bit. Tom struggles out of his crampons. Then, with typical
selflessness, Willi removes Toms overboots, boots, and
socks and warms the feet by rubbing them against his own
I lie dazedly on my back, my feet propped up like two
antennae. Almost too weary to care, I wonder how badly
they are damaged. I try to wriggle my toes. I feel nothing.
Then suddenly the sun is up. The swift, magic kaleidoscope
of dawn hardens into the stark colors of day.
Stiff but rested, we treat ourselves to the luxury of waiting
until the sun actually touches us on our rocky perch.
Warmed, and with the renewed optimism that every dawn
seems to evoke, we commence our descent with a few wry
We reel down the mountain as much by feel as by sight.
Lute cannot focus either eye. I can use only my right one. Still, we have no trouble finding the spot on the snow where we turn east and traverse over the Southeast Ridge into Camp VI.
As Lute belays me around a rock corner, I experience a surge of
joy. Two figures struggle up to meet usDave Dingman
and Girmi Dorje [our support party], laden with fresh oxygen tanks. The rock
still screens them from Lute. I turn to him: Do you want
Lute thinks I have finally and unequivocally lost my senses.
He just looks at me. Then I add, Because heres Dave.
During the night Dave and Girmi had climbed to
27,600 feet [8,410 meters] in a futile search for us. Girmi
had elected not to use oxygena tremendous sacrifice at that
altitude, as we well knewto conserve the precious gas for
Dave and Girmi, scheduled to try for the summit that day,
unhesitatingly gave up their chance in order to search for us.
Now they escort us back down to Camp VI.
Willi had already radioed from on top, but now our
teammates learn that all four of us have succeededand that
all four are alive. I strip off my down-filled boots and for the
first time examine my frostbitten feet. The toes are dead
white, hard, and icy to the touch.
When the last of the expedition moves out of Base Camp,
Willi Unsoeld, Lute Jerstad, and I travel on the backs of
Sherpas. Four porters spell each other in carrying each man.
By the end of the first day, a fierce rivalry springs up
between the four carrying me and the four carrying Willi.
Every suitable stretch of trail inspires a foot race.
I awaken at 6 oclock the following morning and note that
the sky is overcast. Surely today will bring no helicopter. I
close my eyes and drowse. But 25 minutes later, the whirr
of chopper blades snaps me rudely into consciousness. The
copter had come, weather notwithstanding. I feel a pang
of regret. The expedition is breaking up. Never again will
we all be together on a mountain.