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Everest 2011: Edurne Pasaban’s Report on the Dramatic Rescue of Friends on Lhotse

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By Edurne Pasaban; photograph by Bradley Stulberg, My Shot; inset by Joshua Brown

Editor's Note: In May, Edurne Pasaban, our 2011 People's Choice Adventurer of the Year, returned to Everest in an attempt to climb it for the second time, this time without supplemental oxygen. If successful, she would have become the first woman to climb the 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. Here she reports on the dramatic events at the end of her expedition.

Posted May 24, 2011

I don't know where to begin, or how to tell you about everything that has happened over the last few days. So many things, so many emotions, so much sadness, so much happiness, so much of everything. I find it very, very difficult to tell you about it, but I am going to try.

On 20th of May at 1 p.m., we arrived at the South Col of Everest, at an altitude of 8,000 meters. The whole team—Nacho, Asier, Ferrán, Jambu, Migma, Pasang and myself—all happily made it. We were now nearer to our objective: the summit of Everest. We arrived, put up our tents as best we could seeing as it was cold and windy, and got inside them. There were other expeditions, other people at the camp, and all of them in the same position as ourselves: waiting to attack the summit the following day.

However, in our case there was a difference. We were attempting it without oxygen. Asier, Jambu, and I set about melting ice in one of the tents whilst Ferrán, Nigma, Nacho, and Passan were in the other. We were happy. Our opportunity had arrived. The following day our dream was to become reality, or at least we were going to attempt to make it so.

But at around 4 in the afternoon Nacho shouted me from the other tent. He told me that Passan and Migma were feeling unwell, very unwell. They had the beginnings of altitude sickness. They couldn't breath, and they were exhausted. No problem! We didn't hesitate to give them oxygen because their saturation was extremely low. Pablo gave us instructions from base camp, and we did exactly what he said. The oxygen gradually made them feel a lot better, but we were all very, very worried. It was clear that they had to go back down as soon as possible. Night fell. We were thoroughly intending to set off for the summit at around 10 o'clock, but things started to change. Migma and Passan needed to go back down straight away, but as soon as night fell, a strong wind began to blow.

At around 10 o'clock the other expeditions began to set off for the summit, but of course they were using oxygen. Without oxygen it was impossible to stand the cold outside; extreme cold caused by the wind. Inside the tents, we were debating whether or not to make our ascent. But how could we make our ascent? Passan and Migma couldn't move, it was windy, and if we did set off we would be frozen within a few hours. At around 5 in the morning dawn, broke amongst all this uncertainty, but the wind on the South Col did not stop blowing. At around 6, Nacho and Ferrán came to our tent to speak to Asier, Jambu, and me. All of us decided to head back down to base camp and help Migma and Passan make the journey. Thanks to the oxygen, they were feeling a lot better, but they still needed our help.

Making our descent from the South Col towards Camp 3, we could see on the Lhotse corridor there were people near the summit. There were two people very high up and a large group much further down. It was Juanito and Carlos' group—the whole team. We looked on, a little envious, as they attacked the summit.

I turned my head and looked at the summit of Everest. They were going up to the top and we were coming down. At a time like this, doubts start to creep into your mind: Had we made the right or the wrong decision? The truth is that our mountain was 400 meters higher, but such thoughts are inevitable. I concentrated on our descent because it was difficult enough as it was. I took one last look at the Lhotse corridor and wished them luck. At around 4 in the afternoon, we all safely made it back to base camp. Pablo immediately checked Migma and Passan over, and confirmed that we had made the right decision. Our attack on the summit and our problems had apparently ended. However, this was not to be the case as they hadn't even started; we simply did not know it yet.

On the 21st, having descended 8,000 meters, when I got into bed I had no idea what we were going to find the next morning. On the 22nd, at 7 in the morning, I began to hear radios from outside my tent. Radios, and people rushing around. I heard the word 'rescue' and jumped out of bed.

There were problems on Lhotse. Please no! They had made it to the summit, but had got there very late. When they began to descend to C4 they were exhausted and suffering from frostbite. There were people who could not move from C4, who could not make it down by themselves. Worst of all Lolo had disappeared and had not made it back to C4 at any point during the night. What should we do? I immediately realized that we needed to ask the larger expeditions for help. My good friends Damián and Willi Benegas were on one of the expeditions. Damian was on the South Col with his clients, but his brother was at base camp. I didn't hesitate to go in search of help.

And then it all began. Here at base camp on Everest a rescue team was immediately assembled. The first thing that we did was to call Camp 2 in order to check if they could see people descending from camp four on Lhotse, and they told us that they could see people coming down. They were apparently moving. Straight away we knew that everybody was on the move, but Isabel and Rober had remained at C4 with serious frostbite, together with an Iranian guy.

We spoke to Damián, who had already begun to descend from the South Col, and we told him to look out for Lolo at some point above C4 on Lhotse. He was the only person with a view of this area. Suddenly Damián asked us on the walkie talkie if Lolo was wearing something orange, and we told him that he was. Damián could see something orange above C4 in a rocky spot that is known as the “turtle shell.”

Damián left his clients to come down with his Sherpas, and he and another guide from his team, Matoco, immediately began their ascent up to C4 on Lhotse. They found Rober and Isa there, and they were in a very bad way. Rober was in a worse state due to some serious frostbite, and he couldn't see. They gave first aid to Rober and bandaged his eyes. At this point they called one of their Sherpas, who was descending with their clients, and told him to turn back so that he could help. Thus Rober and Isa, with the help of the Sherpa and the Iranian guy, began to gradually descend. Damián and Matoco went directly to investigate what the orange blob that they had seen was. We did not hold out much hope. You can't imagine the emotion that you feel here at base camp when over the walkie talkie an exhausted Damián tells you “HE'S ALIVE!”

Lolo was alive, but unable to move. They then began to attach ropes to him and rescue him from where he was. He was in a really dangerous spot, and at an altitude of almost 8,000 meters. When people ask me who my heroes really are, heroes are people like these guys: Damián and Matoco, who risk their lives to rescue someone that they hardly know. And, of course, a hero is also someone like Lolo because of his will to live. His words when they got to him were: "I want to live.” These people are heroes, no one else.

And so a rescue began that has lasted for two days, two of the most difficult days of my life and about which you can find more information via any of the media. I could write pages and pages, describe what happened minute-by-minute, because it was all recorded minute-by-minute. However, I am not going to, because it is very hard to re-live what we have all been through. My friends were about to loose their lives; there was tension, fear, happiness, arguments…. More than 50 people took part. Expeditions such as Russells' Himalayan Explorers, the IMG expedition, the Benegas and Patagonian Brothers' expeditions. Our expedition, the Endesa Everest without O2. People from different countries, from different cultures, but we joined forces and we saved peoples' lives. This is what mountaineering is all about and I knew that I had friends. However, during these 48 hours I have realized that I have more than friends. I am grateful for my life, and for the fact that there are people in the world like the people who are here with my now. This is what makes life worth living.

These 48 hours have shown me much more than all the years that I have been coming to the Himalayas. Via these few paragraphs I want to thank everybody, all those HEROES, who have shown me that life is worth living and that the mountains are our life.

We, the Endesa Everest without O2 expedition, are coming home. We are exhausted, and Vitor, our weatherman, has forecast good weather for us over the next few days. It is the right decision for us all.

THANK YOU MY FRIENDS