Now we finally established communications with the men at the advance base camp on Northeast Col. Two of them, with Sherpas, came to help us with supplies, and we were able to clarify the position of the expedition and orient ourselves. This was our situation: we had a supply depot at the timberline, Camp 1 halfway up the glacier and Camp 2, the advance base camp, on Northeast Col. With luck we would need only three or, at most, four more camps to reach the summit: Camp 3 at 21,650 feet, Camp 4 at 23,100 feet, Camp 5 at 24,400 and Camp 6 at 25,600. Our information at this point was that Camp 5 had been established on top of the ice ridge. Camp 6 would have to be 1,200 feet or so below the summit, close enough to climb and return in a day. On May 1, then, we were almost as far as the Austrian expedition was the previous year on May 28.
On May 5 I was just preparing to make another foray back to Dapa Col for food, film and cameras when suddenly I heard the low, familiar hum of the Yeti flying very high. It didn't see us because the base camp, with its yellow tents, was hard to pick out from the yellowish rocks of the terminal moraine. We watched it proceed toward Northeast Col, where it apparently landed. We saw it again flying back to Dapa Col, where we assumed the Yeti would pick up supplies and return to Northeast Col. I remember we cheered.
The next morning, as we were climbing up to the glacier camp, we kept looking and listening for the Yeti, but it never came. We didn't know it then (we guessed it as the days went by and jet search planes appeared), but the Yeti had crashed again, this time with finality.
Much later, Pilot Ernst Saxer told me what had happened: "With our plane repaired," he said, "we left Pokhira on May 5 with Emil Wick and Max Eiselin aboard. We made our 17th landing on Northeast Col. Weather conditions were favorable. There was no wind, the surface of the snow was firm, the sun shone gloriously.
"We deposited Eiselin and took off for Dapa Col to pick up additional supplies. We landed perfectly on Dapa Col. It seemed like child's play.
"We loaded up again. As soon as the last piece was stowed away, we strapped ourselves in, and I opened the throttle. On the hard surface the plane gathered speed faster than usual. After 500 feet, we left the ground. I pulled the stick back to climb, and suddenly there was nothing but an empty rubber sleeve in my hand. The stick had worked loose from the sleeve and snapped forward. Before I had a chance to grab it, there was a crashing, splintering noise. All vision was blotted out by a cloud of snow. We had crashed.
"Miraculously, we were unhurt. We leaped out. The Yeti had come to rest on its skis, but it was plastered against a low hill. The propeller was twisted and bent. The wing tips were broken and bent upwards. Part of the rudder was torn off. The ship was beyond repair, and at that altitude we could not have concentrated on the job anyway. It meant hiking out.
"We found some chocolate and dried fruit in the supplies. We had no sleeping bags. When the sun went down the wind came up, and the temperature dropped below freezing. We tried to wrap ourselves in duffel bags, but we were unable to sleep. The lack of oxygen paralyzed our brains so that whenever I felt the need to turn over on my side it would take at least half an hour to translate the decision to my muscles.
"We decided the only way we could get out was to scramble down to the valley. The next morning we wrote a report describing the accident in detail and attached it to the tent poles. After descending 1,400 feet, we heard search planes. We threw our rucksacks in the snow and waved our wind jackets. Fifteen minutes later a jet, an Indian Air Force Canberra, flew across our trail.
"The descent was especially tough on Emil, who back home abhorred all types of exercise. He climbed down the mountain ridges backwards. Our main concern was not to lose our way. Many of the steep Himalayan gorges afford only one tiny way out, and if one cannot find it one is apt to be a prisoner of this wilderness forever. When we reached the lower regions we were able to orient ourselves by the yak dung left there by the shepherds' animals.