I looked up,
while Gary and Dave hung onto the mountain. "Look," I shouted, and
pointed. Silence. Then the three of us burst into laughter. It was so
disappointing yet so impossible that we could only laugh. Above us was a
200-foot ice wall, absolutely sheer, and so hard it sparkled. To the east was
the face we had seen the day before, and to the west was a long
avalanche-streaked slope dropping to the Rolwaling Ice-fall. A traverse across
either would have been foolhardy, and the ice wall was impossible. It would
have been very difficult even at low altitudes, and it was absolutely out of
the question here. We saw all this in a few seconds' silence and then we
We decided to
call the place where we stood the north summit. Fatigue was stronger than
disappointment. We unroped, ate a bar of chocolate, sipped a little water and
took a few pictures. Then we got ready to descend. We had to lie on the snow
and hold onto our ice axes, driven up to the blade in the snow, to stay on the
mountain. The cold was less noticeable than the wind. Without a backward look
we started down.
unroped, descending to the small snow flat where the ridge got steeper, where
we planned to rope up again. In those first few feet I slipped. I caught myself
in a self-arrest purely by reflex, and stood up, warning the others about the
tricky spot. Gary and Dave thought the self-arrest was such a pretty job that I
got a small round of applause. Gary came across with no trouble.
down, and as Gary and I turned to look at the route below, Dave yelled. We
turned and watched him go by on his back about 15 feet away from us. He was
trying to get over onto his stomach. In a few seconds he was past the flat spot
and onto the steeper ridge, where he picked up speed. He disappeared over the
edge of one of the steeper spots. We saw him twice more, tumbling as he slid
down the mountain at greater and greater speeds. Finally he shot out across the
lower slopes and came to a halt against one of the windblown snow ridges that
streaked the snowfields near the pass.
We watched in
disbelief. There is a kind of optimism that climbers—especially the younger
ones—possess that tells them, even while they are taking great precautions,
that nothing will ever really happen. We had made one mistake—failing to rope
ourselves together again—and the consequence was disaster. We could tell from
where we stood that Dave was in very serious trouble.
roped, just as quickly as we could without throwing ourselves down the slope
after Dave. We had cut bucket steps on the way up. We could use these almost
like a ladder on the way down, making good progress in spite of fatigue and
high winds. A few hundred feet from Dave I saw how serious the fall had been.
One boot was ripped completely off and lay in the snow a few yards from his
body. The web strap on his ice ax was ripped in half. He lay twisted and
discolored against one of the sastrugi. I felt his pulse and listened for his
heart. Nothing. Quickly Gary put the boot back on, and I zipped up his jacket.
We moved him as little as possible, but we got his head slightly downhill and
then used our summit packs to raise his body off the snow. Then I sent Gary to
the base camp for the extra tent, stove, sleeping bag and medical equipment we
had put aside for an emergency—even though months earlier, back in the States,
we had never dreamed something like this would happen. Gary, fighting fatigue,
charged off across the slopes to the main camp.
immediately I knelt in the snow and started to give Dave artificial
respiration, mouth-to-mouth. He was very cold, and from the first moment I had
seen him I knew there was little hope. For two hours in the wind and gathering
darkness I tried to find some response in David. I massaged his face and hands
at the same time that I gave him artificial respiration. There was no sign of
life, never a flicker or a movement.
Gary crawled up
the last few hundred feet with the emergency equipment. I stood up and waved to
him to forget it. He left it and joined me. I had lost all feeling in my toes
and hands and was exhausted from the effort of trying to revive my comrade. I
told Gary what I had done, and we agreed that there was nothing more to do.
With the growing
impact of the altitude, the physical exhaustion and the psychological shock of
watching a friend die, Gary and I were now battling for our own survival. We
dug a trench in the snow as deeply as we could and put David into it. After a
moment of silence, a muttered Tibetan prayer and the Lord's Prayer, we put
David's ice ax all the way into the snow near his head. We left a good friend
and a good man at rest in the mountains he had come to love.
In the bitter
cold of night Gary and I slowly descended to the base camp, Gary nearly crazy
with fatigue, I with no feeling in my hands or feet. Both of us were incapable
of talking about what had happened. It would be days before we could piece it