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That same day on the Nepal side of Everest, Larry Nielson was suffering from intestinal flu. He was unable to keep down food or water, and a toe that had been frostbitten in the 1982 Everest attempt with Whittaker had ulcerated. Slated for the first summit team of the Bass/Wells expedition, he started moving up a camp a day. On May 7 he was one of five men going for the top from the South Col. He and a Sherpa, Ang Rita, were without oxygen while the other three, Peter Jamieson, Gerry Roach and Breashears, were using it.
At 27,000 feet the three men on oxygen were up to their thighs in snow, taking turns breaking trail. Rita, carrying both his own gear and Nielson's, was unable to make progress in the lead, even after he divided his load among the others. Nielson, who had been moving much slower than Rita, never tried to lead. The night before, he still hadn't been able to keep down food or water. Coughing fits had injured two of his ribs. His ulcerated toe had bare bone exposed. To add to these troubles he began coughing up quantities of fresh blood from what was later diagnosed as a pulmonary embolism. Yet he kept going.
Four of the climbers reached the top at 4 p.m. Nielson dug deep within himself for a final burst and arrived 20 minutes later. Unlike an athlete crossing the finish line, his ordeal was far from over. Breashears recorded Nielson's arrival with a tiny video camera that beamed a microwave signal 15 miles below to a receiving station. ABC technicians sent the image to New York for the following weekend's American Sportsman by methods that traced the last century of communications history—runner, bush plane and, finally, satellite from Katmandu. The coverage focused on "the first American to conquer Mount Everest without the aid of oxygen." The participants of both 1983 Everest expeditions would return to a world that had quickly defined their experience through that single telecast.
For Nielson, getting down Everest was nearly disastrous. He had already spent 11 hours on the climb from 26,000 feet to the summit; it would be dark in three more. At the South Summit (28,750 feet) he told Roach, "I'm losing it." Shivering from climbing the final hour to the top and back without a parka—Rita had ditched his pack, including Neilson's parka, at the South Summit—he was almost incoherent from hypothermia.
Critical events began to occur one after another. First the climbers on oxygen ran out of it. The five men, roped together, lurched downward like a drunken caterpillar. In calculated frustration, Brea-shears literally cut the rope and took off ahead of the others with Nielson in tow. "That action saved Larry's life," Roach later said. By this time, Nielson's vision had begun to deteriorate and he couldn't see well enough to choose his path. He hung tight to Breashears' pack to descend a 70-degree headwall and afterward clung to Breashears with every step, except to cross crevasses. When they came to a gaping hole, Breashears would carefully line Nielson up and say, "Larry, on the count of three, step as far as you can with your left foot."
Somehow they made it into camp after dark. Breashears undressed Nielson, put him in his sleeping bag and brewed hot liquids for him. For the next few days Nielson staggered down camp by camp, helped by his teammates, until at 18.000 feet a helicopter came to whisk him to Katmandu for a TV interview that was transmitted by satellite to the U.S. from a nation without a TV station of its own.
Meanwhile, our team switched efforts to the easier but more avalanche-prone Hornbein Couloir route, which veered onto the North Face above our Camp V. Graber and Tackle reached 26,000 feet and were ready to set up Camp VI at 27,000 feet with McKinney on the first clear day. Then came the storm that buried our ropes and camps. McKinney's spirit stayed high, and he managed to post-hole through thigh-deep snow with Tackle almost to 26,000 before the threat of avalanches forced them back. The next day, however, he felt so weak that he reluctantly headed down with Graber, passing Schmitz and myself on the way.
In the morning, Houston and Tackle called from Camp V to say they would continue working on the route, regard less of the previous night's plea to give up. And from below came a retraction of both that plea and the suggestion that I was climbing high just to write a book.
Schmitz and I spent another agonizing day on icy ropes going to Camp IV at 24.000 feet. The wind had crusted the fresh snow, entombing the frozen ropes like buried steel cable. Snow conditions were worse than ever, and the weather looked threatening in the evening. This time the climbers at Camp V didn't sound at all optimistic. High winds had blown one of their tents completely off the mountain. Luckily, no one had been inside at the time.
We might have reached Camp V, or even forced our way into the Hornbein Couloir, but we had no reserves of strength or supplies, and no men in shape to carry more loads high on the peak. I knew the game was up, and the next morning we began evacuating the mountain.