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
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.
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.
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