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Climber dies on Everest — and comes back to life

Lincoln Hall died of altitude sickness on the evening of May 25, 2006 — and was found alive on the mountain the next morning. Here, an excerpt from his tale of survival, "Dead Lucky."
/ Source: TODAY

Lincoln Hall died of altitude sickness on the evening of May 25, 2006 — and was miraculously found alive on the mountain the next morning. Here, an excerpt from his tale of survival, "Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest."

The radio crackled back. “Lincoln, Lincoln, good to hear from you. This is Kevin at ABC. The problem is your Sherpas are becoming very, very weak and very, very tired, and you only have about three hours of workable daylight left. So please get all your strength. If you don’t move, you won’t get off this mountain. Come down, Lincoln.”

We followed a system of ledges. Whenever one ledge petered out, another could be reached by stepping down or around an obstacle. As we moved away from the Second Step, I could see the route ahead for several hundred yards, a  well-trudged line of footsteps below the crest of the ridge. The route tended downhill but with little loss of altitude, and that made me worry. We needed to lose height quickly. Five people had already died this season above our top camp, which for us was still at least two hours away.

Pemba was in front of me, with Lakcha and Dawa Tenzing following behind. I was unsure of Dorje’s whereabouts, but I sensed he was ahead of us. Pemba stopped constantly, turning to face me and urging me on. Whenever I paused to unclip and reclip my harness sling at a fixed rope anchor, Lakcha sped up the process by reaching from behind and doing it for me. I plodded along as best I could, taking advantage of the cliff above me, resting my right hand against it for balance. But soon exhaus­tion began to overwhelm my instinct to keep moving.

We came to a rise in the ledge we were following. It was a huge effort to make a few uphill steps, but then a blessing came in the form of an anchor which tied the fixed rope low to the ground. The anchor’s special aspect was that it allowed me the chance to kneel while I clipped past it. I dealt with the task of clipping but continued to kneel.

“Jom! Jom!” said Lakcha. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

I knew I had to keep moving, but because I was on my knees, I began to crawl. It wasn’t easy, but it was easier than standing up. Lakcha grabbed me and pulled me to a sitting position so that I was now facing outward, leaning with my back against the cliff, my feet hanging over the huge drop. Lakcha tried to drag me to my feet, but — out of oxygen and on the go for sixteen hours — he no longer had the strength. I crawled to the crest of the rise in the path and lay there. Ahead I could see Pemba, who seemed to be talking with someone, maybe a Sherpa who was wait­ing for us, maybe Dorje.

Together, Lakcha and Dawa Tenzing pulled me to my feet. With the help of the cliff-face I stayed vertical. After one or two steps I leaned against the cliff, like a drunk leaning on a wall, and took a few more steps. Then I managed to stagger a few more yards without support. Ahead of me was a slight broadening in the trail, which was an obvious place to rest. A couple more steps and I reached out for the cliff, then slid against it down to the ground. I lay on shards of rock, free of snow. In the late afternoon sunshine, the rock looked warmer than the snow, but at these heights it was just as cold. For now, this spot was where I needed to be. I would rest for a few minutes, then I would continue down. The perfect weather created the illusion that all was well with the world and our circumstances. Dawa Tenzing and Lakcha insisted that I stand up, but I took no notice.

I shook my head and said, “Ek chin bosneh.” Sit for one moment.

Lakcha called out to Pemba, who came back up along the ledge to where I lay.

“Other Sherpas stay with you,” he said. “I must go down. You will spend the night just along from here. Very close.”

I knew this was not right. It was still a beautiful sunlit afternoon. I did not want to stay here; I had only stopped to rest. Deep in myself, I knew I had to keep going until I reached somewhere safe. Many times I had descended from the summits of mountains in darkness after burning up daylight hours on prolonged climbs. In 1984 Andy, Tim, and Greg had reached the top of the North Face as the sun set. Tim and Greg stood on the summit as darkness fell, and the three of them returned to me and our camp at 27,700 feet at three thirty in the morning.

Now, on this highest ridge of Everest, I faced yet another occasion when I would have to push myself through walls of pain and exhaustion to reach the relative safety of our camp. Survival was not guaranteed; I would have to fight for it. But what I needed now was a few minutes’ rest, then I would climb down and continue through the night until I reached Camp Three. But I could not convey this to Pemba. I could barely speak.

“Very close for you to spend the night,” Pemba repeated, and gestured to the place where he had been standing when Lakcha had called him.

The spot was only twenty yards away, where the trail of footprints led toward the crest of the ridge. Although I could not see past that point from where I lay, I sensed there was a  drop- off beyond it. The route from the Second Step had been a long traverse just below the crest of the Northeast Ridge, and we had not lost much height. The crest itself was a mass of jagged tors, cliffs, and jumbles of boulders, so the obvious route to follow was where the narrow but easy-angled slabs at the very top of the North Face met the rocky crest of the ridge. The drop-off to the north was steep but not vertical, which made it all the more frightening because you could see exactly how far you would fall — 8,000 vertical feet, starting from where my boots hung over the edge. My back leaned against the low rocky rampart that formed the crest of this part of the ridge. On the far side of the rampart the Kangshung Face plunged two miles of height to the glacier below. We were at a very exposed part of the ridge. This was certainly not a safe place for me to spend the night.

“Not far,” Pemba repeated, the matter decided. “You must go along just a little way and stay where there is more space.”

I did not want to hear what Pemba was saying. Instead, I heard some­thing altogether different. I was no longer capable of distinguishing between the reality of the mountain and the fabrications of my mind, so I was not surprised to hear the pronouncement in a voice I did not recognize.

“There are three women along here and they’ve got a shelter — you can join them.”

Then Pemba spoke again. “I must go,” he said. “Sherpas will be with you.”

I understood that three women were camped in a little space among the rocks where Pemba wanted me to spend the night, but he was now gone. I could hear women chattering and laughing, but I couldn’t be bothered visiting them. I didn’t have the energy. I couldn’t face the social interaction.

I sensed that other Sherpas were with me, but they could only be Lakcha and Dawa Tenzing, and maybe Dorje, whom I had not seen for a while. There could not be others as the upper reaches of the mountain were deserted. I promised I would stay where Pemba had suggested, but I don’t know to whom I made the promise. I could not hear the women now. Silence surrounded me. Wind noise was muffled by the hood of my down suit. The only sound was my own breathing. And then that stopped as well.

I was alone now.

I did not think of my whereabouts at all. The thought that I had climbed Mount Everest did not enter my mind. Of most importance was what I could see. The panorama stole my attention completely. The sun was low in the sky, casting a yellow hue across the upper reaches of the Northeast Ridge. Gone was the  black-and-white contrast between the snow and the rocks. The soft light gave texture to the snow and patterns to the rock surfaces around me. The dark rocky ridges of the mighty peaks stood even more proud, parading their sharp, conclusive angles. Clouds appeared high above. They framed not only the mountains, the glaciers, and the sky but also the silence, giving a depth to the landscape that I had never before experienced. There was much to be said for let­ting time vanish like this. I could see forever, for one thing. I could also see the curvature of the earth. A sight to die for.

Only when the sun left my high ridge was the tick-tock of time kick-started again by the cold. The entire landscape was freezing now, pulling the clouds down toward me, pulling the color out of the sky.

Excerpted from "Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest" by Lincoln Hall with permission from Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright © 2008.