May 10-11, 1996
Disclaimer: I have written this short piece from the perspective of Rob Hall, one of those who died in the 1996 Everest tragedy. I am not claiming that any of this was his actual thought process. This is simply for creative purposes.
Doug Hansen is gone.
No, that’s not right. He was right there a second ago, wasn’t he? Hadn’t he been right there? I could’ve sworn I just saw him. But he isn’t there now. Where’d he go?
“Doug?” I try to call out, but my throat burns and a raspy, gutted sound escapes from it, lost in the wind. He must’ve slipped. Maybe he’s still back there, behind the rock. No. No, I see it now. The rope remains unclipped, tethered to an empty void. He didn’t clip in. Doug Hansen is gone. The crushing grip of despair forces me to the frozen ground. My limbs stop. My mind blanks. What had I been trying to do? Why was I still here?
Doug. I couldn’t leave him.
But now Doug is gone.
So why am I still here?
You have to get up. There’s gas on the South Summit. Doug needs gas.
Doug is gone.
Why was Doug gone?
Because he slipped and now he’s gone.
My mind tries to make sense of it, but between the wind, the driving snow, the cold, and the thin air, the thoughts just don’t come in fast enough. None of this makes sense.
The South Summit can’t be too much farther though. If I can make it there I can make it down. I don’t have to worry about Doug anymore. The grief is nonexistent. Maybe it’ll come later. But not now. Not when I myself am this close to death.
My body is not here. It doesn’t feel like it’s here. I feel detached, like a lonely soul disconnected from its own body. But I keep walking. Step after step. There’ll be nothing left. I wonder if everyone else made it down. They should’ve, I hope. My legs aren’t working right. I feel clumsy, immobile. Every step takes everything I have, and then more and more. Nothing here is right. The wind is moaning, or is that someone else? No, no it couldn’t be. There shouldn’t be anyone else, right? My boots crunch against the frigid rocks, digging into the ice. Up ahead, I see something. Canisters. This must be the South Summit.
Time moves strangely up here. Or maybe that’s just the hallucinations. Things seem to pass by so slowly, but then so fast. How long have I sat here? Darkness has swallowed the mountain, including me. The air is flowing from the gas canisters now, but nothing is coming through. Ice. There must be ice blocking the valve.
Why was there ice?
Because it’s cold.
Oh. I can’t feel anything.
I hope the frostbite isn’t too bad. I hope I don’t die.
But I will. There’s no way I’m getting down, not like this. I’ll need help.
Maybe I should radio for help.
The radio! I had forgotten about the radio. I should tell them what’s happened….
The night moves on and I just sit, staring off into nothing. I talk with the base camp people for a bit, on and off. They keep telling me to move, that I have to keep moving, and I keep telling them I can’t. Why don’t they understand? I said some other things, but now I can’t remember what I said. Why can’t I remember? It doesn’t matter. You have to get down. My fingers claw at the ice frozen to my oxygen rig. Except I can’t feel my fingers. Probably for the best.
Someone was with me last night. They were here for a little while, and then they were gone. Not Doug, someone else. How long have I been here? Hours probably. Morning will be here soon. When morning comes, I’ll have to keep going. I can’t stay here. But first, the oxygen. I’ve been deprived for too long. I’m confused and I can’t remember things. If I stay like this, I will die. That is for certain. That I can understand.
Was that Harold with me last night? I try to think back, clawing at my memories like a cat chasing a moving light. Come to think of it, I think it was, I think he was, at least for a little while. Had he gone too? Where?
I radio in asking about Harold. (Note: This is a reference to Andy Harris, another one of the casualties. Rob had always known him as “Harold”)
“How’s Doug doin’ ?’” someone asks through the radio. Everyone sounds the same on the radio, so I don’t know who it is.
“Doug…” I try to remember. Where had Doug gone? He had slipped right? I…
“How’s Harold? Do you guys know where Harold went? I think he was with me last night…” I try to sound better than I feel. I don’t think it’s working. “Is he with you guys? Did he get down?” There is some silence and I wait for the response. Nothing comes for several minutes. I’m worried. Can they hear me?
“Don’t worry about Andy; he’s down here with us.” The response is finally clear, but something is off. I swear he was with me, wasn’t he? Or was that just Doug? More hallucinations? The radio crackles again with fiery enthusiasm.
“How’s Hansen? Is Doug still with you?”
“Doug is gone.” That’s all there is to say. Nothing more.
“Hey Rob,” the radio goes off again and the faceless name behind the words enchant my thoughts.
Everyone sounds the same on the radio, so I ask, “Who’s this?”
“It’s Guy, Guy Cotter. We were wondering if the sun has reached you yet. How are you?”
“Well, I’m terribly cold and I have a bad case of the shakes. I’ll be alright though.”
“That’s good! The sun should be up soon, which will help. Can you see it yet?” I try to open my eyes, which have been shut for some time. Nothing happens. I strain harder until they finally come undone. They must’ve been frozen shut. I laugh for no reason in particular as I look around, seeing for the first time in several hours. The sky is so beautiful, awash with pinks and dark blues. The clouds appear to have moved on. I think the storm is over.
“Almost,” I reply, gazing towards the horizon where the sky is beginning to glow brightly. The sun will be up soon. There’s nothing quite like a sunrise on Everest. As I look around, something catches my eye. I pull myself up a couple inches to see better. Did someone leave their gear up here? I see an ice ax, plus some other clothes. Why would he leave his jacket up here?
“Did anyone see Harold last night except meself?” I question whoever’s still on the radio. The sun is well up by this point and I can finally begin to feel my face. I know the warmth is relative. All things considered, it’s probably at least 40 below.
“Andy’s down here. Just worry about getting yourself down from there. You aren’t going to last much longer. Use the daylight while you can.” Something isn’t right about any of this. They wouldn’t lie to me, would they?
“Some of Andy’s gear is still here. I thought he must have gone ahead in the nighttime. Listen, can you account for him or not?” I shudder as I say the words. If Harold is still up here, I’m not just going to leave him.
“Have you gotten your oxygen mask clear of ice yet?” I now recognize the voice as Helen Wilton. The differences between male and female voices are easy enough to distinguish.
“Not quite, but I’m feeling better. I’m making some progress, don’t worry. I just want to know if Harold is ok…” I hear Helen sigh.
“He’s fine Rob. Just get yourself down and we’ll go over things later.”
“Ok. I mean, his ice ax is here and his jacket and things,” saying the words out loud makes the thoughts appear clearer in my head. No matter how skilled he was with climbing, even Harold wouldn’t have made it down without this stuff, let alone at night.
“Rob…” another voice, this one harder to hear. The radio crackles and I bring it to my ear to make out the words. “If you can put the jacket on, just use it. Keep going down and worry only about yourself. Everybody is taking care of other people. Just get yourself down.”
The sweet relief of supplemental oxygen was something I never thought would come. But at long last, the gas begins to flow from the canister through my mask. Even though the difference was probably minimal, the feeling of my thoughts clearing for the first time in about 16 hours is both fantastic and horrifying. The sudden weight of everything that has occurred crushes me like a bug beneath a boot. Doug is gone. Harold is who knows where, certainly not with everyone else. And I am stuck on the moon, far from help or safety. Reality hurts, that’s for sure. The radio blasts useless chatter of people trying to coax me down. Don’t they understand I am already dead? Even if I could move, which is out of the question, the chances of me making it back to the South Col is pretty much zero.
“Rob, this is Helen at Base Camp. You…” Heavy breathing. Was she crying? Why would she be crying? “You think about that little baby of yours. You’re going to see its face in a couple months, so keep going. Please keep going.” I want to scream. I want to tell her I’m sorry. I want to tell my wife that I’m sorry.
“I’m coming down, Helen, don’t worry. I’m going to be coming down soon…”
I can’t. The wind is back and I still can’t move. They keep telling me I have to go. They keep saying I have a chance. But I know I don’t. Years of mountain experience tells me so. Turns out a rescue attempt was made, and failed. I’m not surprised honestly. The wind is back and I’m stuck. I’m dead. Maybe not though. Maybe not. They said some guys are going to come up tomorrow and help me down. I’m looking forward to some hot Sherpa tea. The sun is going down again. Another day gone. Where did it go? Where am I now? Hours and hours of radio talks and promises and hope should’ve made me happier. It should have cheered me up. But they didn’t. They just made me sad that people cared enough. That my death would dishearten them. They had all tried so hard.
“Hey Rob?” It’s Guy again. “Your wife is calling us through a satellite phone. She’s waiting to be patched through. We just figured…” There’s a pause and I wonder if it’s a break in the transmission. No. He’s just thinking of what to say. I hope he knows I don’t mind. “We just figured you might want to talk with her,” Guy coughs and I can tell he’s trying not to cry. Why does everyone care so much?
I try to remember her face, but since I’ve run out of oxygen again, my thoughts are clouding up. “Give me a minute,” I say. “Me mouth’s dry. I want to eat a bit of snow before I talk to her.” I try to move my arms out to get some, but the strength is gone. I grab a little that’s accumulated on my jacket. “Is she there?”
“She’s here Rob.”
“Hi, my sweetheart. I hope you’re tucked up in a nice warm bed. How are you doing?” The last part comes out strangely. My voice sounds mangled, even to my ears. I hope she doesn’t notice.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m thinking about you! You sound so much better than I expected…. Are you warm, my darling?” I chuckle a little.
“In the context of the altitude, the setting, I’m reasonably comfortable.” I hope she laughs at that. If she can laugh. A sudden pang of regret and guilt fills my soul. How could I leave her like this? This is all so wrong. I should’ve tried harder. I should’ve done something, anything. But now I’m dead. I’m a dead man speaking his final words.
“How are your feet?” Small talk. That’s good. I can do some small talk.
“I haven’t taken me boots off to check, but I may have a bit of frostbite….”
“I’m looking forward to making you completely better when you come home. I just know you’re going to be rescued. Don’t feel that you’re alone. I’m sending all my positive energy your way!” That’s nice. A small smile comes and goes. I hope she saves some for herself. She’ll need it once I’m gone.
“I’m so sorry,” The words come out like gravel. I hope she understands me.
“Don’t say that. You’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be better soon.” She knows. She knows but I don’t want her to. I don’t want her to know that I’m already gone.
“I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.”
“I love you so much, Rob. Please know that. I love you so much.” My tears freeze against my cheeks and I try to hold it all in. The words catch in my throat and I can’t say anything more. The radio slips from my hands and lays, half buried in the snow.
What should be my last thought? Jan maybe. I should think of her. And Sara. I wonder what she’ll be like. I hope she grows up happy. I hope she doesn’t feel sad that I never saw her or that she never saw me. I just want them to all be happy.
I’m scared. I know I shouldn’t be scared, but I am. The fading emptiness helps. I want to see it now. I want to see it all. I want to see what comes after. Maybe nothing, maybe something. I want to be with Jan. I want to take it all back. No. No, I don’t. This is where I am, this is where I’ve ended up. I lived every second of it. I lived.
Rob Hall (1961-1996)
If you wish to know more about the 1996 Everest tragedy, I would recommend reading Into Thin Air and watching the 2015 Everest film.