Nicola Smith, in The Australian, 29 May 2012
LEANNA Shuttleworth, a veterinary student, was still eight hours from becoming the youngest British woman to scale Mt Everest when she came across the first body. Attached to a rope above her on the mountainside was Shriya Shah-klorfine, 33, a NepaleseCanadian businesswoman who had died from exhaustion and altitude sickness the previous day. Ms Shuttleworth, 19, and her father Mark, 48, had no choice but to use the same rope on their route to the top. They clipped themselves to it, unclipped to pass Shah-klorfine, then clipped back on to continue climbing, buffeted by bitter winds in temperatures down to minus 25C.Further horrors awaited them. ‘‘There was another man who was almost dead,’’ said Ms Shuttleworth. ‘‘He was sitting attached to an anchor and he was rocking and I just thought it was a dead body rocking in the wind, but as we passed he raised his arm and looked at us. He didn’t know anyone was there. He was almost dead. He was dead when we came back down.’’
The Shuttleworths were climbing last week during Everest’s deadliest 36 hours since 2004. Four people died and many others had lucky escapes. The victims all died in the final icy stretch above the South Col camp at 8000m, in an area known as the death zone. Conditions became even more treacherous than usual last weekend as 200-plus people raced to reach the 8848m summit during the first window of good weather this climbing season.
According to Gyanendra Shrestha, of Nepal’s mountaineering department, climbers were heading to the summit as late as 2.30pm on Saturday, even though it is considered dangerous to leave after 11am. Bottlenecks then formed at the Hillary Step, a 14m spur near the summit, forcing climbers to wait up to three hours, exhausting oxygen supplies. The delay also increased their risk of altitude sickness, which causes a swelling of the brain and makes the body shut down.
Eberhard Schaaf, 62, a German doctor, was the first to die, shortly after he had reached the summit early last Saturday week. His climb had been driven by idealism — he spent days collecting 50kg of litter from the slopes. He had succumbed to altitude sickness on the descent, close to the Hillary Step. Ms Shuttleworth said her team had to cut Dr Schaaf’s body from the fixed rope to be able to pass by. Ms Shah-klorfine, who was born in Nepal, was the next to die. She had reached the summit by 2.30pm, after being delayed for two hours by other climbers. She had dreamed of scaling Everest since she had first seen it from a helicopter aged nine, and had remortgaged her Toronto home to pay for her expedition. The long descent was too strenuous for her. The rocking man seen by Ms Shuttleworth is believed to have been either Wang Yifa, 55, a Chinese climber, or South Korean Song Won-bin, 44.
Other climbers believe they had a narrow escape. Becky Bellworthy, 20, another Briton, described her terror as she tried to descend against the flow.
‘‘There was a single rope attached to the mountain and you have to pass people on ridges that are only wide enough for one set of feet, and you are literally climbing over other people to get back down again,’’ she said. Ms Bellworthy said she and her team of six had wept with j oy when they were reunited with friends at base camp.
The death toll would have been higher had it not been for the heroism of climbers who risked their lives to rescue others. For Nadav Ben Yehuda, a 24-year-old Israeli, the choice was simple when he saw Turkish-born American climber, Aydin Irmak, 46, whom he had befriended at base camp, slumped on a ridge just 250m from the summit.
‘‘I realised that the expedition was over for me,’’ said Mr Yehuda, who had been training for two years. He put Mr Irmak on his back and carried him for eight hours down to South Col.
Mr Yehuda then stumbled across a semi-conscious Malaysian climber. To his relief, a climbing team crossed their path. ‘‘After a long debate they gave him oxygen and he survived,’’ he said.
Mountaineering experts have warned that Everest climbers can no longer rely on the traditional mountaineering code of ethics. Iain Peter, a guide, said many were inexperienced amateurs unable to save a climber in trouble.
‘‘What people are doing there is not mountaineering. What a lot of them are doing is just ticking a box for their ego. It’s become a kind of thrill ride for folks,’’ he said.
Ms Shuttleworth said she was briefly elated when she reached the peak but believes the day will haunt her for life.