Thick clouds had descended and a heavy silence enveloped the ridge – we had no choice but to wait in the high thin air under limp prayer flags wreathed in mist. Ed was not the only person looking grey and gaunt when the two helicopters found a gap to dive through the weather, just long enough to pick us up whilst the rotors roared, frantic farewells were waved, and rhododendrons bowed in the fierce damp gusts.
Over the decades Rinpoche witnessed many cycles of Sagarmatha triumphs and catastrophes. In May 1996 my young sons ran ahead as I toiled up the Namche hill, to meet up with the retreating Everest expeditions. Their members were dazed and traumatised from the shattering events that resulted in eight people dead in one day including two experienced leaders, New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer.
Everyone along the trail was talking about the tragedy, and one lonely morning we offered lamps and katas at Tengboche monastery in the time-honoured custom. With the bleak cry of kites spiralling the thermals overhead, Guy Cotter strode towards us across the bridge below Pangboche, Rob’s Kiwi climbing colleague who had led the rescue. He was lean, drawn and exhausted in grief.
The drama had unfolded over several days, so intense that it became the subject of many books and films, Hollywood made a blockbuster movie, and those of us directly involved have the events seared into our memory. Whilst attempting the summit on 10 May 1996 an unexpected storm descended, stranding climbers high on the mountain. With Guy in base camp I coordinated the rescue by radio phone from Kathmandu with help from the American Embassy, but despite everyone’s best efforts we failed to get them all back down.
Some headway was made – valiant Sherpas saved members lost in the blizzard, America’s most experienced mountaineers abandoned their IMAX Everest film to help, and when the weather cleared the heroic helicopter captain Madan KC broke altitude records to pick up the worst injured climbers from above the Khumbu icefall. Later that day in the Kathmandu clinic, I held the telephone to Beck Weathers’ ear as the Texan surgeon, both frostbitten hands fully bandaged, told his wife in Dallas that he had miraculously survived having been “left for dead” – tears streamed down his ice-burned face.