the fatal attraction of Everest
For Seamus Lawless, the moment has arrived. It is 8.30am on May 16, and he is standing on the summit of Mt Everest. To reach the highest point in the world has been his lifelong ambition. It is windy and extraordinarily cold – about minus 30 degrees – but he and three fellow climbers pose for photographs, beaming through oxygen masks. If they look across the jagged snow-covered peaks of the Himalaya to the horizon, they can see the curvature of the earth. It is unwise to linger at this altitude, almost nine kilometres above sea level, so after about 20 minutes they begin the long descent.
Lawless is an open and engaging Irishman, the kind of person who seems to seize life with both hands. An assistant professor in the school of computer science and statistics at Trinity College Dublin, he has worked hard to develop his mountaineering skills. About four hours below the summit, on a natural platform known as the Balcony, he and his companions switch to new oxygen bottles. Then Lawless continues his descent with an experienced Nepali guide, bound for the highest camp on the mountain. It is the last his friends will see of him.
Camp 4, as it is called, is at 7900 metres on the South Col, a plateau that links Everest to Lhotse, the world’s fourth-tallest mountain. On one side of this windswept saddle is a drop of more than a kilometre into Tibet. On the other side, is a similarly long drop into Nepal. Lawless’s longtime climbing partner, Jenny Copeland, arrives at the camp with the rest of the group at about 4pm. They are greeted with scarcely believable news. Lawless is gone. According to his stricken guide, Temba Bhote, he went over the edge.
The next day, Lawless’s rucksack with his climbing harness inside is discovered at the foot of the Lhotse Face, a towering wall of blue glacial ice. There is no sign of his body. In Ireland, his family sets up a GoFundMe page, asking for donations to help cover the cost of a search and recovery operation. Money floods in – about $445,000 by the time the appeal ends – but treacherous weather prevents helicopters from taking off for close to a week. When the search finally begins, it yields only Lawless’s goggles and his crampons, the spiked metal frames from the bottom of his boots, which are spotted on rocks about 100 metres below the South Col.
Lawless is one of 11 people to die on Everest during this year’s northern-spring climbing season. Canberra public servant Gilian Lee almost bumps the number up to 12: he collapses while climbing and has to be dragged unconscious down the mountain, then transported by yak and helicopter to hospital in Kathmandu, the Nepali capital. In late May, the world is shocked by a photograph of climbers caught in a human traffic jam at the southern approach to the summit. “Just jaw-dropping,” says Greg Mortimer, who with Tim Macartney-Snape made the first Australian ascent of Everest in 1984. “It may be the most tragic photo in mountaineering history.”
When I call Jenny Copeland in July, she is struggling to come to terms with Lawless’s death. “It makes absolutely no sense to me,” she says, pointing out that her climbing partner was proficient and safety-conscious. How could he have vanished like that? “I have so many questions,” Copeland says. “But no answers.” Also puzzled is Russell Brice, one of the longest established operators of guided climbing expeditions in Nepal. We meet in the southern NSW town of Queanbeyan, near Canberra, where New Zealand-born Brice lives when he isn’t in the Himalaya. The disappearance of Lawless was the subject of immediate conjecture in the sprawling tent city that is Everest base camp, he says, especially among the leaders of expedition companies: “We went, ‘There’s something funny here.’”
But Brice and his colleagues had a lot else on their minds. Trouble had been brewing at Everest for some time, he says. “But this year was a dramatic change. It felt so much worse.” Though the number of climbing permits issued was only slightly higher than in the previous northern spring, there were few days when the weather allowed people to head for the top. Consequently the surge to the summit sometimes looked like a stampede. Brice says he has long believed that Everest’s biggest problem is the composition of the crowd it attracts. This year, more than ever, the mountain seemed to him to swarm with inexperienced climbers, unqualified guides and unscrupulous expedition operators. It was as if Everest Inc had reached a tipping point, and the result was a death count more than double that of 2018. US climber and blogger Alan Arnette, in his account of the 2019 season, summed it up as “the year Everest finally broke”.
Some people are drawn irresistibly to mountains. While the rest of us are content to putter about on the plains, they hanker to be far above the snowline in that region of transcendent beauty and terrifying inhospitality that the 19th-century English poet Francis Ridley Havergal called “the weird white realm”. Sydney woman Ruth McCance gave away mountaineering when she was 30, deciding the risks were too great. Three years ago, aged 47, she took it up again, and in late May she was killed by a Himalayan avalanche. Her grieving husband, Trent Goldsack, says he accepts that climbing “wasn’t just what she loved, it was what she needed to do”. For McCance, an executive coach who was also a jazz singer and champion sailor, thin air and wild terrain were restorative. “When she’d been to the mountains, she was so energised and full of life,” Goldsack says. “Communing with nature in its rawest form fed her soul.”
Australian mountaineer Mike Groom lost the front of both feet to frostbite after his 1987 climb of the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga. He remembers being advised to get a walking frame and a desk job. Instead, he went on to summit Everest. Twice. At 60, Groom says he has hung up his ice-axe. Well, probably. Even now, he has only to gaze at a decent-sized mountain to feel himself succumbing to its spell: “It’s almost speaking to me, as if to say, ‘Come a little closer.’”
Seamus Lawless heard the siren song. The Irish Mirror reported that at his memorial service, where mourners included his pregnant wife, Pam, and their four-year-old daughter, one of his friends reminded the congregation that “since he was a teenager, he spoke about the mountains”. Jenny Copeland tells me that for years a double-page picture of Everest from National Geographic magazine was pinned to her climbing partner’s wall: “He called it ‘the centrefold’.”
Such enthralment has a long and honourable tradition. “Everest has the most steep ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen,” English climber George Mallory wrote to his wife, Ruth, from his lamplit tent on the mountain in 1921. “My darling … I can’t tell you how it possesses me.” In Mountains of the Mind, an exploration of humankind’s helpless fascination with high places, author Robert Macfarlane says reading the letters and journals from Mallory’s three Everest expeditions “is to eavesdrop on a burgeoning love affair – a love affair with a mountain”.
Everest is a three-sided pyramid of rock and ice straddling the border of Nepal and Tibet. “What is it that causes somebody to risk their life for something that can’t love them back?” asks Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, whose own preoccupation with peaks has resulted in the internationally acclaimed documentaries Mountain and Sherpa. Everest isn’t the hardest mountain to climb – Annapurna, also in the Himalaya, has a much higher death rate – but, as Peedom knows, Everest exerts a particular hold over our imagination. “There is such mystique and history around Everest,” she says. Its Tibetan name, Chomolungma, means “mother goddess of the world”, and its Nepali name, Sagarmatha, translates to “goddess of the sky”.
Everest has the most steep ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen … My darling … I can’t tell you how it possesses me.
The British, who identified it as the world’s highest mountain during their Great Trigonometrical Survey of the Indian subcontinent in the mid-19th century, named it after Sir George Everest, a former surveyor-general of India. On Mallory’s third expedition, in 1924, he struck out for the summit with Andrew Irvine, a 22-year-old Oxford University student. They were last seen high on the north-east ridge. Whether or not they reached the top is Everest’s best-kept secret. Mallory’s frozen corpse was found in 1999. Irvine’s remains have never been recovered. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary, who climbed it in 1953, are remembered as the mountain’s conquerors, but Mallory is Everest’s cult figure. He made scaling icy escarpments seem glamorous, a pastime both devil-may-care and high-minded (in the evenings, he and his fellow expeditioners read to one another from Hamlet and King Lear). Asked by a journalist why he wanted to climb Everest, he responded with the most famous throwaway line in the annals of mountaineering: “Because it’s there.” As Peedom says: “The Mallory story is probably responsible for a whole lot of people attempting to climb Everest.”
Many, like Mallory and Irvine, haven’t lived to tell the tale. More than 300 people have perished on the mountain since the 1920s, and close to half those deaths have occurred in the past 20 years, says Billi Bierling, managing director of The Himalayan Database, an archive of information about climbing expeditions. Everest’s capacity to kill is part of its allure, it seems to Bierling, who dates modern Everest-mania to the publication of Into Thin Air, US journalist Jon Krakauer’s gripping first-hand account of the blizzard in which eight climbers died in 1996. Several other survivors of that storm subsequently wrote memoirs, and a Hollywood movie, Everest, was released four years ago. Bierling says expedition operators worried initially that all this would be bad for business, but bookings went through the roof. It was the same after the 2014 avalanche in which 16 Nepalis died on Everest, and the 2015 earthquake that killed 8900 people in Nepal, including 19 at Everest base camp. “The more disasters we have and the more books that are written, the more people come,” Bierling says. “Over the last 10 years, the numbers have gone up and up and up.” In 2018, 547 people paid tens of thousands of dollars each for the chance to get to the top of Everest, and 396 succeeded.
Climber Greg Mortimer contrasts this with 1984, when he and Tim Macartney-Snape made their way to the summit in splendid isolation. “We had the entire northern valley system of Everest to ourselves,” he says. “The entire north face to play on! We did a new route – we were just making it up as we went along.” In principle, Mortimer welcomes the Everest boom. Mountaineering can be transformative, he says. “There is an enormous amount to be learnt about yourself and the world and the big natural forces that control it.” For him, the experience verges on the spiritual: “There’s a heightened sense of awareness that it demands. A presence of mind. It’s almost an exalted state.”
But the picture of the conga line of climbers on the southern summit ridge depressed Mortimer. “This guided climbing thing has flipped into madness,” he says. At 8848 metres, the top of Everest is well into the so-called “death zone”, where the atmosphere holds at best only one-third as much oxygen as at sea level. Bottled oxygen partially compensates, but climbers who encounter long delays are at risk of emptying their canisters. “Above 8000 metres, anyone is hovering on a knife-edge between life and death,” Mortimer says. “If you’ve got to wait in a bloody queue, you’re knocking on heaven’s door.”
Marisa Strydom, a finance lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University, went to Everest in 2016 as part of a larger plan. She and her husband, Robert Gropel, a veterinarian, wanted to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents to show what vegans could do. Already they had ticked off North America’s Denali (6190 metres) and South America’s Aconcagua (6962 metres), but Strydom knew Everest was in a different league. In an email to her family, she said she was “a little nervous but that is good as it keeps you on your toes”. She and Gropel had booked places on a climb jointly run by Dutch mountaineer Arnold Coster and the biggest Nepali expedition operator, Seven Summit Treks. They paid $US45,000 each.
Everest expeditions take two months or more, partly because of the need to wait for a “weather window”, when jet-stream winds that can whip the summit at hurricane strength temporarily abate, but mainly because acclimatising to high altitude is a slow process. Most climbers ascend from the Nepal side, where base camp, at 5400 metres, is full of people with headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Other common symptoms of altitude sickness are breathlessness, coughing, irritability, loss of appetite, insomnia and a sense of disconnection from reality. Higher on the mountain, oxygen deprivation can affect brain function, leaving climbers seriously disoriented. High-altitude cerebral oedema (swelling of the brain) and high-altitude pulmonary oedema (a build-up of fluid in the lungs) are potentially fatal. Strydom made clear to her family that getting home in good health was more important to her and Gropel than climbing Everest: “We will give it our best shot, hopefully that is enough, but if not, then so be it,” she wrote.
Not far below the summit, Strydom became ill and confused. Arnold Coster says she at first agreed to descend – the best treatment for altitude sickness – but then wanted to follow Gropel to the top. Eventually she was incapable of progressing in either direction. She and Gropel had paid extra to have four Nepali guides between them, but Gropel says none seemed to have much idea of what to do in a medical emergency. “Everyone was kind of staring blankly,” he says. Strydom ended up spending 31 hours in the death zone, but back at Camp 4, she appeared to recover.
Gropel says she was upset to hear that another member of their expedition, Eric Arnold, from the Netherlands, had returned from the summit and died in his tent. After a few hours, she and Gropel began the descent to Camp 3, but Strydom, 34, collapsed and died on the way. Her mother, Catharina Strydom, learnt of her death from the online version of a Nepali newspaper, The Himalayan Times.
Gropel says senior people at Seven Summit Treks showed surprisingly little compassion: “They were more worried about the negative media, how it would affect their business.” Coster, on the other hand, was pretty sure that news of the two deaths would do no harm at all. “As a matter of fact, I got more inquiries,” he tells me.
Perhaps all those people crawling towards the summit in the photo were there because, like Seamus Lawless, they dreamed about climbing Everest as kids. But Coster would be surprised. “A lot of the clients aren’t mountaineers,” he says. “They’re more like trophy-hunters.” Tim Macartney-Snape agrees: “They’re more interested in talking about it at a cocktail party than actually being in the mountains. It’s a status-enhancing thing.” What disturbs him is the how-hard-can-it-be attitude that some bring to base camp. “A lot of people are very unrealistic about the dangers and difficulties.”
For The Himalayan Database, Billi Bierling interviews climbers in Kathmandu before they leave for Everest, and again when they return. “Some of them I don’t recognise because they’ve aged by 20 years,” she says. Some are exhilarated by the whole thing, but “some just look shocked. Not only have they lost 20 kilograms, they have a weird look in their eyes.” The worst affected tend to be the climbers who started with the least experience. “And more and more inexperienced people are coming,” Bierling says.
It is easy to see how you could get the impression that all you really need do is pay a large sum of money and turn up. Seven Summit Treks offers a $US130,000 ($192,000) Mt Everest climb described on the company’s website as being just the thing if “you want to experience what it feels like to be on the highest point of the planet and have strong economic background to compensate for your old age, weak physical condition or your fear of risks”. Bierling doesn’t believe rumours that clients of some expedition companies have been carried up Everest. “But I seriously think some are pushed up,” she says.
Most guides on the mountain are Sherpas, members of one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups. People tend to assume that because Sherpas are renowned for their strength at high altitude, they are inherently skilled mountaineers, says Andrew Lock, the only Australian to have climbed the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8000 metres (10 in the Himalaya, four in the nearby Karakoram range). “But Sherpas aren’t born with ice-axes in their hands,” Lock says. “They’re not gifted climbers. They have to learn the ropes like everybody else, and very few of them do.” In place of formal training, many acquire great expertise through experience, but the rapid growth of the Everest industry and associated increase in demand for guides means some of those shepherding clients to the summit are novices: “It’s the blind leading the blind, which can only end badly.”
Guides should know when and how to convince a client to give up on a summit attempt, says David Hamilton, leader of British company Jagged Globe’s Everest expeditions. One of the reasons that foreign-owned climbing companies include Western guides on their teams, he says, is that Sherpas, culturally averse to confrontation and lowly paid by Western standards, can find it difficult to resist a determined climber’s bullying or blandishments: “The classic example is the Nepali guide who says to the Korean or Japanese customer an hour or two below the top, ‘I think you are too slow. You should go back.’ And the customer says, ‘If we keep going, I’ll give you an extra $1000 tip.’ In that case, the Sherpa will keep going, whereas a Western guide will say, ‘No, this is unsafe. I don’t care if you’re mad with me, I don’t care if you try to sue me in court. I’m going to get you down alive.’”
After Canberra man Gilian Lee’s rescue from Everest, he was interviewed in his Kathmandu hospital for the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program. Lee – who declined to speak to Good Weekend – had insisted on trying to reach the summit without supplementary oxygen, a feat so challenging that it has defeated many of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers. Andrew Lock, for instance, managed to climb the other 13 peaks over 8000 metres with no bottled oxygen, but not Everest (he gave up when he started having hallucinations involving giant bats).
Lee agreed on camera that, before he lost consciousness, his two Sherpa guides had pleaded with him to turn back. He had refused. “I’m a stubborn bastard, okay,” he said cheerfully. Lee’s mother, Julie Peck, who was also interviewed, made the point that he not only nearly killed himself but put the guides in danger by saddling them with the task of bringing him down the mountain. It was Lee’s fourth attempt to climb Everest. “I am running out of $$ to chase this dream,” he had written in his blog. “… This will be the last throw of the dice.” But on TV he refused to rule out having another go, and his mother did not hide her despair. “Until this boy summits Everest, or Everest claims him, he will go back,” she said.
Filmmaker Jennifer Peedom reckons those who tackle the mountain can be divided into two categories: egomaniacs and dreamers. “There are some beautiful people who have just been captured by the literature and the romance, this idea of pushing yourself to the limit,” she says. For a few of them, unfortunately, it becomes an obsession: “Somehow they get into their heads that they’re not complete until they’ve climbed Everest. A psychologist could have a field day with that.”
Peedom was on Everest in 2006 when a 34-year-old Englishman named David Sharp made his third attempt to climb the mountain. Sharp had arrived at base camp with Shakespeare’s collected works, emulating Mallory, and a plan to get to the top without Sherpa support. He failed. What provoked outrage were reports that about 40 climbers had passed him as he froze slowly to death in Green Boots Cave, a rocky alcove named after the footwear of the mountaineer whose frozen body he joined. In fact, some climbers did try to help Sharp, but even Edmund Hillary weighed into the controversy, saying, “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest has become rather horrifying.”
Traditionally, mountaineers have come to one another’s aid. “From my perspective, life always comes first,” says Andrew Lock. “I failed my first two attempts on Mt Everest because on the summit day I got involved in rescues of people. For me, that’s all part of the adventure. If someone is in trouble, of course I’ll abandon the hill: it’s just a lump of rock and ice.” But for paying customers, some of whom have handed over the equivalent of a house deposit for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stand atop Everest, throwing it all away in order to help another climber can seem too much to ask. Queenslander Brad Horn, who climbed the mountain with expedition company Adventure Consultants last year, says he made his position clear at the outset: “I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m not stopping on the way to the summit to help someone.’ I said, ‘Everyone knows the risk.’ If, on the way down, I can assist, and I’ve got enough oxygen, I’ll happily do it. But I’m here for one reason.” Horn pauses. “I know it sounds really horrible. I know Edmund Hillary would be rolling in his grave right now.”
Here’s the deal. I’m not stopping on the way to the summit to help someone … I’m here for one reason.
As things worked out, Horn’s group’s only problem was getting caught behind slow climbers. “We unclipped on the way to the Balcony to get around teams,” he says. “You’re shit-scared that you’re going to slip and fall, but you either do that or you wait in line.” In any case, it was all worth it. “There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think about that mountain.”
George Mallory climbed for King and Country, and to push the boundaries of human endeavour. How different from today, when the only reason to get to the top of Everest is personal gratification, says the legendary mountaineer’s grandson, also called George Mallory. A retired engineer who lives in Melbourne, Mallory Jr made his own ascent in 1995, arriving at the summit just after sunrise. He says he spent close to an hour taking in the view – “stupendous” – and, before turning to go, completed some family business. He had brought with him a laminated photograph of both his grandparents, George and Ruth. “I stuck it in the snow and left it there,” he says.
Among the provisions on Mallory’s 1924 expedition were 60 tins of quail in foie gras and several cases of vintage Montebello champagne. Excellent meals are still available at Everest base camp if you’ve booked on a top-of-the-range expedition, as are massages, hot showers and carpeted tents. But it’s the low-budget end of the industry, dominated by Nepali-owned companies, that is growing most rapidly. While many are pleased to see local operators taking an increasing share of the market – Nepal is an extremely poor country – old Everest hands urge prospective clients to be careful. “There is a lot of talk about the cheap operators cutting corners,” says Bierling, who advises asking such basic questions as: Will I be assigned a guide who has climbed Everest before?
The second time Melbourne psychologist Jan Smith tried to get to the top, she paid $US30,000 to go with a bargain-basement Nepali outfit. She says she regretted that choice when, poised for her push to the summit, she was told that oxygen supplies had run out. Forced to abandon the climb, she was left by her guides partway through the descent and had to make her own way through the Khumbu Icefall, a perilous jumble of teetering ice towers, some as big as office blocks. Then an attempt was made to withhold her passport until she paid bigger tips to the guides and support staff. A less resolute individual might have called it quits, but Smith returned to Everest the following year, 2012, and on her 68th birthday became the oldest Australian to reach the top.
Corruption is endemic in Nepal, says Tim Macartney-Snape: “It’s expected. It’s part of the culture.” Some Nepali expedition operators have been accused of involvement in a travel insurance scam based on unnecessary helicopter rescues. Under this scheme, a guide convinces a client with a minor ailment that medical evacuation is necessary, a helicopter company charges an astronomical fee to take the person to hospital, then the hospital charges a fortune for unnecessary tests and treatment. The fixers get kickbacks and the climber’s insurance company gets the bill. According to Danny Kaine, of Traveller Assist, an Irish-based medical assistance and cost-containment firm that acts for travel insurance companies, some owners of expedition companies have financial interests in helicopter companies and hospitals. Kaine, who has led an investigation into the racket, claims it defrauded travel insurance companies of $US5.6 million in 2018. The Nepal government’s promises to bring charges have so far come to nothing, he says.
Seven Summit Treks was fined $US44,000 last year for forging Everest climbing permits for two clients, thereby cheating the government out of $US22,000 in fees. But managing director Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, one of three brothers who own the company, denies Kaine’s allegation that they are involved in the travel insurance fraud. “Don’t believe this fake news,” Sherpa tells me.
Himalayan peaks higher than 8000 metres claimed 21 lives this northern spring. Seven of those people were climbing with Seven Summit Treks. “If a company had been operating like that in the West, the owners would be in court for manslaughter,” says David Hamilton of Jagged Globe. Because this is Nepal, “they get away with it year after year. They don’t feel any need to change their approach, because no matter how many deaths they have, nobody takes any action against them”. The company’s chairman, Mingma Sherpa, defends its safety record, arguing that it loses the most customers only because it has the biggest operation. Of its 80 Everest climbers this year, only two died (Ravi Thakar, from India, and Seamus Lawless, whose family, Sherpa says, was charged about $230,000 for Seven Summit’s three-day search for his body). “The percentage is very low,” he says. (The company’s other five deaths were on Makalu and Annapurna.)
Tim Macartney-Snape isn’t optimistic that the Nepal government will heed calls to reduce crowding on Everest by issuing fewer climbing permits. The government collects $US4 million a year from the permits, he says, and the climbing industry significantly boosts the economy. A Sherpa can make $US5000 or more in an Everest season; the Nepali average annual income is about $US1000. Macartney-Snape thinks everyone should be required to climb a 7000-metre Himalayan peak before attempting Everest. This would mean fewer under-prepared climbers – and corpses – on Everest’s slopes, and tourist wealth would be spread around the country. Also, the rest of the world would start to realise how much Nepal has to offer. “Most of the mountains are untouched,” he says. (An advisory panel to the Nepali government recommended this week that Everest climbing permits be issued only to people who have already climbed a Nepali mountain at least 6500m high.)
According to his guide, Seamus Lawless hadn’t quite reached Camp 4 when he plunged off the Nepal side of the South Col. Why, then, was his harness in his rucksack? The first rule in the mountains is that the light rope attached to your harness stays clipped to the thick, anchored rope that marks a climbing route, saving you from falling. “The only thing I can think is that he clipped off the rope for a nature call,” says Noel Hanna, the mountaineer who led Lawless’s group. But for Jenny Copeland, Lawless’s climbing partner, that isn’t a satisfactory explanation. “Even if it was to go to the toilet, he should never have unclipped,” she says.
Lawless was highly intelligent, popular, a great family man. Just before he plummeted over the edge, he texted his wife, telling her he’d got to the summit and was back at camp. But with the temperature as low as minus 20 degrees, why would he have removed his gloves to tap out those words when he knew he would soon be in his tent and could send the message from there? I call Seven Summit Treks chairman, Mingma Sherpa, who says the guide, Temba Bhote, contacted him straight after the incident, extremely upset. Lawless had been in the best of spirits, Bhote reportedly said. One moment he was there, the next he was not.
Mingma Sherpa, who has climbed the 14 peaks higher than 8000 metres, says that when he was young, he was occasionally overcome by euphoria brought on by the beauty of his surroundings. “I feel that if I die in mountain, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Common feeling: happy to die in mountain.”
To some of us, just about everything to do with mountaineering is mystifying. As the saying goes, “Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.” But an article published in 2017 in the journal Psychological Medicine proposes that there really is such a thing as mountain madness. The paper contends that climbers can have psychotic episodes distinct from the confusion associated with altitude sickness, and that this “isolated high-altitude psychosis” could be the cause of otherwise inexplicable accidents and deaths. One of the paper’s authors, Slovenian doctor Iztok Tomazin, recounts climbing alone down Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest mountain, when he hallucinated that a group of guides was urging him to speed his descent by jumping over a 2000-metre vertical drop. At the last second, Tomazin decided against taking their advice.
Noel Hanna believes Lawless just slipped and fell. Wind was gusting ferociously on the South Col, he says. People do get blown off mountainsides. Also, there was blue ice – hard and exceptionally slippery – in the area Lawless was crossing on his approach to the camp. Even in crampons, he could have lost his footing. That Lawless’s body was not discovered doesn’t strike Hanna as particularly odd: “Where his rucksack was found, there were a lot of crevasses.” Still, he concedes, “some of it doesn’t add up”. In the mountains, there are mysteries that will never be solved. “People have disappeared and nobody knows why or how,” he says.
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