Gary Ball

Operation Thunderbolt

On the afternoon of May 12, 1989, six Polish climbers were on their way down from the summit of Mt Everest when they were struck by a massive avalanche. Four died within hours; a fifth did not survive the night. One injured climber was left stranded on the mountain. New Zealand Geographic-sponsored climbers Gary Ball and Rob Hall were about to leave Kathmandu after their own attempt on the summit when they heard the news and offered to help. What followed was a remarkableand heroic rescue bid.

Written by       Photographed by Gary Ball and Rob Hall

Thirty year old Polish climber Angie Maciniak had every reason to feel pleased with himself on the morning of May 27 as he and his five fellow team members prepared to leave Camp 1 on Everest’s West Ridge to return to their Nepalese Base Camp.

It was Angie’s first Himalayan expedition, and with expedi­tion leader Genek Chrobak he had reached the summit three days earlier. Their 19-man expedition had chosen a rather long version of the West Ridge, approaching it over Mt Khumbutse and dropping down to the Lho Lha Saddle.

It had been a tough pre-mon­soon season with cold jet stream winds cleaning the mountain of snow and leaving polished rock-hard ice. Before the Polish ascent only two groups had reached the sum­mit, both from the South Col route and both ending in tragedy.

The two exultant Poles had returned to Camp 1 where they were met by four more of their team who had ascended from Base Camp to help them down. During the night a snow storm dumped 2m of snow on their camp site and set the scene for a terrible tragedy.

Taking turns at breaking trail across the Lho Lha, they spent all morning plugging deep snow to their fixed ropes on Khumbutse that would lead them up, over and down to the safety of Base Camp, thousands of metres below on the Khumbu Glacier.

At 1pm they were together 250m up a very steep couloir (gully), all hanging on the ropes and within 5m of a safe stance. Suddenly, the fresh snow, unable to adhere to the pol­ished ice near the top of the moun­tain, silently avalanched off, sending a giant curtain of destruction down upon the Poles.

“All I saw was something very big and very white before my face,” Angie later recalled. “But from this moment I don’t remember the falling time.”

Angie found himself lying injured on the snow at the base of the couloir. He had voice contact with some of the others who lay about him. In pain, he crawled to each one to help, but all were rapidly suc­cumbing to their injuries.

Soon only he and a badly injured Genek were still alive.

By walkie-talkie radio Angie let Base Camp know of the acci­dent. He then built a bivouac platform in the snow, dragged Genek on to it and settled down for an uncomfortable night. In the dark they were hit by fur­ther avalanches and had to move to a new site.

By morning Genek was dead.

Alone now, Angie knew his own chance of survival was slim unless he returned to the shelter of Camp 1. He left his dead comrades where they lay and began his determined, lone struggle through deep snow towards possible safety.

Across the Lho Lha at Base Camp, expedition manager Janusz Majar promptly organ­ised a rescue team to go up the fixed ropes on Khumbutse and down to the accident site. There was no shortage of vol­unteers for what was a relative­ly short climb, but all were forced back after only a few hundred metres by waist-deep snow and frightening avalanche conditions.

“Angie radioed that he suspected he had chest and facial injuries,” said Janusz, “but also that he couldn’t find Camp 1 as he was now lost in cloud.”

In Kathmandu on the evening of May 27, leading Polish climber Artur Hajzar staggered back to his hotel room after a hard session celebrating his unsuccessful attempt with Reinhold Messner on the South Face of Lhotse.

He sobered up the instant he read the note pinned to his door. His friends were in trouble on Everest and he was being asked to organise a rescue.

Meanwhile, Rob Hall and I were also in Kathmandu, awaiting a flight to New Zealand after our own battle with Everest. A record 63 days on the mountain had left us tired, weak, thin and looking forward to sipping beer beside a hotel pool in Singapore. The latter was not to be.

News travels fast among climbers in Kathmandu and we soon heard of the accident. The Poles and Artur had become firm friends of ours at Base Camp and we called in to Asian Trekking to offer our help.

Artur was having a few problems. “Everyone is talking helicopters. Messner says he can get one. Nepalese say they don’t have one that can fly that high. Someone else says they do.”

We offered our support, emphasis­ing that with or without a helicopter a land Operation must be organised immediately and not left as a final option should efforts to procure or even fly a machine fail. Artur was of a like mind and agreed to do both.

With the trade and transit embargo imposed on Nepal by India, the sen­sitive nature of the Chinese/Nepalese border, and a bureaucratic jungle sur­rounding the obtaining of an aircraft, Artur handed the helicopter option on to diplomatic levels, where it was keenly debated by American, Russian, Chinese, Polish and Nepalese diplomats.

Meantime, with the route over Khumbutse out of the question, there was no alternative but to travel over 500km to attempt a land rescue from the Tibetan side. We made a list of what we would need: food, medical gear, climbing equipment, transport, man-power, visas to enter Tibet, a let­ter in Chinese requesting assistance.

Artur, a chain smoker, looked up through his cigarette haze: “Will you join me?”

Without hesitation we said yes.

“Good. We leave at midnight. Please organise.”

Asian Trekking became a hive of activity, with people hurriedly sort­ing supplies. Rob and I had left our equipment in the Khumbu for a future expedition, but thanks to Tsering Dolkhas’ Trekking Shop offer­ing us the loan of anything we need­ed, we were quickly `expedition ready’.

News came through from Everest Base Camp. “Angie found Camp 1 but he is now snowblind and his radio batteries are fading.” Artur’s reply: “Tell him to hold on — we are corning.”

At the Chinese Embassy I talked with the Second Secretary. “The Ambassador wishes you to know the Chinese government will allow a Nepalese helicopter to cross the bor­der for humanitarian reasons, but you must tell us the registration and call sign.”

“Great!” I turned to the phone and passed on the information. I turned back to the Second Secretary: “They say that’s top secret information.”

We were at an impasse.

“Please just get us visas, permis­sion to take our landrover and a letter requesting all possible assistance,” I asked the official.

The Ambassador was fully taken with the spirit of the rescue and issued visas and the letter, but no vehicle permission. “The letter should get you Chinese transport anyway,” he suggested.

Due to civil unrest, the Chinese had closed Tibet to visitors and imposed martial law. We would be the only foreigners there in our efforts to reach Angie and sincerely thanked the Ambassador for recog­nising the importance of our mission.

To strengthen our rescue team we enlisted the help of Ang Jangbu Sherpa, who had been to the Lho Lha twice from Tibet and was a powerful climber in his own right, and Shiva Katel, a strong Sirdar from the Mountain Travel trekking company.

After tearful farewells from Angie’s girlfriend and the staff at Asian Trekking, who bedecked us with Buddhist prayer scarves, our five person team drove out of Kathmandu in torrential rain at 12.15am on May 30, bound for the border.

Daylight found us fast-talking our way out of Nepal and crossing the `Friendship Bridge’ into Chinese-held Tibet.

A broken-down truck stuck in the mud prevented further progress and even the Chinese border guard, whom we raised from bed where he slept with his AK47 under the blan­kets, was unable to help.

The landrover was hurriedly unloaded and the gear ferried up the road to a truck which was going to the administrative town of Khasa. There Immigration and Customs offi­cials welcomed us, having heard only that morning on Chinese Central Television of our rescue attempt. The letter from the Chinese Ambassador worked wonders and whoever read it would immediately react to help us.

Administration promised a truck at 3pm. We looked at our watches — 9.30am.

“That’s ridiculous! We don’t have the time to wait. We need it sooner!” We argued for 15 minutes before we realised to our embarrassment that Tibet keeps Beijing time — it was already 1.30pm.

An intimidating three-hour climb up a winding, muddy road, often hampered by other trucks bogging down ahead and causing us to anx­iously count off minutes, saw us on to the arid Tibetan Plateau.

Through the night and into the next day, with a Tibetan driver at the wheel, we bounced about on the flat deck of the truck, often becoming air­borne as it leapt from corrugation to corrugation, dropped into ruts and holes and glanced off rocks on the roadside.

A thick mantle of dust covered us, and despite dressing in scarves, glass­es and hats, it found its way into our eyes and throats.

“Cigarette?” offered Artur.

“Can’t be any worse than the dust.”

Lying in a stupor for hour upon hour we would often have to remind ourselves why we were there. Our active lifestyles made it difficult to cope with the time delays and the patience needed, when our minds were constantly picturing Angie lying somewhere on the mountain.

For Rob and me it also became a time of reflection. We had covered many miles over the previous three months and had had more than our share of adventure.

[Chapter break]

Our objective when we left New Zealand in February had been to make a lightweight ascent without supple­mentary oxygen of Everest’s South Pillar — a climb which would be rel­evant to the current ‘state of the art’ in Himalayan climbing.

Many expeditions hire Sherpas as porters, and often it is these Sherpas who make the team successful by guiding and sometimes almost drag­ging climbers on to the elusive sum­mit. But they are rarely given any credit. I spoke to the leader of an American expedition last year: “We had a successful expedition,” he related. “Three on top.” There were in fact seven on top: four were Sherpas.

On our climb Apa Sherpa and Pincho Norbu Sherpa were on equal terms with us, sharing the risk, the portering of ladders and loads, the lead climbing, the food and even tent space. (The latter took a little getting used to for us Kiwi males, as the Sherpa idea for warmth is to all snug­gle up together.)

We arrived at Base Camp two days after the American ‘On Top’ expedi­tion. Their yellow tents were dotted about the moraine amid the piles of rubbish left by expeditions over the years. We chose a site closest to the Khumbu Icefall and Lho Lha so we could be at the head of the water sup­ply, although we were aware that it, too, could be polluted by the rubbish of old camps, dead bodies and excre­ment in the Icefall.

Our arrival put us nearly a month ahead of other expeditions and we agreed to open the Icefall route with American lead climbers and their Sherpas.

First, a `puja’ ceremony was held, to give us a Buddhist blessing and protect the expedition from the perils of the mountain. A stone altar decked out with sweets and Steinlagers to placate the gods was the centre-piece as we burnt juniper branches and drank chung (the Sherpa beer). A lama from Pangboche village chanted beneath coloured prayer flags strung out to the boundaries of our camp­site.

Our spiritual world in order, we could venture into the Icefall to begin work.

Unlike the 1988 season, when heavy falls of monsoon snows had made access relatively easy, this year the Khumbu Icefall lived up to its notorious reputation and presented us with a mass of twisted ice, unstable towers and deep chasms. All of it was constantly on the move — and it spelt DANGER.

We divided into two teams to work alternately in the lead. For two and a half weeks we slowly pushed the route through, sometimes pro­gressing only a few hundred metres a day. Already fixed areas frequently had to be re-set after major ice col­lapses swallowed ropes and ladders.

Our day would begin before twi­light as we ate breakfast in the dark and listened to Apa and Pincho chanting prayers. Juniper was burned, its smoke curling up into the atmosphere where its rich perfume would appease the gods.

Like regular shift workers, our lunches in our packs, Apa and I would head off to the Icefall. We would stay close together, wending our way around ice towers and across seemingly bottomless crevasses. While I gasped for breath in the rarified air Apa would keep up a constant chant of prayers. At particularly dangerous places he would plant a prayer flag on a bamboo stick, or toss rice, chanting all the while.

Everyone would vacate the Icefall around midday, before the heat of the sun turned it into a death trap.

On April 5 the last bridge was lowered into place across a yawning chasm. Four ladders tied end to end spanned the crevasse and opened the way into the Western Cwm (pronounced coom) — a giant hanging valley between the walls of Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest (see diagram p.94).

Base Camp was now turning into a colourful tent city. A 20-person Polish team attempting the West Ridge had arrived, as had 14 Yugoslays for the South Pillar, 12 French for the South Col and 16 climbers on the American Snowbird South Col expedition.

Soon the Icefall route echoed to the crunching of many cramponed feet as climbers and Sherpas hauled themselves up fixed ropes and lad­ders and across bridges as they estab­lished their expeditions on the mountain.

Because we were acclimatised, having spent so much time opening the Icefall, we would overtake the queues of laden climbers hanging from the ropes and gasping for breath. By season’s end the situation would be reversed as we would have overspent our time in the thin atmo­sphere.

Good progress on our own climb had us speculating on a summit success in short time, but our enthusi­asm was soon tempered by a series of disasters.

First Pincho and Apa became ill at Camp 1, at the top of the Icefall. We wondered if it might be psychoso­matic — all the Sherpas had been upset by the discovery of a dead body near Base Camp — but it soon became apparent that it was a physi­cal illness when the chanting and praying stopped, and Pincho even refused to eat the meat from the sheep’s leg he had carried up.

While they stayed in their sleep­ing bags for several days, Rob and I slaved under the weight of double loads, ferrying equipment 4km up the Western Cwm to Camp 2.

Then Rob and I succumbed to the same illness. I awoke to sore muscles and fever and moaned to Rob at breakfast. “Bit sore myself,” he admitted, and promptly vomited out the tent door.

We headed back to Base Camp smartly, knowing that illness at these altitudes can be fatal. While I was at least stable, Rob’s deterioration was frighteningly rapid. At Camp 1 we told our Sherpa colleagues to retreat to Base Camp also.

After a week of recuperation we returned to Camp 2 for our attempt on the South Pillar, but we seemed to face one problem after another. A headless corpse on the route discour­aged Apa and Pincho. Then a giant crevasse forced us to traverse well out of our way on to the Lhotse Face in order to pass it.

“Pillar too dangerous now,” Pincho kept warning us. “No snow.”

Crampons barely gripped the pol­ished ice and there was the constant danger of rockfall. With the absence of snow, rocks freely fell down the mountainside at speeds of several hundred kilometres per hour. On one occasion as Rob and Pincho pushed the route out a massive fall swept down in front of them. It was a nar­row escape, and had they not just stopped to adjust their climbing gear they would have been caught by it.

“We’re coming back,” Rob radioed to me at Camp 2. “That one nearly killed us!”

We debated the alternatives and agreed to change to the South Col route for safety reasons. The Ministry of Tourism in Kathmandu approved of the change, and in consideration of the effort we had put in to open the Icefall, the other expedition leaders welcomed us on to the new route.

On our first attempt we were forced to turn back at 7600m; Rob was having problems with a severe throat infection.

Again we returned to Base Camp to rest. Pincho was hobbling, and a doctor diagnosed thrombosis in his left leg. He would have to stop climb­ing: should the blood clot move it would undoubtedly kill him.

We had been on the mountain too long. Other expeditions were just reaching their acclimatisation peak, but those of us who had put the Icefall route through were well past it and beginning to deteriorate. Blood tests at the American camp con­firmed this — our blood was becom­ing too thick to carry oxygen effi­ciently around our bodies. Despite this, we decided to make one last attempt.

Due to the tough conditions on the mountain, we, along with everyone else, decided to change back to using supplementary oxygen to give us a chance of success.

At 7600m Rob’s throat infection once again forced him to retreat. Apa and I agreed to continue together. With other groups also in pursuit of the summit we felt we could still field a large team to make a concerted push.

‘On Top’ had finally put a group on top and we watched them descending. Four had left that morn­ing. Expedition leader Walt McConnell, at 57 hoping to be the oldest man to summit, had fallen 20m and retreated with frostbite, while Ricardo Torres, with Sherpas Perdorge and Ang Dahnu, had con­tinued. We could only count two descending.

I embraced Ang Dahnu as he arrived at South Col. Last year he had wanted to climb back up the moun­tain to help me down when I was alone at 8100m. Rob had stopped him for safety reasons. Now tears flooded his eyes.

“Perdorge is missing.”

Perdorge was highly respected and this was a major blow to Sherpa morale. Ricardo staggered in later, having survived a 45m fall from the South Summit

“It was not worth Perdorge’s life,” he wept. He felt upset at the price of his own success.

In the Snowbird tents where New Zealander Peter Hillary and Australian Roddy Mackenzie were preparing for their summit attempt, their Sherpas decided not to climb. Apa made the same announcement to me.

“I understand. Will you wait here for me while I give it a go?”

“Yes,” he said, and began chanting prayers.

Pete, Roddy and I joined forces, leaving at midnight. In freezing tem­peratures Apa loaded video camera, six batteries, two still cameras and survival gear into my pack, then added the crippling weight of an oxy­gen cylinder.

“Good luck!” Apa gave me a reas­suring hug.

“I shall return carrying my shield or being carried upon it,” I quipped, and staggered into the moonlit night. A hundred metres from the tent I dumped the heavy oxygen gear and continued unaided.

Keeping pace with Roddy and Peter, who were both using oxygen, I climbed slowly up the couloir on the summit pyramid.

My faulty head-torch tested my patience, but I was able to see enough by moonlight. To the east Makalu, fifth highest in the world, came into view, its icy flanks reflecting silver light.

At 8200m Peter and I ran into trouble. For Peter it was a throat infection, while I was having trouble with my balance. I was becoming too cold, climbing slowly without the aid of oxygen; not just fingers and toes, but right to my very core. Roddy con­tinued another 300m before also retreating in dangerous snow and ice conditions.

Back at the tent Apa fed me hot drinks and put me on oxygen as I lay shivering with hypothermia.

I recovered in four hours, but knew I did not have another shot left in me. It was time to admit that 61 days on the mountain had taken its toll on me too. I radioed Rob to break the news and asked what he was doing.

“Lying here planning our next Everest expedition,” he replied.

[Chapter break]

From the Back of the rescue truck as we bounced across Tibet toward Angie Maciniak, our own climb seemed such a long time ago.

Everest’s North Face slowly came into view. In a daze we would repeat­edly jump over the tailgate to clear boulders from the road or to push the truck when it threatened to tip into the Rongbuk River.

At midday we finally ground to a halt, packed our rucksacks and quickly ate a cup of noodles each, our first meal since leaving Kathmandu. Shiva stayed with the truck to ensure the driver didn’t desert us. He was to bring food to the snowline if we had not returned within four days.

Jambu led the way up the moraine beside the Rongbuk Glacier. We hard­ly spoke, each of us lost in our own thoughts and suffering the weight of our rucksacks. After three hours of toil we reached the fresh snow laid down by the early monsoon.

Plugging our own trail, we had to take care as we slipped and tripped over hidden ice and rocks. After another three hours I began succumbing to fatigue and dropped well behind. Caught by darkness, I fol­lowed the deep tracks by torchlight.

Suddenly Rob appeared in front of me. He had come back to carry my rucksack.

“We’re too tired as well,” he said, “so we’re going to bivvy here.”

I staggered in to the tent and fell asleep immediately.

Awoken before dawn, I felt refreshed and strong again. We roped together because of crevasse danger, and with Artur in the lead, ploughed a furrow through the snow toward the Lho Lha.

Artur knew exactly where the tent should be.

“I don’t see it!” There was a touch of panic in his voice.

“It’s got to be there,” I assured him. “You can see the snow has been disturbed.”

From 100m away we shouted. There was no response and the ten­sion mounted. Had we not reached him in time? Was he unconscious? Or did he hear but think it was an hallucination? After all, he had prob­ably been hearing his name called for five days!

Fifty metres out we shouted again.

Snow suddenly flew into the air and a figure in a red down suit stood up, both arms raised in a victory salute. That ranks as the most magic moment of my life. Everyone’s efforts had proved worthwhile.

We rushed forward to him and with tears in his eyes he embraced us each in turn, hoarsely whispering over and over, “Thank you, thank you.”

I checked out his physical condi­tion. Suspected chest injuries made it hard for him to deep breathe, but his condition had obviously improved since the accident. Vision was about 50m after three days of total blind­ness. All his teeth were loose, broken, embedded in his tongue or gone where his radio had bashed him in the face during the avalanche.

Most importantly, he could walk.

Roped to Jambu, Angie began the painful descent while the rest of us jury-rigged his radio using torch bat­teries and wire stripped from a head­lamp.

“We’ve got him. He’s OK!” we radioed across the Lho Lha into Nepal.

At the Polish Base Camp Janusz Majar was crying too much to reply coherently.

“See you in Kathmandu for a beer.”

Nothing could be seen of the avalanche site. Fresh snow had cov­ered the bodies of our friends.

As we turned to catch up to Angie, Base Camp radioed our good news to Kathmandu where friends, relations and the world’s press had been waiting nervously for the out­come.

We arrived in Kathmandu one hour short of four days since we had left. The Nepalese named the rescue `Operation Thunderbolt’ because of the speed with which it had been carried out. Official assistance had been organised but we had moved too fast for it to catch us.

It had been four days of dust, little sleep or food, and exhaustion. But it had also been four days when people from many races had joined hands to help a lone person stranded on Everest.

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