Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Dead Lucky

Review by Ann Skea

Dead Lucky: Life after Death on Mount Everest.
Lincoln Hall.
Random House. 2007. 421 pp.
ISBN 978 1 74166 461 4.

At 7:30 PM on May 26 2006, at 8600 metres on the face of Mount Everest, Lincoln Hall died. At 9:00 that morning he had stood on the summit and spoken by radio-phone to Alexander Abromov, the expedition leader at Advance Base Camp. He spoke briefly, letting Alex know that he and the three Sherpas who were with him, Lakcha, Dorje, and Dawa Tenzing, were on their way down. One hour later cerebral oedema struck him and he began to hallucinate. For the next few hours he lapsed in and out of coherent consciousness. At times he was lucid and capable, at other times crazy: he refused his oxygen mask, fought to go back up the mountain, and tried to jump off Kangshung Face. The three Sherpas, soon joined by another, Pemba, pushed and pulled him down the mountain.

At Mushroom Rock, still 300 metres above Advance Base Camp, the Sherpas were exhausted; they had no oxygen, no food, nor drink. Hall was unresponsive and dying, and the weather forecast was bad. The Sherpas were ordered to cover Hall with stones and leave him.

No-one had ever survived a night on Everest at 8600 metres. Exhaustion, hypothermia, lack of oxygen, retention of fluid in the brain so that the whole metabolism is affected, snow blindness, detached retinas, all these things are common at this altitude, and all can be fatal. At the time of Hall's descent, eleven climbers had already died on the mountain in the few months of the climbing season, the last just hours before Hall and the Sherpas reached Mushroom Rock. Alex, at Base Camp, phoned Hall's wife, Barbara, and broke the news to her that her husband had died.

Barbara told their two teenage sons, rang a few people, and family and friends began to rally round to support her. Amongst others, she contacted Ang Karma, a Buddhist friend in Kathmandu, and asked him to perform the appropriate Buddhist ceremonies for her dead husband, who had become a practicing Buddhist in the late 1960s. Only late in the evening of the next day did Barbara hear that her husband was still alive, but that he had only a 50-50 chance of surviving.

Hall had tackled Mount Everest twenty-two years earlier but had been forced to turn back before he reached the summit. He joined the 2006 expedition as an experienced, high-altitude cameraman for a fourteen-year-old boy, Christopher Harris, and his father, who intended to climb the highest mountains on each continent, seven summits in all. Unfortunately, Christopher had experienced a severe drop in blood pressure shortly after leaving Advance Base Camp. A second attempt had produced the same result, so, recognizing that it was too dangerous for them to press on, he and his father turned back. Hall however, was urged to go ahead, and did.

Dead Lucky tells the story of this last expedition to Mount Everest, Hall's death, and his survival. Even for a non-climber like me, it is a fascinating tale. His account of the difficulties of the climb, the expeditions and climbers he met, the harrowing descent, and his subsequent treatment for frostbite, is gripping and well-written. He has no doubt, just as the Sherpas had none, that he died. His description of his psychological state, his hallucinations, and the few moments of lucidity which surrounded that death alone on the ridge at 8600 meters is totally absorbing.

I was surprised to read of the large number of people who now climb Everest during the brief season when summiting is possible. I was surprised, too, to read of the fixed ropes and crevasse-crossing ladders which are put in place by Sherpas each season for some expedition organizers and which make the ascent marginally safer. Nor did I expect to hear that Hall reached the summit after passing a number of dead bodies, some of which have lain there for years, and that the summit was littered with empty oxygen cylinders and marked with yellow urine stains. I was shocked to read his account of the two Sherpas who were sent to help him when another climber found that he had survived the night at Mushroom Rock, and who bullied and threatened him, cut a rope at one critical moment, and attacked him with an ice pick (he had bruises to prove that this was no hallucination). Luckily, other Sherpas arrived in time to save him.

In spite of the organized expeditions, the final stages of the ascent of Everest are still extremely hazardous. Survival above 8300 metres is, to use Hall's word, "desperate". The oxygen level is so low that even with oxygen support, just speaking is exhausting. The final stages of the ascent are begun in darkness, vision is restricted by an oxygen mask, and clothing is cumbersome. Gaining the summit and the euphoria of doing so often takes all of the climber's energy, so descent is even more hazardous, as Hall discovered.

Dead Lucky tells an amazing story. Occasionally, I found the listing of names daunting and confusing; Hall seems to have felt obliged to name everyone on the mountain that year. His acknowledgements, too (thankfully tucked at the back of the book) run to seven pages and even include the cafe where he typed part of his manuscript whilst attending hospital for the treatment of his frostbitten fingers and toes. Nevertheless, the book is a pleasure to read, the photographs are interesting and the glossary useful.

One is still left wondering what prompts people to expose themselves to the agony, danger and trauma of trying to reach the top of Mount Everest. Hall's own list of reasons doesn't solve that riddle. Looking back, he sees the mountain as a mirror into which climbers look to find themselves. His brush with death has given him a new perspective on life and, as he says at the very end of the book, now that he has summited Everest, his life can move on.


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