Over the brink - and back

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

Sitting on top of the world isn't much fun when you're clinically dead. Ask Lincoln Hall. The experienced climber's lifeless body had no pulse when Sherpas who accompanied him to the summit of Mount Everest came to the depressing and arguably logical conclusion he had breathed his last.

Not even a sharp poke in the eye provoked a response, and the guides finally obeyed radio orders to abandon Hall and save themselves.

As darkness fell on the dizzying oxygen-deprived ledge more than 8km above sea level, the 50-year-old seemed destined to join the ever-increasing ranks of corpses that litter the world's tallest mountain.

But what happened next has confounded medical science, and provided Lincoln with the jaw-dropping tale that, on the night of May 25, 2006, he did indeed die on Everest.

'I imagine you're surprised to see me here,' he quipped to a group of climbers on their way up to the peak the following morning.

Dumbstruck barely describes their reaction. No one had survived a night alone so high up without oxygen. Hall had been crippled by altitude sickness, hypothermia, hypoxia and dehydration - all potential death sentences on their own. He was even partially stripped.

The climbers had been half expecting to stumble upon his frozen body. Before setting out on the final leg of their Everest conquest, people such as Hall's wife and children in Australia - that he had died.

'I really can't explain why I am alive,' says Hall, at home in the gentler surrounds of the Blue Mountains near Sydney. 'But I was left for dead, and with good reason.'

His extraordinary survival has inspired a new Touching the Void-style film - Miracle on Mount Everest - which was shot primarily in New Zealand's snow-covered Alps. It premiered at an Italian film festival last week and Hall's gripping book on the ordeal, Dead Lucky, goes on sale on Amazon later this month. This year's climbing season, the first since the death of the first man to conquer Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, is even shorter than usual because the mountain is off-limits while China's Olympic torch heads to the peak.

But memories of a tragic May two years ago - the second deadliest on record - remain raw. Of the 200-plus climbers who have died trying to scale the Himalayan giant, 11 of them perished in 2006. For a few hours on May 25, the toll was 12.

The frightening speed of Hall's decline is indicative of the precarious line that separates life and death at altitudes equivalent to a cruising airliner. He realised a lifelong ambition at 9am that morning, standing alone on the 8,848-metre summit, feeling strong and elated but acutely aware the most dangerous part of his adventure - the descent - was still ahead.

Less than an hour later Hall felt overcome by lethargy, and quickly turned delirious. Attempting to pull off his oxygen mask, he fought against Sherpas who ended up trying to drag him like a sled down Tibet's north side of the mountain.

Their progress was painfully slow, and Hall finally collapsed unconscious on a small flat spot 250 metres from the peak.

With daylight fast disappearing, Lakcha Sherpa and Dawa Tenzing obeyed instructions from base camp to leave him. The only difference between Hall and others who had died in similar circumstances was that his body was not yet frozen. Everest's 'death zone' - that thinnest of air above 8,000 metres - had claimed another victim. 'There had been no signs of life for about two hours. No breathing, no pulse,' says Hall.

'The expedition leader told the Sherpas to get the hell out of there or they would also die. And I'm glad he did.'

Earlier in the descent he recalls an out-of-body experience during an abseil down a cliff.

'I was about 10 metres away from myself, out in space looking back onto the cliff and thinking, 'I don't want to be where that guy is', even though I sort of knew it was me.'

Hallucinations later kicked in, but long after being pronounced dead by the departed Sherpas, Hall awoke in the pitch black to a terrifying realisation. 'I was exhausted, frostbitten and alone,' he says. 'I knew this decline would finish with me freezing to death.'

But Hall was lucid enough to remember he had made a commitment to return to his wife, Barbara, and their two teenage boys, Dylan and Dorje. 'That mattered to me more than my own death.' The odds were stacked hopelessly against him; bodies he encountered on the track - some of them beset by the same awful predicament - were testament to that.

Cerebral oedema, more commonly known as high altitude sickness, would have swollen his brain. It should probably have killed him, but certainly contributed to hallucinations, including one in which Hall found himself sitting on a grassy hill in Poland - a country he has never visited - wearing a thick ceremonial cloak. He says he knew he had to return it to a nearby building before walking from the 'dark into the dim of day'.

'I felt an incredible sense of freedom having done the right thing,' he says. 'When I got to the top of the hill, I was suddenly 100 per cent on that freezing Everest ridge, around the first light of day.'

Hall says years of meditation may have contributed to his survival. 'There was a guy from a university here who approached me wondering if emotion could mitigate cerebral oedema by, if you like, sending it back into its box.'

A follower of Tibetan Buddhism, Hall believes in eight stages of death, and reckons he encountered two of them. A Buddhist healer later referred him to a Christian parable, written by the apostle Thomas. For Hall, it enforces a belief that by returning the cloak he was rejecting death itself.

It could also explain why he was found that morning sitting cross-legged, with his arms out of his yellow down suit, balaclava lying on the ground and gloves nowhere to be seen.

The climbers who came across him abandoned their own summit attempt to rescue Hall.

It was the obvious and right thing to do, and in sharp contrast to reports that 40 climbers had stepped over stricken Englishman David Sharp less than a fortnight earlier in their rush to reach the summit.

Kiwi double-amputee climber Mark Inglis, whose comments prompted a worldwide media storm, later retracted his version of events, and subsequent investigations paint a more complicated and far less selfish picture. In his book Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season, writer Nick Heil says several climbers risked their own lives by trying to assist Sharp, who was in all likelihood beyond help.

Jen Peedom, who was filming a Discovery Channel documentary series on Everest at the time, says most didn't see Sharp on the ascent, when it was dark. 'I saw climbers coming back in tears,' says Peedom, who was based further down the mountain. 'They had seen him on the way down and had not seen him on the way up. It really destroyed the expedition for them.'

Peedom is the Sydney-based producer and director of the Hall docudrama, which has been made by Australian production company Essential Viewing.

The Everest connection is strong. Wayne 'Cowboy' Anderson, who plays Hall in dramatised re-enactments, also climbed Everest that year. On the same expedition was Mark Whetu, a five-time Everest summiteer.

'There are very few people who know Everest from the north side as well as Mark does,' says Peedom. 'And the New Zealand Alps are as large from bottom to top as some of the Himalayan peaks. It's just that they start at a much lower altitude.'

Hall's ordeal is also captured through footage filmed at the time on Everest and recordings of agonised radio conversations.

'I was still kind of reeling from what had happened on Everest in 2006 when we started making this,' Peedom adds. 'There had been so much controversy and a lot of really sad stories. So I was really relieved and happy to be telling a positive story, one of survival rather than death.'

Essential's executive producer, Chris Hilton, knows Hall from previous filming expeditions on mountains in Antarctica and West Papua, and first broached the docudrama idea as his friend recuperated in Kathmandu. Hall himself had gone to Everest primarily as cameraman on a documentary about 15-year-old Christopher Harris' attempt to be the youngest man to reach the summit. Like Hall on his first attempt in 1984, Harris was forced to turn back.

But Hall has no plans to return anytime soon. Frostbite claimed the tips of eight fingers, and more than one toe. He lost 17kg, and - however briefly - his life. The process of trying to understand his survival continues. He feels closer than ever to family and friends.

'I consider every day a bonus,' he says. 'And I can see the beauty in everything.'