Facing Death on Everest Made Me Ask, ‘What the Hell Am I Doing Here?’

·6 min read
Kriangkrai Thitimakorn/Getty
Kriangkrai Thitimakorn/Getty

It must have been a little after 2 a.m. The wind had been building steadily through the night, and the tent fabric was flapping so violently that I thought it would tear apart. The noise made communication with my climbing partners impossible, even though the three of us were tightly pressed against each other in the darkness. There was nothing to say anyway.

My head throbbed and nausea tickled the back of my throat. I felt like I was suffering from the flu and a terrible hangover at the same time. I tried to calm my churning stomach by inhaling deeply, but the supercooled air bit hard into my chest and set off a dry, rattling cough that was impossible to control.

Earlier, after a ferocious gust flattened the tent for the third or fourth time, Jim had struggled out of his sleeping bag and put on his boots. He was preparing for the worst. I had just lain there, watching him. Trapped in a deadly storm at 23,000 feet on the North Face of Mount Everest, I couldn’t imagine where he thought he would go, or how he would get there without being blown off the mountain.

I turned on my headlamp. Ice particles danced in the beam like the inside of a snow globe. Then, from high above, came a sound unlike anything I had ever heard in the mountains before—a deep, menacing rumble, like a rocket taking off. Seconds later, a furious gust of icy wind flattened our tent, and I was pressed so hard into my air mattress that the ice beneath it seared into my cheek. The tent poles cracked and our tiny shelter collapsed around us. I prayed that the thin bamboo stakes securing us to the slope would continue to hold as the wind picked up speed.

When the sun finally rose, I struggled to sit up. The crumpled tent was draped over my aching head. Jim lay next to me, curled up in a fetal position. I bumped his leg to make sure he was still alive. He groaned. Matt, his beard sheathed in ice, looked up at me with glowing red eyes.

I found the door, unzipped it, and crawled outside. The camp was devastated. Every tent I could see had been smashed or broken. I looked up and saw a tent flying, inexplicably, hundreds of feet above us in the still-swirling wind. I sucked in a breath and was immediately doubled over with another coughing spasm.

It had taken me months of constant work to get here. I had leveraged the goodwill of my family, flown 8,000 miles across the globe, and helped haul in over two tons of gear to camps across the mountain. Now all I could think was: What the hell am I doing here?

Nearly a century earlier, another group of climbers wrestled with their own doubts. It was 1924, and the third British expedition to Mount Everest was not going well. A deep low-pressure system, which had stalled to the west of the Himalayas, had been pummeling the mountain for weeks with high winds and heavy snowfall. One storm in particular was so severe, porters had been forced to drop their loads along the icy path to Camp III, scattering the team’s essential supplies.

The British had established a staging camp on the North Col, not far from where our battered tents were now. By the beginning of June, they had made two attempts to reach the summit. Both were valiant efforts, but each had failed, neither getting higher than 28,126 feet—still almost 1,000 vertical feet shy of the top. They were running out of time. Would the summer monsoon hold off long enough for one final assault?

The youngest member of the British team, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, had taken ill. He was suffering from diarrhea and a face badly burned and chapped by the strong sun and relentless wind. And yet, when George Mallory, the team’s best climber, invited Irvine to join him for the last go at the summit, he rallied. Equipped with the new- fangled oxygen sets that Irvine had been tinkering with for weeks, the pair set off from a high camp on the morning of June 8. Later that day, a teammate spotted them “going strong” for the top, high on the Northeast Ridge.

They were never seen alive again.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p><em><i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Third-Pole-Mystery-Obsession-Everest/dp/152474557X" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest</a></i></em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Dutton</div>

Ever since that doomed expedition, all climbers who challenge Everest have faced the unforgiving and brutal realities of the peak. As a veteran of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War, George Mallory can be taken at his word when he wrote that climbing Mount Everest was “more like war than sport.”

Over the ensuing decades, hundreds of men and women have perished on the mountain’s slopes, most in the aptly named “Death Zone” above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). Many of their bodies still litter the standard climbing routes. Every single dead climber was drawn to Everest for their own reasons—be it vanity, money, or some other obsession. Wouldn’t every one of them have asked at some point: Why am I here?

My own answer was multilayered. There was personal ambition, of course, which always has something to do with vanity and ego. But my team had another mission. We were on assignment for National Geographic, searching for a ghost. George Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest’s North Face in 1999, but his partner, Sandy Irvine, had never been found. We were searching for his final resting spot, and the ancient Kodak camera that he may have carried. It was like looking for a needle in a frozen haystack. But if we could find the camera and the film was salvageable, it just might hold an image that would rewrite history.

I know it sounds crazy.

We weren’t the first to do this. A number of other teams had searched for that camera over the years. All had come up empty. But we were armed with new evidence, powerful new technology, and a solid plan to scour the mountain in a way that no one had before.

And I suppose it’s not surprising that I found something I wasn’t expecting on the roof of the world. Everest turned out to be a window on the best of humanity. And the worst.

Excerpted from The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest with permission from Dutton Books. Copyright © 2021 Mark Synnott.

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