A Nepali guide abandoned his client’s Everest summit bid to rescue a Malaysian climber in a deadly mountaineering season that has seen at least twelve deaths.
Gelje Sherpa was guiding a Chinese client to the 8,849-metre (29,032-feet) peak and planned to assist him to paraglide down.
Instead, only a few hundred metres from the summit, they came across a lone man clinging to a rope and shivering in the area known as the “death zone”.
The area above 8,000 metres has earned its name because of its thin air, freezing temperatures and low oxygen levels that heighten the risk of altitude sickness. It is also notorious for its difficult terrain.
“When I found him in that state, my heart did not let me leave him there,” Sherpa told AFP.
Many other climbers had walked past the man that day, but he declined to criticise them.
“It is a place where you have to think of your survival first,” he said.
Sherpa told his client — who will have paid at least $45,000 to attempt Everest, including a permit fee of $11,000 — to return without a summit.
“When I decided to go down, my client did not agree at first. Of course, he was there after spending a lot of money, it must have been his dream for years and he had to find time to come here to climb.
“He got angry and said he wanted to go to the summit.
“I had to scold him and tell him that he has to descend because he was my responsibility and I couldn’t send him to the summit on his own. He got upset.”
He explained that he wanted to take the sick man down the mountain.
“Then he realised that by ‘rescue’ I meant that I wanted to save him. He understood and then he apologised later.”
– ‘You saved my life’ –
Sherpa, 30, fitted the ailing climber with his supplemental oxygen supply, improving some of his symptoms, but he was still unable to walk.
The rocky uneven terrain meant that Sherpa, who is about 1.6 metres tall (five feet and three inches) and weighs 55 kilograms, had to carry the Malaysian in some sections.
“It is a very difficult task to carry someone and bring them down from there. But some sections are very rocky, I couldn’t drag him,” said Sherpa.
“If I did that, he could have broken his bones, he was already not doing well.”
Sherpa hauled the man down nearly 700 metres for almost six hours to Camp 4 by himself.
“I’ve been a part of many search and rescue missions, but this was very challenging,” he said.
Joined by another guide, the pair wrapped the climber in sleeping mats and secured him with ropes, dragging him on snowy slopes and carrying him on their backs when necessary.
Finally, they arrived at Camp 3 at 7,162 metres (23,500 feet) and a helicopter using a long line lifted the stricken climber down to the base camp.
Sherpa was not able to meet the Malaysian climber again but received a message thanking him.
“He wrote me ‘You saved my life, you are god to me’,” Sherpa said.
Nepali guides, usually ethnic Sherpas from the valleys around Everest, are considered the backbone of the climbing industry and bear huge risks to carry equipment and food, fix ropes and repair ladders.
Sherpa’s video of the rescue two weeks ago has been liked on his Instagram more than 35,000 times and shared widely over social media, many applauding his selfless decision.
“As a guide you feel a sense of responsibility for others on the mountain and you have to make tough decisions,” said Ang Norbu Sherpa, president of Nepal National Mountain Guide Association.
“What he has done is commendable.”
Nepal issued a record 478 permits for Everest to foreign climbers this season and about 600 climbers and guides reached the top.
Twelve climbers have been confirmed dead, and five more are still missing.
Gelje Sherpa has reached the world’s highest point six times and did not regret his decision to turn back that day.
“People just focus on the summit, but everyone can do that,” he said. “To bring someone from higher than 8,000 metres is a lot more difficult than to summit.”