Hall on the rocks
Hall on the rocks
Australian mountaineer Lincoln Hall conquered Mount Everest
on his second attempt but almost lost his life on the descent.
Published Selector Winter 2009
The earliest rock-climbing trip I went on was to Booroomba Rocks, which is now in the Namadgi National Park, in 1971 when I was 15. The first day was quite intimidating because it was very misty. I was 50 metres off the ground and couldn’t see the bottom of the trees below or the top of the cliff above, so it was a bit like Jack and the Beanstalk. We did another climb that afternoon and it had rained so it was slippery. I ended up getting hauled up a vertical wall and thought I was going to die. But for some reason I went back at the next opportunity; it was a beautiful day and I was psychologically ready. From then on I was hooked.
At university I joined a mountaineering club that allowed me to do a lot more climbing. Our training ground was New Zealand where the mountains are quite dangerous and therefore the perfect place to learn. If you survive NZ you’ve got a pretty good chance of coping with the other ranges of the world.
Then in 1978 we climbed a mountain in India called Dunagiri. My friend Tim McCartney and I made the final summit push, which set the Australian high altitude record.
Because that expedition made the news it led to invitations for Tim and I to work as trekking guides out of Kathmandu. The climbing seasons are at either side of the trekking season so we managed to get in a lot of climbing in the Himalaya in a relatively short time.
So one step led to another, which led to Everest. I was the leader of the first Australian expedition to China and we managed to get the Chinese to allow us to climb a new route on the north face in 1984. Almost every year we were setting new Australian records and in ‘84 we established a new route without oxygen. It was very dangerous, mainly because of avalanches but also climbing without oxygen really slows you down, it slows your mind down, you never feel warm and everything is a huge effort.
I turned back at 3pm, still 500 metres from the summit; it was a safety decision and the right survival decision. We were travelling very light so only had one rope, which we had to leave in place. This meant the four of us had to stick together and I didn’t want to be up there in the dark. It was disappointing because Tim and I had done all this stuff together but it was the right decision and it really was an incredibly dangerous climb.
There was some luck involved on Everest in terms of weather, but on the climb we’d done the year before on Annapurna II in the Himalayas we’d got caught in a huge storm. For three days we didn’t know whether we’d be alive at the end of each day because we didn’t have any fuel left to make water.
It was lucky we survived that and I thought it was too dangerous to rely on luck. So I decided to go back to rock-climbing and writing. I wrote a book about the ‘84 expedition called White Limbo, which is in its fourth edition now.
I realised though that I couldn’t stay away from mountains so I went on other expeditions. However, meeting my wife and having our first child really changed what I was prepared to commit to. The climbing I did was generally guiding people up pretty easy mountains with pretty predictable outcomes.
I did go onto a big mountain in 1999, one called Makalu, which is the world’s fifth highest peak. I hadn’t been to those heights since Everest in ‘84 and rather than finding myself at the front of the pack, I was at the back. This didn’t worry me too much but it showed me that I was behind the game.
So when the opportunity came to go to Everest again in 2006 I had to get as fit as I could in a very limited time. My priority in that regard was having the strongest possible legs, which doesn’t necessarily give you the best aerobic fitness but I knew I’d get aerobically fit once I got there.
On any expedition, once I’ve decided I’m going it’s like turning a big switch in my brain. You’re facing the possibility of death so you need to be very strong minded. You really need to accept fear and use it as a tool. You can talk yourself out of things very easily because it’s so uncomfortable and a part of your brain is saying, ‘just get out of here, this is stupid.’ But there’s another part saying, ‘you can get through this.’ It’s incredibly hard physically but it really is a psychological battle more than anything else.
You also have to understand the nature of the mountain. It varies from season to season. Snow and strong winds can create an entirely different climbing experience on a ridge that you may have climbed before. There are many dangers you can’t control but you can manage them by being in the right place at the right time; like not being in an avalanche zone when the sun’s hitting the slope.
Reaching the summit of Everest I was disappointed that it was not a ‘pure’ mountaintop. There was no-one actually there when I got there but there were signs like an oxygen bottle, footprints and a few people had urinated (not that you can blame them for that because there’s nowhere else to go).
Some people get hugely elated and cry but I never allow emotion on top of a mountain. You’re only halfway there and when you’re coming down from Everest you’re no longer motivated by ambition, you just know you have to get down. So it’s not over until you’re back down at your base camp.
I remember the first 50 metres of the descent before I passed out from cerebral oedema, which is fluid retention within the skull. I thought I was passed out but there’s a whole period where apparently I was being aggressively uncooperative, trying to go up the mountain and jump off the side.
Luckily, the three Sherpas with me didn’t agree that was a good idea. It should have been a two-hour descent to our top camp, but seven hours later we weren’t even halfway there. That’s when I could move no more and I stopped breathing and had no pulse. Two of the Sherpas had long radio conversations with the expedition leader and two hours after I appeared to be dead the leader said, ‘just leave Lincoln and save yourselves.’
The team that found me was loosely led by an American, Dan Muzur and included Andrew Brash from Canada, Myles Osborne from the UK and Jangbu Sherpa from Nepal. The first thing I said was, ‘I imagine you’re surprised to see me here.’ And they were. It suggested I was more compos mentis than I actually was but they worked out pretty quickly that I was in a very bad way. They realised I was about to die from hypothermia so they attended to those things and made radio contact with the expedition leader. Some of the Sherpas from our camp came up with an extra bottle of oxygen but that took four hours. By that time Dan’s team decided that the safety margins weren’t enough for them to continue to the summit so they retreated. I came down after them more slowly because I’d just been dead and that takes it out of you.
I saw them again down at advanced base camp where I was being tended to by our doctor. I wasn’t together enough to appreciate what they had done so I made a great effort when we got back to Kathmandu to find them and thank them, not just for saving my life but also for stealing their summit chances.
There’s a very strong sense of ethics around people who’ve done a lot of climbing because they understand the dangers. Often you’re helping each other, not necessarily in life and death situations, but if someone’s just feeling a bit off you’ve got to keep going so you take some of the stuff out of their pack. That’s one of the great things, the bonds that you build with your climbing companions.
The 12 months after the 2006 expedition were tough for my family. I lost the tops of my fingers to frostbite and it takes a long time for fingers to recover and to get strength back as I was very weakened. Our sons had to do a fair bit of looking after their dad, just doing things like taking the lids off jars.
But now life’s great and I guess it’s made us closer. Actually the real thing that drove me home was that I had to get back to my family despite those impossible circumstances.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.