Thousands have tried to climb the highest mountain in the world. Another hundred tried this spring—though spring seems an absurd concept in a place where the temperature warms to only -25° C in May, and the winds howl at up to 130 km/h. Of those hundred climbers, only four made it to the summit of Mount Everest. Two of them perished on the way down, joining more than 140 others who have died on the mountain since New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay first conquered its perilous heights in 1953. And yet, when monsoon rains—
falling as snow near the mountain’s peak— brought the climbing season to a close at the end of May, those who failed to reach the top vowed to try again. “Yes, there’s a great deal of danger,” says Jamie Clarke, 26, the leader of a Canadian expedition that came close to tragedy in late May. Clarke’s group attempted to scale the summit without bottled oxygen—a feat that only 41 people, and no Canadians, have achieved. “But I don’t think we were thrill-seeking,” says Clarke. “Everest is more than rock and snow and death. It’s been said to be the place where the gods live.”
The gods almost claimed John Mclsaac, 39, of Canmore, Alta., who got as close to the summit as any member of the Canadian team. On May 25, he reached 8,685 m, just 163 m short of the peak, when fatigue, cold and the oxygen-deprived atmosphere forced him to turn back. On the way down, he developed pulmonary edema, a life-threatening high-altitude sickness that causes fluid to flood the lungs. That was soon complicated by pneumonia. By the time Mclsaac reached a team camp at 7,165 m, he was in desperate condition. A doctor who examined him there, recalls Clarke, “said that John would live five minutes, maybe ten. But for sure, in an hour, he’d be dead.”
The climber’s only hope was a rapid further descent. So began a daring rescue involving the Canadian team and local guides and mountaineers from other nations who heard about the rescue over radios. They lowered a semi-conscious Mclsaac with ropes over a 600-m slope of ice cliffs and crevices. “Every time I went to look at him, I wasn’t sure he would be alive,” recalls Clarke. But Mclsaac defied expectations, arriving six hours later at an advance base camp where he was put on medication. Now, recovered and back in Canmore, Mclsaac says that he would challenge the mountain again. “It didn’t frighten me,” he says. “I look at it as a learning curve.” For climbers bent on testing their strength and their will, Everest’s lure appears irresistible.
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