INTERVIEW

'They couldn't feel a pulse. I was lying glassy-eyed, unblinking. They poked me in the eye and there was no response.’

AUSTRALIAN CLIMBER LINCOLN HALL TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT HALLUCINATIONS, ANGRY SHERPAS AND BEING LEFT FOR DEAD ON EVEREST

November 12 2007
INTERVIEW

'They couldn't feel a pulse. I was lying glassy-eyed, unblinking. They poked me in the eye and there was no response.’

AUSTRALIAN CLIMBER LINCOLN HALL TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT HALLUCINATIONS, ANGRY SHERPAS AND BEING LEFT FOR DEAD ON EVEREST

November 12 2007

'They couldn't feel a pulse. I was lying glassy-eyed, unblinking. They poked me in the eye and there was no response.’

INTERVIEW

AUSTRALIAN CLIMBER LINCOLN HALL TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT HALLUCINATIONS, ANGRY SHERPAS AND BEING LEFT FOR DEAD ON EVEREST

On May 25, 2006, after summitting Mt Everest, Australian climber Lincoln Hall was felled by altitude sickness and left for dead by Sherpas on a ridge at 28,000 ft. Family and friends were notified of his death, which the media reported. After spending the night alone at -20°C, he was found alive by a group of four climbers, including Calgary’s Andrew Brash. Hall, 51, tells his story in Dead Lucky, a Random House book coming out in Canada next spring. On Nov. 3 he will be speaking at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

Q Let’s take it from the top.

When you stood on the summit of Everest that clear, windless morning, did you know going down would be harder than going up? A: That’s always the case with those big peaks. You’ve lost a lot of muscle mass, you haven’t slept, you haven’t had enough to eat or drink, and there’s just the exhaustion of physical exercise without enough oxygen to support it.

Q: How many bodies did you pass on your way up?

A: It’s not how many I passed, but how many I saw. You start climbing at midnight so you go most of the way to the summit in the dark. I saw where David Sharp and Green Boots lay. Green Boots [an anonymous Indian climber now known only by that name] had been there for years. David Sharp had been there for 10 days. I saw two more bodies quite

close to the summit. And there were a few people just sitting there motionless against the rock and in the dark you wouldn’t know if they’re dead or alive, so I might have passed others. On the way down I wasn’t taking in those details. In fact I wasn’t taking in many details at all.

Q: You were suffering from cerebral oedema. What does that do to the brain?

A: It puts pressure on it. You get retention of fluid in your skull. Once you’ve got it at high altitude the only way to survive is to descend quickly, and I didn’t have that option. My symptoms were extreme lethargy. Then it’s like trying to drag a drunk person down the mountain. I was more than uncooperative—I wanted to go back up the mountain. I also wanted to jump off the Kangchen Face, which is the highest cliff in the world—you don’t get that chance very often, so why not? I don’t remember my behaviour, but the Sherpas tell me that’s what happened. It’s similar to how some people behave when they’re drunk—they get very violent and aggressive and then afterwards they don’t remember a thing.

Q: Where were you left for dead?

A: The summit’s 29,000 ft., and I was on a ridge at 28,000.1 couldn’t move. It was one of the rare places along that ridge where there was somewhere level that I could actually be left. When you’re dead, it doesn’t really matter where you’re left, but I stopped there—and they couldn’t get me to go any further. It was six feet wide. There was no way the Sherpas

could have gotten me down. Three of them had to go back because they were so close to death themselves, and two were able to wait with me for another two hours until there was no sign of life. Then the expedition leader ordered them to descend to save themselves, which was absolutely the right decision.

Q: Those two remaining Sherpas, did they think you were actually dead?

A: They thought I was dead because they couldn’t feel my pulse, they couldn’t feel me breathing. I was just lying there glassy-eyed, unblinking, and they poked me in the eye and there was no response.

Q: Your team leader suggested the Sherpas cover your body with rocks but they didn’t. Would it have made a difference?

A: It’s very likely. I don’t think I would have had the strength to shrug the rocks off. Where I was, there wasn’t much in the way of loose stones.

Q: The two Sherpas took your food, water and oxygen. They also took your good new gloves and left you with a ratty old pair?

A: I’m not sure how it happened. I don’t know if that’s the case, because when Dan Mazur and Andrew Brash found me, those gloves were at my feet, I’d taken my balaclava off, my down suit was unzipped. So it’s possible I’d lost my gloves somewhere along the way. Or it could have been that the Sherpas thought that I wouldn’t need the gloves and wouldn’t mind them taking them—and that would be the case. But it’s not the sort of thing they would do because of their respect

for the processes of life and death.

Q: Tell me about spending the night up there.

A: My hallucinations began with me enjoying the sunset. Usually on a mountain you’re not admiring the beauty of it because you just want to get down before dark. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I was enjoying the sunset. But the Sherpas told me I was facing the other way, looking up toward Everest. The hallucinations that I had were of a protective kind. There were three different locations. I was in the Snowy Mountains in Australia—which really are hills. That’s my brain telling me, “There’s nothing to worry about.” Next I was sitting in a shack with a thatched roof where I watched the goats. The stars I interpreted as dots of little houses with lamps.Then finally there was a hill in Poland. I haven’t been to Poland, so I don’t know why I’m so convinced it was Poland, but that’s what my brain told me. I woke up wearing a warm cloak. I knew I’d have to take it back to where it belonged. Dawn was coming and I just had to walk back into the darkness to hang this cloak up. I interpret that as a Jungian communication: Death is taking you and this cloak is welcoming you into it.

Q: So you took it off. Do you think you actually died and came back?

AI actually think I was dead when the Sherpas left me. They left me lying there and when I came to in the middle of the night I was sitting cross-legged—a sensible position in terms of heat conservation— and so something happened there.

Q: When you became lucid and realized where you were, what did you do to survive?

A: I knew I had to sort of stop myself from drifting off into sleep, making sure that I was engaging in some kind of physical activity. I started doing little sort of circles with my head, hunched over a bit, because I had my hands in my armpits. I had no concept of what had gone before and what lay ahead, I just knew I had to do what I was doing. When I encountered Andrew Brash and Dan Mazur and Myles Osborne and Jangbu Sherpa, the past and the future were irrelevant to me. All that was relevant was hanging in there in that moment. That’s why my greeting—“I imagine you’re surprised to see me”—was not a, “Thank God! ” or anything. It was just like, “Well, here we are. This is a useful development.”

Q: The Sherpa rescuers who brought you down didn’t live up to the Sherpa image. They terrorized you—or was that a hallucination?

A: It certainly wasn’t. The first obstacle the Sherpas and I had to face was the Third Step.

I had to rappel down that, and I had these useless gloves and frostbitten hands. I knew

if I used my hands to brake with friction I would probably lose all my fingers. Having 30 years of climbing experience, I knew how to rappel in a different way, and the two Sherpas didn’t want me to do that. We all got quite heated. That’s a common response to altitude, particularly when life and death and disfiguration are on the table. I managed to get down in a way they didn’t want me to, and one of the Sherpas took offence at this. I think that they just lost their grip. That was enough to instill—I don’t know whether it was paranoia —but I thought they wanted to kill me and rob me. That was quite a good motivation to keep moving.

Q: A Sherpa attacked you with an ice axe!

A: He hit me a couple times, and if I hadn’t put my arm up one would have cracked me across the skull and that could have been the end of the story. I’ve never heard anything like this happening. So back in Kathmandu I got my wife to take some photos, and I had big bruises despite the fact that I’ve got a down suit on, and fleece underneath.

Q: You didn’t name the Sherpas.

A: Because I don’t know what was going on in their heads, and they may not have known what was going on in their heads— here’s another westerner who, by the time we get there, will probably be dead anyway. I don’t blame them.

Q: Meanwhile back in Australia your wife gets a radio message from a friend saying, “Lincoln passed away 20 minutes ago. From what we know he would have passed into a coma and died peacefully.” Flow did she respond?

A: She just sat there for a few minutes and then brought our sons [Dylan and Dorje, then 18 and 14] from their rooms and told them the news. Dylan just had his 18th birthday and the next day Dad died. But something was telling Barbara I wasn’t dead. She was accepting the news while not believing it.

Q. Didn’t she have a vision of you alive?

A: A vision of me walking toward her, with a bright line behind, then embracing her. She actually felt that physical embrace.

Q: When you were having your embrace with death on the mountain, do you think that you and she were connected somehow?

A: I do. I was really cold and Barbara was incredibly cold. We have a nice heated house and she had the electric blanket on—which she never sleeps with—and she was still cold. So there was that shared coldness. And when I rejected the cloak, I was looking for Barbara. I feel that spiritual connection was there.

Q: You’re a Buddhist, and you practise yoga and meditation. Do you think your experience in altered consciousness helped save you?

A: Definitely. Yoga teaches a very efficient way of breathing, which is invaluable, I’ve found, at high altitude. Then I had the focus

developed from meditation, where you sit for 40 minutes and try not to let your thoughts interrupt your mental state. This doesn’t sound long, but when you see your thoughts zipping in and out like bats at dusk... that got me through until the guys arrived.

Q: What was the damage from the ordeal?

A: Well, I’ve got a whole toe missing and a bit of the next one, and that sort of levels my feet out because I had slightly lesser damage to the other foot 29 years ago. My fingers—the top joints are missing from all of them. I did have a paralyzed vocal cord which, with speech therapy, came back. And I do have an ongoing issue with energy. I can do anything—hiking, rock climbing—but it can take a long time to recover.

Q: What about brain damage?

A: Not so much.When I’m tired, I can lose my thread.

'One of the Shexpas hit me. If I hadn’t put my arm up, he would have cracked me across the skull.'

Q: Your story puts you in a rather exclusive club of Everest climbers, no?

A: Yes. Being left for dead at 28,000 ft. after having got cerebral oedema—no one else has come back from that.

Q: Does that make you proud?

A: No. Look, I put a lot of people through a lot of heartache, but I feel incredibly privileged, and empowered. Not that I can cross the road and the cars will bounce off me. But I just feel there’s so much potential in life that I did not know existed. Some things that you just think couldn’t happen can happen. M