The family that climbed Everest
In 2008, a Canadian father and his children set out to make history by reaching the summit of Mount Everest. But for a few hours, it looked as though things had taken a devastating turn
This feature was originally published in the May 2009 issue of explore.
It was bitterly cold and eerily dark as the four members of the Mallory family started out at 8:30 p.m. on their final push toward the summit of Mount Everest. From the South Col, they had a long, tough climb ahead, likely at least 12 hours. But for Dan Mallory, a 57-year-old insurance company owner from the small Ontario village of Utopia, it seemed as if his long-time goal of climbing the world’s highest peak with his three children—Adam, Alan and Laura—might soon be realized.
Then, about 15 minutes later, Laura Mallory stumbled in the darkness. After spending five minutes on her knees, the 20-year-old knew it was over. Her altitude-wracked body just couldn’t go on. While her father and older brothers plodded methodically upwards, a dejected Laura returned to the South Col to spend the night alone in her tent at 26,300 feet.
It appeared to be the end of the family’s dream.
Despite sharing the surname of famed British climber George Mallory, Dan Mallory did not have an auspicious start to his mountaineering career. In 1986, the then 35-year-old and his wife Barbara visited Venezuela’s 16,427-foot Pico Bolivar, in the hopes of glimpsing Halley’s Comet. The peak in the northern Andes was considered a prime vantage point to witness that portentous chunk of rock and ice as it took its centennial dip into the inner solar system. But the high altitude hit Dan hard. He spent a miserable night just below 16,000 feet wrapped in both of their sleeping bags while Barbara hunched anxiously over him. Neither Mallory even peeked outside the tent to watch history sail on by above them.
Still, 14 years later, Dan came up with a bold New-Millennium plan: to climb the Seven Summits—the highest points on each continent—with his family. The idea, he says, was to do something memorable with his three children—who then ranged in age from 12 to 17—before they all moved on to their own lives from their Barrie-area home. To some, it undoubtedly seemed like an outrageous idea. At the time, the Mallorys’ climbing experience consisted of little more than that ill-fated trip to Venezuela and some scrambling in the Rockies. But Dan—an accomplished endurance athlete, who has, among other things, completed the Hawaii Ironman—wasn’t about to let inexperience get in the way.
The Mallorys’ bid for the Seven Summits began in earnest in 2002, when Dan climbed 22,841-foot Aconcagua—the highest peak in South America—with his eldest son Adam. Two years later, Dan and his son Alan made it to the top of Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, one of the more challenging summits on the list. The following year, Dan and his wife Barbara topped out on Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia. And in 2006, Dan and Laura reached the top of both Kilimanjaro and Mount Elbrus—the highest point in Europe. Dan decided that their next goal should be the biggest of them all—the 29,035-foot Everest. And he wanted to climb it with all three of his children.
Adam says that initially, when his father came up with the Seven Summits plan, the idea of climbing Everest seemed almost impossible. “Everest is such a big thing. For a while we thought we can’t do Everest. It’s too much. But we started looking into it and thinking about it, and realized it’s not out of reach. It’s just tough.”
Arriving at Base Camp
Dan, Adam, Alan and Laura Mallory arrived at Everest Base Camp on April 20, 2008, 10 days after the rest of their Summit Climb teammates. Team leader Dan Mazur says their introduction to the rest of the group was a tad awkward, since Summit Climb was already tight after trekking in together. “It was kind of like being at a party with friends,” jokes Mazur, “then suddenly a bunch more people show up at dessert.” Mazur is a veteran American mountaineer who runs Summit Climb as a commercial money-making expedition. (All told, the Mallorys’ Everest bid cost them about $160,000.) While Summit Climb provides logistical support and all-important Sherpa expertise and assistance, it doesn’t employ guides to take clients to the peak, but rather, has experienced mountaineers along as leaders on the expedition. The other climbers are expected to have the proficiency necessary to make it under their own steam safely up and down the mountain. That was precisely the way Dan Mallory wanted it. “We told them we didn’t want a guide and that we wanted to control our own timetable,” says Dan. “We had enough experience and confidence in our abilities that we didn’t need or want someone telling us what to do.” Dan Mazur certainly thought the family was up to the challenge. The group consisted of 18 climbers and two leaders, and according to Mazur, the Mallorys fell solidly in the middle of the pack.
The Mallory family spent most of the first week at the 17,700-foot Base Camp simply getting used to sucking in half the amount of oxygen available to their lungs at sea level. Laura passed many hours in the relative heated comfort of her team’s large walled mess tent, socializing with other members of the climbing team. She struck up an easy friendship with Linda Tan, a 29-year-old financial planner with an insurance agency from Singapore. “I immediately liked her,” Tan recalls. The two of them would hang out in the mess tent talking, “about life,” Tan laughs, “about what kind of guys we liked.” Laura also hit it off with Eric Otto, who, having just turned 20, would soon distinguish himself as the youngest Canadian to summit Everest. “We definitely became friends because of the age factor,” Otto says. They also discovered they were both enrolled at the University of Western Ontario for the next school year. The two enthusiastically discussed the mountain at length, comparing game plans, but saying little of their own darker, private misgivings. “Everyone has a certain fear of the mountain,” Otto explains. “But you try not to dwell on it.” Before the climb, Laura had intentionally avoided reading the dramatic accounts of disaster on the world’s highest peak, fearing that if she knew too many details, it would dissuade her from trying.
After the first week, it was time to move up the mountain to become acclimatized to higher altitudes. Which meant first passing through what is generally considered to be the most dangerous part of the standard South Col route—the Khumbu Icefall. The icefall occurs just above Base Camp at 19,000 feet, where the Khumbu Glacier nosedives off the mountain in a tangle of cracking ice and crevasses.
On April 28, the Mallory family got an early start for their first trip through the icefall. Dan says that travelling through it with his family was unnerving. “I was quite apprehensive. It’s full of these big chunks of ice as big as a house that could roll on you at any moment. And it takes hours to get through it.” They eventually reached Camp 1, perched just above the icefall at 19,900 feet.
The next day, they set off for Camp 2, which sits at 21,000 feet near the base of the Lhotse Face. Dan says that as they walked up the sheltered valley called the Western Cwm, the temperature was “scorchingly hot.” They returned to spend the night back at Camp 1, before climbing down to Base Camp the following day.
The Mallorys remained in Base Camp for the next week, and then on May 8 set out on another acclimatization trip that would take them as high as Camp 3, which sits at 23,500 feet. Sickness had plagued the family since their arrival in Kathmandu, where Dan had picked up a persistent lung infection that would dog him throughout the expedition. Somewhere between Kathmandu and Base Camp, a bug had also begun to brew in Adam Mallory’s gut. As the family was making its way up the mountain, it hit Adam full force. The 25-year-old had to descend from Camp 1 back to Base Camp for antibiotics while the others ascended. If Adam couldn’t shake this sickness in a hurry, it was doubtful he would be able to summit. “It took me 10 hours to move from Camp 1 down through the icefall,” Adam recalls of the long ordeal. His snail’s pace was made doubly worrying by the fact that he crossed it in the glaring mid-afternoon sun, when the towering seracs on the waterfall of ice are even more unstable. The ladders used to bridge the larger crevasses caused Adam the most concern. “It was so late in the day, I had to check each anchor to make sure I couldn’t just pull it out with my hand because the sun heats it up and the aluminum just melts the ice all the way down to the bottom.” It was dark by the time Adam, with the help of a Sherpa, made it safely back to Base Camp. (He would soon recover and subsequently make his own way up to Camp 3.)
Meanwhile the rest of the family arrived at the bottom of the Lhotse Face and prepared to climb to Camp 3, located on a small ledge high on the slope. “It is very intimidating,” says Dan. “It is very steep at the start. And you’ve got a lot of debris falling down from above. A couple of years ago a chunk of the ice face came loose and came down and hit a climber right at the base of it and took his head off. So those things go through your mind when you are starting up there.”
Dan and Laura had just begun moving up the first section of the fixed roped climb when they heard someone above yell Rock! Rock! Rock! “It just flew and went screaming down the one side of us,” Laura says. Literally shaking, she didn’t have time to steady herself before another warning sounded from above. Rock! Rock! Rock! This time, the boulder just missed them on the other side. “I looked at Dad and said, ‘I think we have climbed high enough for today.’ ” They made it up to Camp 3 several days later.
After another week of rest in Base Camp, the weather forecast looked promising and all the teams began preparing themselves for their summit attempts. On May 21, the Mallorys headed up the mountain again, this time hoping to make it all the way to the top of the world.
Laura Mallory left Base Camp with more than just the usual pre-summit jitters. For a few days, she had not been feeling well. Then, with the exertion required to get through the icefall, she took a turn for the worse. Climbing through Camp 1 on the way to Camp 2, she was stricken with diarrhea that was laced with blood. Fearing an internal bleed, the second-year nursing student consulted with Eric Otto’s older brother Christian—the expedition doctor—on the radio. Laura was beginning to question her ability to continue. Otto thought she would be okay to climb, but advised her to rest and take some medicine at Camp 2. Laura and her father sat down together to discuss her situation. “I told him I didn’t know if I could continue and he said, ‘Well, you have to make that choice for yourself,’ ” Laura recalls. Dan told Laura he knew that she was strong, but at the same time, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her.
Dan says he placed a great deal of faith in the decision-making ability of each of his children on the mountain. Too much faith, some thought. “I had one person come up to me and say, ‘You must not like your kids,’ ” he says, of his decision to climb Everest with all of his children. “But these kids have experienced many athletic endeavours,” he explains. “They have proven themselves to me.” Dan trusted Laura to make the right choice for herself. In the end, she decided to just keep going. “It’s not such a hard walk to Camp 2,” she rationalized. Her father led the way, but was unaware that his slackened pace was still too fast for his daughter. She dug deep to keep up, and then alarmed them both by spewing blood on the mountain.
At Camp 2, Laura hoped to improve with rest, and while the vomiting did subside, she still felt weak. In the morning, she stood uncertainly outside her tent, fearing she was too wasted to make it to the mess tent on her own. She asked Alan for help, but became impatient waiting for him. So she fumbled along, tent by tent, without assistance. “I finally made it to the mess tent by myself, just because I’m stubborn,” she says. Then Laura stood swaying in the entranceway for several minutes. She was there so long, the other climbers wondered why she didn’t move. What they didn’t know was that suddenly, Laura couldn’t see a thing. Wavering on the edge of consciousness, she concentrated on breathing until her vision finally returned and she could take a step forward. Laura never let on to her mess-tent companions what had happened.
The family remained at Camp 2 for two nights, initially for Laura’s benefit, and then for Alan’s, who also felt poorly. On May 23, they left together for Camp 3, but Laura knew she would be travelling much more slowly than the rest. She made better time than she expected, coming into the camp tethered high on the Lhotse Face just an hour behind the others. The family spent the night together at 23,500 feet, careful to move between tents wearing crampons and hooked into a safety rope, to make sure they didn’t slip down the steep icy slope.
In the morning, they set out breathing supplemental oxygen, traversing the upper part of the Lhotse Face. After crossing the tricky rock ridges called the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur, Dan, Adam and Alan reached Camp 4 on the South Col at about 2 p.m. By then, Laura had fallen far behind. It took everything she had to haul herself up the fixed ropes just beneath the South Col. When she finally arrived at the 26,300-foot Camp 4, it was between 4 and 5 p.m.—only a few hours away from the time the family was planning to begin their summit attempt. Laura spent the little preparation time she had left trying to get some food and water into her depleted system and sleeping. Her brothers and father were doing the same. “At that altitude,” Laura explains, “you just have to take care of yourself.”
This article was originally published on May 2009