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
They were now officially in the Death Zone.
At 8:30 p.m. on May 25, Dan, his family and two Sherpas left their tents on the South Col for the final summit push. Dan felt strong, but apprehensive. He was concerned about Laura and uncertain if he himself had the wherewithal to face the challenge ahead. “We were kind of in our own little worlds,” he says. For about 15 minutes they travelled together, but then the exhausted Laura stumbled and turned back for Camp 4. She was alone, as both of the Sherpas had continued on ahead with her brothers and her father for the summit. Laura was disoriented, and for a horrible few minutes, she wondered if she was ever going to find the camp. Then her hand brushed against nylon—a tent, at least, if not her own. She soon located her own small dome, the only thing protecting her from Everest’s freezing winds, and prepared to bed down. First, she had to make a difficult call. Dan Mallory’s radio crackled in the night.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I don’t think I can go today.”
Dan was torn between his concern for Laura’s welfare and his dream of climbing Everest as a family. After a brief exchange in which he learned that his daughter was back at Camp 4 in the comparative safety of her tent, he signed off. “I hated to say that,” Dan later admits. “I really wanted us all together.” But he knew that Laura had made the right call. Then he turned his full attention to his own challenge.
Six hours later, Dan Mallory faced a moment of reckoning on the mountain. Just below the Balcony, at 27,550 feet, he and his sons entered a cloud band. Dan’s goggles fogged so completely that he couldn’t see. The wind also kicked up. Everything was suddenly covered in a layer of frost. Then his ascender unit for the fixed rope jammed. Dan and Adam struggled to claw snow and ice out of the unit’s teeth with their bare hands in order to free the mechanism. It would work for a few minutes, then seize right back up again. “That was the only time I thought I might have to turn back,” says Dan. “I was thinking, God, if you have anything else to throw at me, I have pretty much hit my limit.” Fortunately, the group soon got above the cloud band where the ascender unit worked again. Dan felt in that second he was going to make the summit.
Alan was the first member of the family to set foot on the top. There was no great revelation for the 23-year-old, no wondrous epiphany. His one overwhelming desire was to sit down. “I was just glad we were going to get off this freaking mountain.” Dan was more able to savour the moment. “I couldn’t believe we were there,” he remembers. They were all freezing, but briefly risked exposing bare hands to the winds in order to take pictures and a video. Dan called Barbara on the satellite phone and even reached the president of the Rotary Club in Barrie, telling him he had placed the club’s flag at the top. After about 20 minutes at the summit, the family began their descent. Alan had just manoeuvred down the difficult section known as the Hillary Step, when he collapsed on all fours, gasping for breath. A strange, deep, cold stole over him. His limbs began to shake and he lost basic coordination. It took a huge effort to simply rise from the ground. Alan’s oxygen tank had run out.
He managed to go a little further until he flagged down Sange Sherpa who gave him his own oxygen cylinder, for which Alan was immensely grateful. Alan asked Sange to turn up the gas, to three litres per minute. He wanted a burst of rejuvenating air to flood his failing system. Sange obliged, then hastened on, heading lower to a spot where there was a cache of extra cylinders. Without oxygen, Sange wouldn’t fare much better than Alan for very long at that altitude. Alan waited a moment, then continued down. He should have felt better quickly, but he actually started to feel worse. He could hardly hold onto the rope. There was a 7,000-foot sheer drop on either side of him and his crampons skittered uselessly along a thin ridge of rock. One terrifying thought echoed clearly from the core of his steadily clouding mind: I’m going to die up here. Alan was convinced that he was experiencing high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), a potentially fatal condition in which blood leaks into the brain. But when Alan told his father he thought he had HACE, Dan was skeptical. They decided to turn Alan’s regulator to full blast—four litres per minute—to see if that made a difference, before resorting to a steroid pill. When Dan went into Alan’s pack, he discovered the regulator had been mistakenly screwed shut. Alan hadn’t been getting any gas at all. Soon, Alan was feeling the positive effects of more oxygen, and was able to descend without further incident. The Mallory men made good time back to the South Col, with Dan leading the way. They arrived at about 2 p.m.
Laura Mallory had woken up on the morning of May 26 feeling strong. At around the time her family reached the summit, she wandered over to Linda Tan’s tent, surprised to find Tan and Pasang Sherpa inside brewing tea. Tan had been summit-bound at the same time as the Mallorys, but turned back in the night, knowing she didn’t have the strength to make it. Laura told Tan that she wanted to make another attempt for the peak that evening. But there was disappointing news from Base Camp. Nobody was available to accompany Laura to the top, and soon she would have been lingering in the Death Zone too long to attempt a summit bid. After two days above 26,000 feet, even while breathing bottled oxygen, the human body starts to wither as systems shut down, leading to eventual death. Laura couldn’t wait for the next wave of climbers to ascend. Her only chance, it seemed, had been lost. Then Tan suggested that Laura take Pasang with her. Laura balked, saying there was no way she could accept such a generous offer, but Pasang was keen to go and Tan was insistent. “I didn’t see why I shouldn’t give her the chance,” Tan says. Then there was the question of available oxygen. Fortunately, there were extra oxygen canisters at the South Col and Laura managed to cobble enough together for her and Pasang to make a bid for the summit.
When Laura excitedly helped her brothers back into their tent on the South Col that afternoon, she was bursting to talk to them—about their triumph and her plans to ascend that night. Alan could barely acknowledge her. “Just undress me,” he croaked. She obligingly took off his crampons and boots and tucked him in. All Adam could manage to choke out when he arrived a few minutes later was a weak mantra, “Give me some water, give me some water.” Then he disappeared into the comforting nest of his sleeping bag. Laura asked her father what he thought of her plan to make a summit attempt that night. Completely spent himself, Dan advised her to go for it, provided she felt physically capable, before he too crashed.
Laura and Pasang Sherpa set out from the South Col at 7 p.m. on May 26. After his initial rest, Dan spent an anxious night on the South Col, wondering how his daughter was faring high above him. He estimated it would take Laura longer than the usual 12 hours to reach the summit, so he mentally added a few extra hours to her climbing time. By 9 a.m., Laura had been gone 14 hours, more than enough time, Dan reasoned, even in her weakened state, to make it to the peak. Dan switched on his radio expectantly. Nothing. At 9:15, he called her. Dead air. Dan continued to hail his daughter, every 15 minutes, for the next seven hours.
As time slipped by with no word from Laura and Pasang Sherpa, the mood at Base Camp became grim. Eric Otto, ecstatic but exhausted from reaching the top of the mountain a few days earlier, was preparing to leave Base Camp for the long trip home when he heard that Laura and Pasang had not yet made contact. “I had no idea what was going on,” Otto says. “They could be just fine, I thought, or they could be lying in the snow up there. You don’t know what to think.” Dan Mazur, the team leader, started to organize a search party. Meanwhile, Dan Mallory was trying to figure out what words he could possibly use to tell his wife that their daughter was dead.
Twelve thousand kilometres away, Barbara Mallory was completely unaware of what was happening on the mountain. She knew that her husband and sons had made it to the top. When she didn’t hear from Laura, she assumed her daughter had turned around and had not attempted the summit. Barbara was out running errands when her cellphone rang. All she heard at first was static on the other end. Immediately she knew it was the satellite phone.
“Mom, Mom! I did it!” Laura Mallory told her.
Laura and Pasang Sherpa had crested the ultimate lookout on Earth at 9 a.m. on May 27, 2008, right when Dan expected. At the age of 20, Laura Mallory became the youngest Canadian woman to reach the peak. And the Mallorys became the first family of four to summit Everest on the same expedition. “It was amazing,” Laura says. “It was beautiful. But I barely had time to appreciate it.”
The climb above the South Summit—at 28,500 feet—had been a visible struggle for Laura. An American climber had paused at the Hillary Step to help talk her through it. “I was sort of lost at that point,” Laura admits. Once at the summit, Pasang was anxious to hustle her back down. He attempted to radio Base Camp, but the batteries were dead. It wasn’t until the pair reached the South Col at 3:30 in the afternoon that the world learned they were safe and sound.
Laura Mallory attributes her summit success in large part to the generosity of fellow climber Linda Tan and to the help of Pasang Sherpa. But her father explains there’s a simple reason why his daughter was able to fulfill the family dream. “Laura is the strongest of all of us,” he says.
This article was originally published on May 2009