'If we had not found her, she would have died. She started telling me to go down and leave her. I said that's not going to happen'
A London-Irish man tells how a fellow climber was abandoned on the world’s third-highest mountain and how he helped in her rescue
THE LONDON-Irish mountaineer who made the first Irish ascent of the world’s third-highest mountain less than a fortnight ago has described a harrowing rescue during the descent from the summit.
Anselm Murphy (27) reached the 8,586m (28,170ft) summit of Kanchenjunga but says the achievement was “difficult” to celebrate, given the traumatic events that followed when a Brazilian-American climber, Cleo Weidlich, was abandoned by her support team.
Like K2, the world’s-second highest peak, Kanchenjunga on the Indian-Nepalese border is regarded as a serious technical challenge and has claimed 47 lives. Since it was first climbed by a British expedition in 1955, there have been 243 successful ascents, compared to more than 4,000 ascents of Everest.
Just over a week ago, Irishman John Delaney (42) died 50 metres from the summit of Everest – one of four deaths on the world’s highest mountain this season.
Murphy’s achievement was one of three records set in total. His expedition organiser, Mingma Sherpa (32), from Makalu, Nepal, became the first guide to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000m peaks. His expedition group was the largest ever to make it to the top of the mountain in one day.
However, Murphy said that problems began on the descent, when Brazilian-American team mate Cleo Weidlich showed symptoms of cerebral oedema (accumulation of excessive fluid inside the brain).
Mingma sherpa requested a helicopter evacuation by satellite phone. However, he pointed out that Weidlich would need to descend further to camp three, at 7,000m, as this was the helicopter’s operational limit.
A first attempted helicopter evacuation failed due to weather, and Murphy and his expedition leader, Ted Atkins (52), a former Royal Air Force officer commanding mountain rescue in Scotland, committed themselves to staying with her.
Several incidents occurred on the slow route down, including a payment demand of $400 for a full oxygen bottle for Weidlich, which Atkins and Murphy reluctantly agreed to pay when they reached base camp – the price was $120 more than the normal rate.
Murphy said several sherpas seemed more interested in removing all gear from the mountain than in focusing on Weidlich’s survival, and one of her three personal sherpas headed down.
Weidlich’s condition began to improve gradually, but Murphy subsequently discovered her lying in the snow, unconscious, face down and alone, at just under 7,000m.
“There was no one else high on mountain at this time, just Ted and I,” Murphy said. “If we had not found her, I believe she would have died. She was extremely distressed and crying and didn’t know how she had got there. She started telling me to go down and leave her – I said that’s not going to happen.
“At this stage it was the seventh day above base camp for each of us, with six of those days being above 7,000m. We were in poor shape and everything was a struggle. We had hardly any food.”
Other sherpas in the group assisted them on the last stages of their route to base camp.
However, when one Romanian climber from another expedition expressed concern about what had happened, he was physically assaulted and spent the night in Murphy’s tent for his own safety.
“It is important to point out that this was just a few sherpas acting like this and the majority were not involved,” Murphy told The Irish Times.
On the expedition’s return to Kathmandu, Weidlich fully recovered her sight and received medical treatment.
Organiser Mingma Sherpa, who has known Atkins since he rescued the British climber on Everest in 2004, said he was being treated for frostbite.
He told The Irish Timesthere had been a “misunderstanding”, and the sherpas were very stressed due to the extended period of up to 10 days spent at high altitude.
“I was also very tired and problems arose, but luckily there were no deaths,” he said.