Thursday, October 14, 2010

Saving the World Entire

Whoever saves a life, saves the world entire.
- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)


The end of May saw a media frenzy around Musa Ibrahim, claimant to scale Mt. Everest as the first Bangladeshi. The news mushroomed from the blogs though; Ziaul Khaled, a friend of Ibrahim living in Nepal broke it in almost all Bangla community blogs. People awaited a confirmation from press, and 24th of May was the beginning of the wave of exhilarated articles describing every possible fact that could be told about the pioneer, the man who is said to have hoisted the Bangladeshi flag on the highest summit of the world.

Concerns were also raised about Ibrahim's health and safety. On 26th of May, Ibrahim responded to telephonic interviews by BBC and Deutche Welle, and has been catering to interviews and delivering speeches ever since, as the first Everest summiteer of the nation. And glimpses of the story kept oozing out, day by day.

The pace of Musa’s story in the newspapers were incredibly slow, so I started digging around it on the internet, to see if other sources turned out to be a bit more elaborate. Surprisingly, I stumbled upon another story, not any less grand, if not more, than Musa’s one. It's the story of rescue and bravery, rather than of victory.

An article was published on 30th May in Daily Star, titled Hands of Australian saved Musa's life. Pinaki Roy reported from Kathmandu that Musa had a problem with his high altitude breathing apparatus, and an Australian mountaineer came to his rescue, along with a friend Stephen Green, who fixed his breathing pipe and gave him some power gels and water to get him going. It somehow drew my attention, and I wanted to thank these guys personally for what they did.

The obvious way was to google these fellows out. I was stuck right after the first step, because Daily Star apparently misspelled this young man's name [it was published as Brendan Ma'money ]. I was following the Everest dispatches on internet, and after some irksome minutes, I found one Brendan O'Mahoney, and Stephen Green as well in an expedition dispatch. So I looked them up on the internet, found Brendan O'Mahoney, and sent him a message, asking if he had a few minutes to answer some questions.

I grew more inquisitive over the past four-and-a-half years of community blogging, and I decided to take an interview of Brendan and Stephen. As a trekker myself, I remembered the experience of helping an injured co-trekker through 60 kilometers of hills in the lower Rangamati, at the dead of the night, through rocky streams, steep cliffs and jungles back in 2004. I understood that helping another guy at that altitude near summit is an extremely courageous and self-jeopardizing feat.

Brendan promptly responded to my request, gave me his email address along with that of Stephen, and I had him interviewed on 3rd of June. Stephen took a little while to respond, since he was away and had been busy for the first few days after he went home. I took the liberty of putting their stories together to fit the picture seen 8,500 meters above sea level, and far high from our senses, on 23rd of May this year.

Brendan O'Mahoney, an Australian from Sidney, and Stephen Green, a Scot from Edinburgh were members of the same expedition, Adventure Peaks Everest 2010. Brendan summitted around 6:30 AM [Nepal time, 15 minutes behind Dhaka time] on 23rd of May. Stephen Green, however, was delayed due to a miscommunication with the advanced base camp. Empty Oxygen cylinders were handed over to him, and Stephen realized it only too late. While Brendan was coming down from the summit, Stephen had to wait near the place called Second Step, around 8,600 meters altitude, waiting for oxygen supply from the advanced base camp, promised to reach him "within 10 minutes" for more than one and a half hour. Stephen grew anxious, and had his oxygen cylinder checked by the returning mountaineers, but it was hopeless, and none offered him a spare one. After having waited around 90 minutes, Stephen at last was saved by a generous offer from another summiteer Ed Laughton, who was descending, and gave Stephen his spare Oxygen cylinder.

It would have been suicidal for Stephen to pursue the summit not only because of cylinder shortage, but also because the weather was turning rough. Stephen decided to descend and try again the next day. He came down the second step, carried on downwards, and on the bottom of the First Step, at an altitude around 8,500 meters, he saw a man almost unconscious, while a Sherpa was thumping him to get on his feet.

Stephen had never seen this man before. He shouted if he could help the guy, but the Sherpa didn't respond. Stephen did not want to knock rocks down while trying to climb down, and decided to wait for help instead. Brendan O'Mahoney was descending, and together they abseiled down beside the unconscious guy. Brendan estimated this time to be around 8:00 AM to 8:30 AM Nepali time.

They went to this collapsed guy. His Sherpa was shouting at him and hitting him in the stomach to get him going. They immediately knew that the mountaineer was in trouble.

Brendan told the fellow, “Mate, you are in a serious situation here, and we’re going to need everything you’ve got to get you out of it”. No response came.

As we all can understand, the fellow in distress was Musa Ibrahim.

Brendan checked Musa’s mask and found out that one of the main valves allowing air into the mask was blocked up with ice. He took out his pocket knife and chipped it all away. Next he checked the oxygen tank and noticed, the unconscious fellow had lots of Oxygen but it was on a very low flow. Brendan turned it up from 2 liters per minute to 4 liters per minute. The hose to his mask started hissing through a large hole. Brendan recalled that it was very lucky that he had some duck tape on him to patch it up. Stephen came up with food and water and Brendan then squeezed 2-3 energy gels into Musa’s mouth.

Brendan told the interviewer, "None of us were able to radio for assistance as I had given my radio to one of my team members and Stephen’s batteries had frozen." He didn't see any radio with Musa or his Sherpa. So whatever they could do, would have had to do themselves.

Brendan told Musa that he had one more minute to rest and then they were going to try to walk. Musa seemed to respond to this encouragement better than the Sherpa’s heavy handed tactic. He nodded and before long his Sherpa was pulling from in front and Brendan and Stephen were holding him up from behind by the straps of his backpack, helping him down. Musa took 5 steps and then fell onto the snow. Then 5 more and dropped down again. As they went past one of the dead bodies which scatter Everest, the Sherpa pointed out to his client that this would very likely be him if he didn’t start moving faster. Thankfully this seemed to hit home and they started to see signs of improvement in Musa’s physical condition. Gradually he started walking further and further on his own.

But almost carrying a guy down at that altitude exploits all the energy reserve one might have kept. Brendan and Stephen were too exhausted to keep up with Musa. Musa and his Sherpa trotted down, Brendan and Stephen halted for rest. And it turned out that Brendan's oxygen bottle had run out!

Interest of Bangladeshi audience might exhaust here, since Musa has left the stage, but these two brave young men continued to play their roles on the lofty stage nevertheless.

They decided to climb down with whatever oxygen left, and about 10 minutes later they came across another one of their team members, called Mark, who told them that their team doctor Nigel had collapsed. Brendan intimated that he found it disturbing that Mark was still pushing on for the summit even though he knew Nigel was in a pickle and mentioned that there is a code in Mountaineering to help one's fellow climber in need. So they rushed around a corner and saw Nigel sitting on his bottom, unattended, pathetically trying to inch himself back towards camp. “I’m going to die here”. Just then Stu Peacock, the most experienced member of their team who summitted with Brendan came round the corner. Together they got Nigel up on his feet and started getting him down the mountain, half a foot at a time.

"It was agonizingly slow and exhausting work, especially after the morning’s exertion", recalled Brendan. Nigel was suffering from severe High Altitude Cerebral Edema (Swelling of the waters surrounding the brain) and was in gaga land. After about an hour, two Sherpas showed up. They got to a steep bit and all sat down to rest when Brendan realized that the last stock of his oxygen exhausted and he was only at 8450m [Camp III, the high altitude camp is located at an altitude of 8,300 m]. Stu told Brendan to go down before it was too late and together with the Sherpas, he spent another couple of hours saving Nigel’s life. "A mammoth effort at that height", according to Brendan.

Brendan also intimates a chilling fact, that the following day a similar incident happened to Dan Mazur’s another team and they left the guy on the route, he was still alive when they left him.

Brendan simply puts it this way, "This time I was lucky enough to be able to help Musa, but I am sure with the slightest change in circumstances Musa would have done the same for me or any other climber on the mountain."

Stephen firmly stated that he did not see Musa coming down, and never met him before. Brendan too admits that he did not see Musa around the summit nor remember seeing him coming down. Musa was just another unknown mountaineer in distress, in a very fragile situation, and these two brave men risked their own lives saving not only him, but also another one.

Stephen went back to camp III, and tried to summit the next day [24th of May]. The weather was against him, and there were no Sherpa to guide. Literally crestfallen, Stephen came back, without bagging the peak.

I congratulated Stephen for this amazing feat, and told him it was nothing less than scaling a mountain. Stephen boldly replied that he is going back the next year, and he will be summiting from the south side, and will climb down the 150 meters down the north side, which he couldn't conquer this year.

I inquired a bit, and found in a local Scottish newspaper that Stephen took this journey to raise funds for Marie Curie and Cancer Research in tribute to his father Raymond, who died from bowel cancer two years ago. And no wonder, it is young men with integrity like Stephen, and Brendan, who will save the world entire one day.

Our young men might as well learn from these two 23-years-olds.

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