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June 22, 2017

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Sherpas save climbers from death in heroic rescue on Everest

KATHMANDU -- Last month, a 60-year-old former Pakistani army colonel and his 20-year-old Sherpa guide reached the top of Mount Everest, realizing their childhood dream of summiting the world's highest peak.

But as they straggled down the 8,848-metre peak, Abdul Jabbar Bhatti and Dawa Sange Sherpa, a rookie climber, ran out of supplementary oxygen about 100 metres below the summit.

As a result, the two were forced to spend the night in the so-called "Death Zone," an area above 8,000 metres where every breath is a labour and temperatures reach a brutal minus 40 degrees Celsius.

Well aware of the dangers of spending the night at the ominous, unforgiving place, Bhatti and Sherpa pleaded for help, asking climbers for oxygen cylinders so they could continue to the safety of Camp 4, the last camp at 7,900 metres above sea level.

Dozens of climbers passed by, but none stopped to help. Some ignored their cries for assistance while others assumed the pair were dead.

But their prayers were answered at midnight when a group of four Sherpas from Sherpa Khangri Outdoor, a Kathmandu-based tour operator, came across the two and gave them a spare oxygen cylinder.

Nima Gyalzen Sherpa, a veteran guide and eight-time Everest summiteer, and Pemba Onchhu Sherpa, who completed his ninth summit this season, checked the pulse of the Sherpa guide, who was squatting beside his backpack.

"He was alive, but his hands were hard like wood," said Pemba, recalling that when he urged the stranded climber to resume his descent, he was unresponsive.

The Sherpa guides gave him hot water, covered his frostbitten hands with a down jacket and attached an oxygen mask to his face. Ten metres ahead, they found his client, Bhatti, the adventure-loving Pakistani father of two, lying on his belly on the icy slope.

Nima Gyalzen fed the Pakistani climber and gave him a full flow of oxygen, helping him regain his strength.

Several hours later four mountain guides including Ang Tshering Lama, an experienced mountain rescuer, decided to attempt one of riskiest and highest rescue operations on the mountain.

Pemba took responsibility for all three clients of his fellow guides and handed a 30-metre rope to the team. Ang Tshering was climbing alone and was supporting the expedition as an instructor.

As the first light brightened the sky over Everest the next day, Ang Tshering and Nima Gyalzen dragged the unconscious Sherpa, taking turns pushing and pulling him.

"On the one side was Tibet and on the other Nepal. We were dragging his body clipped to a rope along the ridge, which at some point was slightly over a foot wide," said Jangbu Ang Sherpa, a rescuer.

Ang Tshering said the technique they employed was called "lowering the body," in which one member served as a guide while the other released the rope.

"I was already exhausted from the climb. And then the nearly vertical slope beckoned us," he said. "It was one of riskiest of the rescues I have ever been involved with."

The Sherpa's body at times stumbled upon rocks, which the rescuer cleared before they continued the perilous descent.

In comparison, Bhatti was in better shape. So the rescuers helped him down the rocky spine to Camp 4, nearly 500 metres below.

The guides typically complete the trip in four hours, but the operation that day took them nearly 12 hours.

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