Everest climber skips summit, rescues friend
ISTANBUL – An Israeli who rescued a distressed climber on Mount Everest instead of pushing onward to the summit said Friday that the man he helped, an American of Turkish origin, is like a brother to him.
Nadav Ben-Yehuda, who was climbing with a Sherpa guide, came across Aydin Irmak near the summit last weekend. In that chaotic period, four climbers died on their way down from the summit amid a traffic jam of more than 200 people who were rushing to reach the world's highest peak as the weather deteriorated.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Ben-Yehuda, 24, appeared proud that Irmak, 46, had made it to the summit, noting that he is one of a small number of "Turkish" climbers to reach the top. Irmak left Turkey for New York more than two decades ago, but remains proud of his Turkish heritage. The friendship stands in contrast to the political tension between Turkey and Israel, which were once firm allies.
"Aydin, wake up! Wake up!" Ben-Yehuda recalled saying when he found his friend in the darkness. The American, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, had been returning from the summit but collapsed in the extreme conditions, without an oxygen supply, a flashlight and a rucksack. Ben-Yehuda, who developed a friendship with Irmak before the climb, had delayed his own ascent by a day in hopes of avoiding the bottleneck of climbers heading for the top.
There have been periodic tales of people bypassing stricken climbers as they seek to fulfill a lifelong dream and reach the summit of Everest, but Ben-Yehuda said his decision to abandon his goal of reaching the top and help Irmak was "automatic," even though it took him several minutes to recognize his pale, gaunt friend.
"I just told myself, 'This is crazy.' It just blew my mind," Ben-Yehuda said. "I didn't realize he was up there the whole time. Everybody thought he had already descended."
The Israeli carried Irmak for hours to a camp at lower elevation. Both suffered frostbite and some of their fingers were at risk of amputation. Ben-Yehuda lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in his time on the mountain, and Irmak lost 12 kilograms (26 pounds), said Hanan Goder, Israel's ambassador in Nepal. Goder had dinner with the pair after their ordeal.
"They really have to recover mentally and physically," Goder said. "They call each other, 'my brother.' After the event that they had together, their souls are really linked together now."
The ambassador said the rescue was a "humanitarian" tale that highlighted the friendship between Israelis and Turks at a personal level, despite the deteriorating relationship between their governments. One of the key events in that downward, diplomatic spiral was an Israeli raid in 2010 on a Turkish aid ship that was trying to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American.
The Jerusalem Post, which reported that Ben-Yehuda would have been the youngest Israeli to reach Everest's summit, spoke to Irmak by telephone during the dinner that Goder hosted.
"I don't know what the hell is going on between the two countries," the newspaper quoted Irmak as saying. "I don't care about that. I talked to his (Ben-Yehuda's) family today and I told them you have another family in Turkey and America."
Ben-Yehuda, who spoke to the AP just before leaving Nepal for urgent medical treatment in Israel, said he could not say with certainty how he would have reacted if he had come across a stricken climber he did not know. Oxygen is in such short supply and the conditions are so harsh, he said, that people on the mountain develop a kind of tunnel vision.
"You just think about breathing, about walking, about climbing," he said. According to Ben-Yehuda, the fundamental questions going through the mind of a climber heading for the peak are: "Are you going to make it?" and "When is the right time to turn back?"
And once a climber begins the descent, the all-embracing question becomes: "How fast can I go down?"
Ben-Yehuda said his military training in Israel helped shape his reflexive decision to rescue Irmak. "You never leave a friend in the field," he said.