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Letters to the Editor
Responses to Overcoming Everest
The following comments are those of individual climbers; The Mountain Zone has no way of confirming the accuracy of views expressed here.
Dear Mountain Zone editors,
I am writing to you in regards to the article "Overcoming Everest", and the growing response and rebuttals written as a consequence. I feel the need to challenge several statements made regarding the events that took place on the mountain during this past season.
I was a team member of Tom Whittaker's Everest Challenge 98 expedition, hired as a videographer to document his ascent. What is upsetting to me and impossible to ignore, is the paragraph where it is said "he (Tom Whittaker) and some sherpa abandoned their climb to help a doctor from another expeditionů"
On May 20th, I was still at Camp IV, where I stayed overnight after returning from a summit attempt with fifty two other climbers the previous day, and recovering from a 500ft fall I had later that afternoon. Since I was not allowed in our team's tent that night, I was not with Tom Whittaker when he left nor when he returned from his failing summit bid.
At about 7:00AM on the 20th of May, I entered our tent to collect my belongings and down climb to CII, and was surprised to see Tom Whittaker there, that early, lying on top of his sleeping bag, half dressed, coughing blood clots, barely being able to speak. I started talking to him, and diagnosed a Pulmonary Edema, which required immediate care and treatment. I gave him a pill, helped pack his things and later descended to Camp II with him and several sherpas. Later that same day at Camp II, I heard Tom say he could not finish his summit attempt that day, because of having to go to the doctors assistance.
I personally could not believe this due to his health condition that morning, and confirmed the events with the sherpas that were with him that day. Norbu Sherpa, Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, Dasonam Sherpa, and Tashi Tsering Sherpa, who had been carrying Tom's belongings and oxygen for his summit attempt (when the normal practice is one sherpa per climber), agreed that it was them not Tom who had helped Dr. Bull out of a crevasse that morning. In the meantime, Tom was waiting, sitting breathless, by the tracks that led to the balcony area at 27,000ft, nowhere near Dr. Bull.
To further confirm this, I will quote the accounts written by two other teammates about Tom's failed attempt.
Angela Hawse wrote for the American Alpine News, October 1998, (pg 28, 5th paragraph) the following: "On May 20th, Whittaker abandoned his summit attempt with symptoms of pulmonary edema at 27,000 feet. Rhoads and Tashi Tsering sherpa reached the summit."
Jeff Rhoads, wrote in an article for Videography Magazine, September 1998 issue (pg78), the following: "Tom and I went for the summit on May 20th, and we were forced to climb in half the normal time because of an impending storm. Tom got sick with a bout of pulmonary edema, and told me to go on alone."
I feel that both accounts and my comments, should be enough proof of this mistaken statement later followed by such serious false accusation stated by Whittaker himself , and should be immediatly corrected or the article removed from your site.
I was a teammate and good friend of Dr. Sherm Bull and other EEE98 members, and can assure you that they would not leave any of their teammates behind as thus summit fever, claim that is unfounded and detrimental.
I acknowledge Tom Whittaker's accomplishments that stand on their own, but feel that these detrimental statements are just to make oneself look better at others expense, and unnecessary. I cannot try and second-guess his motive for making these false statements regarding the rescue of Dr. Bull and the negligence of the EEE98 team. This is what makes the article even more confounding.
Please feel free to contact me at any time.
November 2, 1998
Having said this, I find it very difficult to read Tom Whittaker's recent interview published at Mountainzone.com, without feeling the need to present my report of the relevant facts. Although I can not pretend to know Tom as a person, I can tell you what I saw while on Everest this past spring while working as one of the Base Camp managers for the Everest Environmental Expedition '98.
Because of the high-profile nature of the Everest Challenge Expedition, their media coverage was constant, and at times worked to the detriment of other activities. I can speak of one example in particular which involved one of our climbers being overdue en route to Camp III on April 29. Thinking that he may be lost or possibly injured, we at base camp began attempting to organize supplies and climbers at Camps II and III in the event that a rescue operation was necessary. With sunset and a snow storm approaching, some members of our team began organizing a search (and potential rescue) from our base camp mess tent. During this time I went to various other base camps to determine the availability of supplies and to keep other teams up to date on what was happening.
Prior to my departure from our camp, we had given one of our radios to Tommy Heinrich, an experienced high altitude mountaineer who was working as a photographer with Tom Whittaker's expedition. He was well known to most of our team and so we thought he could act as a liaison between us and Everest Challenge. Repeated attempts to contact him over the radio failed, however, so I went to the Everest Challenge base camp to find out what was going on.
When I arrived at their camp, the first thing I saw was Tom Whittaker surrounded by people holding lanterns and flashlights and cameras. When I asked to speak to Tommy, I was told that Tom (Whittaker) was taking over for their camp. I stated that I was there to help coordinate rescue activities I was then told to shine my headlamp on Tom as they were having a difficult time filming the "rescue" (the sun had long since set by this time). I soon realized that our radio (previously given to Tommy) was not even turned on, and I was quickly silenced as Tom began speaking into his radio with various other camps, trying to organize certain aspects of the rescue.
Of course, Tom was not aware of either the events that had transpired up to that time or the fact that the organization of supplies and a potential rescue were well underway. Because of this, his involvement actually led to a great deal of confusion among the many people we had already been working with for hours.
It is my opinion that his involvement in the rescue at that point had more to do with media coverage than doing what was necessary to help a fellow climber. If this was not the case, our radio would have been turned on, they would have been in contact with our team, and they would have been more interested in the news I was bringing about the search than in the proper lighting for Tom's staged "coordination" of the rescue.
I must also comment on Tom's statement that our climbers left behind a member of our own team due to Summit Fever. Throughout summit night/morning, we at base camp monitored all radio traffic for our team. We were able to follow the conversations as Robert Boice and Jim Manley moved toward the fallen climber who turned out to be Dr. Sherm Bull. I can't speak for what happened next as I was not there. However, I can say that our other team members did not abandon Sherm in their bid for the summit. As is common on days involving severe exertion and concentration, many of our team members had their radios turned off, turning them on only for scheduled call-ins. As they had climbed ahead of Sherm, these members had no way of knowing he had fallen.
The point is that they did NOT leave Sherm behind because they were overcome with Summit Fever as Tom has stated. Other members of our team who were in the vicinity of Sherm's fall went to help him. Bob Boice of our team abandoned his summit bid and took complete charge of assisting Sherm down to Camp IV. Further, Boice was in contact with three other members of our team who were prepared to descend and offer assistance if needed. Boice assured them that the situation was under control and that their help was not needed, so they continued on.
It seems that Tom also neglected to mention a rescue that many of our team members were involved in below Camp III during the summit bid. Doctors from our team descended from Camp III and spent hours assessing the condition of a Sherpa climber from another team who had sustained a fractured femur when hit with a falling piece of ice on the Lhotse Face. The Sherpa was then literally hauled up to Camp III by our team members to a tent where he was met by the rest of his team. The entire operation involved a great deal of effort by 6 of our climbers, but was successful in getting the patient into a tent at Camp III at 24,000 feet where his own team took charge of his care as they arrived at that location. Not exactly the actions of summit-crazed amateurs.
What I find hardest to understand about this situation is why, after accomplishing a life-long personal goal, and achieving so much more for those who supported his expedition, does Tom feel the need to disparage other teams as he has. The reasons we feel the need to respond to his comments are because, first of all, they are not true, and second, they imply that our team had foregone one of the fundamental rules of climbing putting aside personal ambitions to provide assistance when other climbers are in need of help. As climbers who are proud to have mounted a self-guided and self-funded climb of Mt. Everest (with the support of our incredible Sherpa team of course) we feel the need (and rightfully so) to defend ourselves against his false, self-serving statements. Although it does not make me happy to do so, I think anyone in our place would do the same.
I thank you for giving us the opportunity to voice our concerns on this matter and welcome questions or comments from Mountain Zone staff and readers.
October 28, 1998
What first appalled me was the implied sponsorship of Victorinox. How can Tom say that he had this when he didn't (at least on his first attempt), and most likely receive payment in return? Or not even acknowledge that another came to his rescue, while gloating over "his" rescue of others?
Tom has violated the the old adage "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" and presents a completely inaccurate account of events on 19/20 May.
Now that this dialogue has started, why should it continue? Because, like Tom, I agree that certain things should not be happening on Everest. One of the best ways to prevent accidents is after-action reviews of events. If this dialogue causes future climbers to refrain from climbing alone, or to carry a bare essential set of equipment, then perhaps someone's life can be saved. To me, that is far more important than saving someone's over-inflated ego.
Also, it would be good for the public to understand the true extent to which Sherpas, fixed lines, and oxygen are used on the mountain. If some of the mystic were removed, then perhaps some would not be attracted to the climb, and all would benefit.
October 27, 1998
Please feel free to contact me at:
October 27, 1998
I take offense at the statement made by Whittaker that the EEE98 "abandoned" Sherm Bull because of "summit fever" thereby causing Tom to forgo his own summit attempt in order to rescue Sherm. This part of the article was completely erroneous and serves no purpose other than to make Whittaker look like a hero at the expense of the EEE98 members.
I have forwarded to you two e-mails. One from Didrik Johnck, our base camp manger and Robert Boice, the guy that actually rescued Sherm Bull. I hope they will help you understand our position on Sherm's rescue.
October 25, 1998
I was a member of the 1998 Everest Environmental Expedition this past spring. This is the expedition that Whittaker refers to in the article when he mentions the climber that fell into a shallow crevasse and was left by his teammates because of "summit fever". The person who fell was Dr. Sherm Bull. The person who rescued Dr. Bull was not Whittaker but Robert Boice, a climber from the EEE98 expedition and a teammate of Dr. Bull's. For Whittaker to think he in any way rescued Dr. Bull means that he was either suffering from cerebral edema or just a plain liar. The fact that he spends two full paragraphs detailing his imaginary rescue convinces me of his dishonesty.
The EEE98 expedition was a PRIVATE expedition with virtually no outside funding and no commercial guides. We financed the expedition ourselves. Our expedition goals were to attempt a cleanup of Camps Two and Four and to summit Mount Everest. We had no "commercial guides" on the expedition and organized it entirely ourselves.
When Dr. Bull fell he was climbing in the couloir above Camp 4 (the South Col) and below the rock band. Several of his teammates were above him and several below. Dr. Bull apparently lost his balance and unable to self arrest slid several hundred feet down the couloir and came to rest in a shallow snow filled crevasse. Upon seeing him fall several of our teammates climbed down to him as did several Sherpas, one of which was one of Whittaker's. Robert Boice of the EEE98 team sacrificed his climb and helped Dr. Bull back to his tent at Camp 4. Tom Whittaker was totally incapable of assisting Dr Bull since he was unable to climb any further towards the summit that day and was in retreat back to the South Col himself. When Dr. Bull fell several of us were considerably ahead of him and approaching the South Summit on our summit bid. Upon reaching the South Summit we made radio contact and found out that Dr. Bull had fallen but was back at the South Col. Only when we were sure that Dr. Bull was being taken care of did we proceed to the summit.
It was the EEE98 Team that put the first climbers on the summit of Everest from the south side this year not the high financed commercial expeditions, and certainly not Tom Whittaker. On May 19, 1998 fifty-three climbers turned around at the south summit because no one was there to fix ropes. It was the next day, May 20, that we broke trail and fixed rope to the summit allowing other teams to follow in our footsteps to the top of Everest. If it were not for the summit efforts of the EEE98 Whittaker would never have summitted this year.
Whittaker needs to look in the mirror. He led the highest cost and most heavily supported expedition on Everest this past climbing season. He had more Sherpas per climber and more oxygen per climber than any other team. During his summit attempt he had a minimum of three Sherpas with him, carrying his oxygen and all of his gear. One of his team mates later confided in me that Whittaker had climbed with far more oxygen than is normally used.
Tom Whittaker is exactly the climber and team leader he speaks about and despises. Using his own criteria he is the one that had no business being on Everest. Without massive finances, oxygen, Sherpa support, and hype he would have failed to summit.
I would be more than happy to discuss with you the real circumstances regarding this year's climbing season........that is if you are really interested in the truth.
October 14, 1998
First, the EE98 team was spread out over the route from Camp IV. While perhaps not optimal, this is not uncommon in high altitude mountaineering of a "non-technical" nature, where individual members are not roped together. Two EE98 team members were in fact behind Sherm on the route, myself and Robert Boice. Both Robert and I witnessed that a climber had fallen off the route in the couloir leading up to "The Balcony", and had stopped approximately 75 meters to the left of the route. We then witnessed two headlamps diverge from the route to assist the fallen climber. As we continued up the route, we converged with the two Sherpas and the fallen climber, who we were to learn was in fact our teammate, Sherm Bull. From all appearances, Tom had stopped on the route, waiting for his Sherpas to return.
Upon identifying Sherm as "one of own own", I radioed to the EE98 Basecamp and informed them of the incident and situation. At this point Tom and his Sherpas continued up the route. Tom later abandoned this attempt, apparently due to altitude sickness. Also, at this point, Robert volunteered to get Sherm back to Camp IV. Fortunately, Sherm was able to walk with Robert's assistance and both made their way back to Camp IV without incident. As for the rest of the team, they had progressed ahead and were unaware of the incident until subsequent radio checks.
What is disturbing about Tom's account is that it is not without precedence. In the Novemeber issue of "Men's Health" Tom makes an endorsement of Victorinox Swiss Army Knives, claiming that one of their knives accompanied him to the summit. I ask Tom, where was his knife on the morning of May 20th, for it was certainly not with him! Prior to the Sherm Bull incident, I came upon Tom, struggling with the crampon on his prothesis. Tom did not have a knife with him and in fact was not even carrying a pack, but just a sack with his oxygen bottle. I asked if I could help and lent Tom MY knife. Tom spent nearly a half hour struggling with his crampon while I waited, not wanting to climb without a knife. Had this incident not occurred, in all likelihood I would have also been above Sherm when he fell and would have continued on climbing, unaware of the situation. So can I make the claim that Tom's lack of preparedness perhaps cost me the summit?
I would also like to make reference to another of Tom's "stunts", when I was "lost" on my way to Camp III on April 29. As one of Basecamp managers scrambled from camp to camp, seeking out potential assistance, entered the Whittaker tent, he was told "to be quiet, we're filming Tom", and asked to shine his headlamp on Tom. Tom was in fact being filmed describing all the valiant efforts his team would make to come to my assistance. In actuality the microphone was plugged into nothing and Tom could offer no more than a pot for melting water in Camp II.
I pride myself on being a "regular guy" who just happens to be a climber. I climb for personal satisfaction, not for bragging rites or product endorsements. I fully understand the risks involved and accept the possibility of death, much more willingly than the possibilities of death associated with driving to work each day. I agree with Tom about folks who should not be on the mountain. Why has no one yet commented on that on 19 May, approximately 60 climbers and Sherpas reached the South Summit and had all necessary material for the final summit route, yet not one person had the tenacity to lead and put in that final stretch?
What was made apparent to me by Tom's actions, those of some of my own teammates, and other "professional" climbers on Everest, is that Everest attracts titanic egos. Why? Because every school child in the world has heard of it, nothing more, nothing less. Between the extensive use of oxygen and fixed ropes, Everest in many ways can be characterized as simply "the ultimate peak bagging experience". It is a far cry from challenging high altitude technical assents that are worthy of public admiration.
Once again I admire Tom for his tenacity in spite of his disability and I congratulate him on his ultimate success. I do question his motivations in some of his actions during the climb and statements made following the climb.
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