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The Death Zone
If Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, had joined forces they could not have done a better job of devastation than nature itself did on that day. The timing was uncanny, as bad as it was possible to be. If the storm had struck in winter then no one would have been hurt. But as chance would have it, the tempest arrived on the busiest day of the Everest calendar, right in the middle of the pre-monsoon climbing season. Our expedition, a British attempt on the North Face via the North-East Ridge, was at camp three when the storm thundered in.
We immediately knew that this was something far more dangerous than any other storm that had hit us in the eight weeks we had been there. The temperature fell to ten degrees below freezing, then twenty, then thirty degrees below. The wind became a constant, bullying force, pulling guy ropes from the glacier ice, tumbling fully-laden equipment barrels into crevasses and demolishing our canvas mess tent with frightening ease. The dome tents, built to withstand hurricane-force winds, creaked and groaned under the beating, distorted into shapes they were never designed for and straining the tent poles to their limits.
We could have been in the Antarctic, on the Greenland ice cap, or at the North Pole, so complete was the blanket of driving snow which obscured every feature around us. Not a single landmark, not even the huge North Ridge, was visible through the raging white-out of the blizzard.
Through the white wall of snow, and rising across the tempestuous roar of the wind across the glacier was another sound: a sinister howl which told of even greater powers at play in the altitudes above us; the scream of the storm as it whirled across the North Face at 8,000 metres and above.
There, in the ‘Death Zone’, more than thirty climbers were fighting for their lives. On the northern side three Indian climbers were stranded, exhausted and with their oxygen supplies running out, high on the North-East Ridge. On the southern side, two commercial expeditions were strung out between the South Col 2 and the summit.
The night that faced them was a night from hell. By the end of the following day, the three Indian climbers on the north side and five of the climbers on the south were dead. The total of eight fatalities made this the greatest loss of life in any twenty-four hour period on the peak.