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Giving up the top of the world to save a man’s life

Canadian climber to speak about his 2006 Everest expedition at avalanche fundraiser
Andrew Bash saved Lincoln Hall's life while climbing Mt. Everest.

Sometimes getting to the top of the world isn’t the most important thing in life; it can be the split second decisions on the journey there that can change your life forever.

At least that’s what Andrew Brash believes.

In 2006 he didn’t achieve his lifelong dream of making it to the top of Mount Everest, despite being just 200 metres from the summit. Instead, he helped save a dying man’s life.

On Friday Feb. 22 Brash will be the keynote speaker at the Canadian Avalanche Foundation’s Whistler Gala Dinner ,with an important message about his Everest adventure that made headlines around the world.

“The message is that the summit is important but it’s not everything — there are more important things in life,” said this down-to-earth junior high school teacher from his Calgary home this week.

By all accounts, Brash should have made the summit that fateful day. The weather was clear and calm — perfect weather for a summit attempt — his team was feeling physically well, and he had the determination to finally realize this lifelong goal.

And then he met 50-year-old Lincoln Hall.

It was dawn, May 26 on the North Ridge of Mt. Everest, just below the Second Step at 28,000 feet — almost the top of the world.

Hall, who had become extremely sick on his decent from the summit, had spent the night on the side of Everest. He had been left there by a group of Sherpas who had been ordered to return to camp.

Amazingly, 12 hours later the Australian climber was awake and somewhat coherent, though still a very sick man. When Brash saw him for the first time he was slurring his words, with no gloves on, little equipment and his down suit unzipped to his waist.

“I thought ‘he’s going to die in the next couple of hours,’” recalled Brash, who couldn’t imagine how they were going to get Hall out of that situation and to safety.

“You’re really far up and along a horizontal ridge for a fair ways.”

Brash’s group, which included team leader Dan Mazur, British climber Myles Osborne and Jangbu Sherpa, never had a conversation about abandoning Lincoln and making a bid for the top. They never made a conscious decision to sit with Lincoln, offering their fluids and oxygen, coaxing him to put his gloves on his severely frostbitten hands. They just did it. For more than five hours.

And as the hours slipped by, so too did their chances at reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

“I guess that deep down we knew we weren’t going to summit right away,” said the 39-year-old Grade 9 humanities teacher.

By noon, however, Hall had made a comeback of sorts. The fluids, oxygen and encouragement had revived him. He was able to stand up and his team had arrived to help him down the mountain.

It was too late, however, for Brash’s group.

Five hours on the side of Everest without moving forward can take its toll.

“You’re quite out of it yourself,” remembered Brash. “It’s all dreamy and kind of a hazy feeling. It’s easy to see how people die, if you just sit around for a while, you get so lethargic you just sit there.”

It was a bitter descent for Brash.

The event, perhaps, would not have made headlines in Australia and Canada, had it not been for another tragedy which had unfolded days earlier just 500 feet below them.

Thirty-four year old David Sharp also got sick on Everest but he never made it down the mountain like Hall. Forty climbers passed the sick Englishman on their way to the summit, and hours later found him still alive on their descent. He later died in that spot.

Ten days later Brash and his team passed Sharp on their way to the top that day, never realizing that his death was drawing stinging criticisms in the climbing community, not the least of from the late Sir Edmund Hillary who blasted the climbers that passed Sharp on the way to the summit, more focused on their personal achievements than helping a man in distress.

Brash is careful to not pass judgment on his fellow climbers.

“They must have decided that they couldn’t (help), is what I think,” he said. “They obviously thought about it. Apparently people gave him oxygen and nothing was happening… It would have been a multi-hour job to do anything… It was a judgment call.”

Just as it was a judgment call to sit with Hall and help him recover when the odds were not in his favour.

“We’ll never know about David Sharp because nobody did that, nobody spent the time to see if they could get him to make a comeback or not,” said Brash.

“I think that’s what makes it such a powerful, kind of tragic story I guess — just not knowing.”

On the way down that day Brash choked back the bitterness of his failed attempt — something he had dreamed about throughout his 20-year climbing career.

The bitterness has since been replaced after getting to know Hall and realizing just how important he is to his family.

“Having to give up the summit for me was a big deal (but) to realize how much more important it was for Lincoln to be safe and down — that was a life changing event,” said Brash.

The event hasn’t stopped him from dreaming about the top.

He’s going back to Everest at the end of March, with the hopes of summiting with 2006 team leader Dan Mazur and the Sherpas who helped him the first time.

He is focusing on that part between the Second Step and the top: “That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”

As for that fateful spot near the Second Step that changed the course of his 2006 expedition, Brash said he will not be lingering over it too long.

“I’m sure it’s all going to come right back but I’m going to move right on.”

Brash will be presenting ‘Rescue on Everest’ on Friday Feb. 22 at the Canadian Avalanche Foundation Whistler Gala Dinner.

This father of two young girls has another connection to Whistler, having married Jennifer Chaplin, whose parents were part of the old Chaplinville community off of Alta Lake Road.

The evening will be co-hosted by foundation members Justin Trudeau and Chris Stethem and includes dinner and a silent auction at the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain.

Tickets are $175 each (or $1,500 per table of ten). The event kicks off at 6:45 p.m. with cocktails followed by dinner and the Everest presentation.

Among other things, the Canadian Avalanche Foundation supports education and public avalanche awareness and safety, and programs that prevent or minimize avalanche risk to the public.