Leslie Binns adjusted his snow goggles and fastened his gloves before peering out of his tent. It was around 8pm, but thanks to a bright moon he could see the hazy shapes of a few other tents pockmarking the snow-covered mountainside.
A sharp wind was blowing and although he was wearing several layers of high-altitude attire, the British ex-army officer could still feel the biting cold pierce his bones.
‘I had on a full down suit, double plastic boots, thick socks, mittens, warm head covers, crampons… yet I could feel the cold, easily a bone-chilling minus 20°C,’ says 42-year-old Leslie, who works in private security in Iraq’s oil fields.
On May 20 this year the Briton and his climbing team were in the Death Zone of the world’s tallest mountain, the 8,848m-high Mount Everest in Nepal. A few hours later, in what would become one of the most heroic incidents in mountaineering history, Leslie, who had been training for years and had put down tens of thousands of dollars to realise his dream of standing atop the planet’s tallest peak, would give it all up to save the life of a stranger, a 32-year-old Indian woman mountaineer named Sunita Hazra, who was careening to her death when he saw her.
‘I was very close to the summit – barely 500m away in the Death Zone – but I didn’t think twice about giving up my dream to save a person’s life,’ says Leslie, in a telephone interview from his home in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
It’s not for nothing that the topmost portion – the section above 8,000m – of Mt Everest has this disturbing moniker. In the Death Zone, one wrong step would result in sure death.
Stretching from around camp four on the north side of the mountain up to the summit, the around 800m of the mountain trail is treacherous, craggy, and with crevasses, making it unforgiving and extremely dangerous. Get this: Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first stood on its summit in 1953, the mountain has been summited over 7,000 times by more than 4,000 people. And of the more than 200 people who have died on the peak, the majority – more than 170 – succumbed in the Death Zone.
Sub-zero temperatures are not the only reason for the deaths. ‘At this altitude, a human body cannot sustain life,’ says Leslie, who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan during a 13-year stint in the British army.
For one, the air is thin. Very thin. Oxygen levels are a third of those at sea level, which means the body cannot get enough of the precious gas to stay healthy. Without the aid of canned oxygen, the human body quite literally begins to shut down, unable to acclimatise with the harsh conditions. Starved of oxygen, the brain triggers hallucinations, leading to bad decisions, ‘and one wrong decision there can mean the difference between life and death,’ says Leslie.
Having scaled the Andes mountain range’s top peaks, he knew that remaining in this altitude for too long could pose the extreme risk of acquiring high-altitude cerebral oedema – where the brain starts to swell and blood vessels begin rupturing – or high-altitude pulmonary oedema – severe fluid accumulation in the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, a hacking cough and bloody sputum.
Scores of climbers have experienced and succumbed to these conditions.
‘For that reason mountaineers spend as little time here – less than 48 hours at best – and exploit the small window of good weather to attempt a summit push,’ says Leslie. On May 21, he was informed by his team leader that the ‘window’ would be open from around 8pm. So, accompanied by three Sherpas and two other climbers, he exited his tent at camp four ‘hoping to realise my childhood dream of standing on the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.’
Lugging around 5kg of equipment and supplies including a couple of reserve oxygen canisters, Leslie slowly began to make his way up the mountain, following his Sherpa.
‘A nasty cough had been bothering me for a few days, but on summit day I was feeling strong and confident,’ says the Briton who is blind in his left eye following an injury he sustained when an explosive device he was defusing in Afghanistan blew up. ‘I was pretty sure to summit in some 14 to 18 hours because of the clear window of weather.’
Barely a couple of hours later on the trail, he felt the need to take a loo break. ‘I was quite annoyed with myself because when you’re in the Death Zone it means spending at least 30 precious minutes getting the task done,’ he says.
High up on Mt Everest, a loo break is a cumbersome task because it involves peeling away several layers of clothing and unzipping and unbuttoning several sets of clothes, then buttoning and zipping up meticulously. ‘Most importantly, you’ve to ensure you don’t drop your gloves, mask or any part of clothing because if you do, then very likely it’s gone forever - lost in the snow or blown away in the breeze. And that could mean disaster. The only option would be to go down to camp three or even two, quickly, to get a replacement.’
After buttoning and zipping up, Leslie slipped on his weather-proof gloves and resumed climbing the icy slopes, latched on to the fixed lines laid by Sherpas.
‘After about four hours of climbing I noticed a commotion up ahead,’ he says.
‘I saw two Sherpas making their way down. They were in a bad way and requested for some water to drink. After taking a few sips, they continued down the mountain.’
Then, a moment later, the life-changing incident happened.
‘In the pale moonlight I suddenly noticed a human figure racing down the fixed line towards me,’ he says. ‘She was screaming in terror as she gained momentum.’
Leslie’s first reaction was of shock. ‘I’d never experienced anything like this before. ‘However, I instinctively reached out to grab her while bracing myself for the impact and holding on to my fixed line. I was sure that if I didn’t catch her, she would go careening into the snow and perhaps be lost forever on the icy cold slopes of the mountain,’ says Leslie, who was decorated twice, including receiving the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in 2009 for detecting explosive devices in Afghanistan.
‘If I’d not been clicked into the fixed line, she would have rammed into me, I’d have lost my balance and with the impact we both would have shot off over the mountainside.’
Leslie did stumble for a few seconds with the impact ‘but I held on to her,’ he says.
After helping her upright, he found he recognised the woman. ‘I’d met Sunita briefly a few days ago at a lower camp. She was clearly in distress and semi-conscious. Her gloves had come off and her hands were swollen.’
He checked her oxygen regulator – it registered empty. Swiftly ripping off his mask, he gave her a few precious lungsful of oxygen. ‘This seemed to bring her around,’ he says.
Leslie allowed her to use the mask for a minute more and once she greedily breathed in the oxygen he asked her if she would be able to get herself down.
‘She said she could,’ he says. He then set up her abseil device – which locked her to the fixed line and would allow her to slide down the mountainside safely – gave her a few more breaths from his mask and allowed her to continue down.
But it was of no use. Barely 20m down the mountain, he saw she had collapsed again. Leslie instantly realised that Sunita was going to die on the mountainside if she did not receive urgent aid.
‘I didn’t think twice,’ says the man whose dream was to summit Everest. ‘I decided to cancel my bid and help her.
‘I called out to my Sherpa and told him “we are not going up. We are going down… to help her. If we leave her on the mountain she’ll surely die. I’m going to take her down the mountain”.’
With one last look up the mountain, Leslie turned his back on his dream and began walking down the mountain.
‘I unhooked my spare oxygen canister and connected it to her mask, then clipped her safety line to me and along with my Sherpa began to guide her down the mountain.’
What followed next was truly high drama on the treacherous slopes where rescuing climbers – or recovering bodies – stranded in the upper reaches of the mountain is fraught with danger, if not next to impossible. (In 1984, two mountaineers who attempted to recover the body of Hannelore Schmatz, a climber who had died nearly five years ago on the mountain, fell to their deaths.) But Leslie was determined to save Sunita’s life.
Strong winds were howling around them and after an hour or so of descending, the weather deteriorated, with heavy, blinding snowfall. To make matters worse, a section of the fixed lines was missing, leaving the trio guessing the direction of the camp.
‘As we were fumbling along, I noticed a figure about 100 metres away shouting and waving at us,’ says Leslie. ‘Believing he was trying to guide us in the right direction, I headed towards him.’ The figure turned out to be Subash Paul. Part of Sunita’s team, he had summited several hours earlier but on his way down had collapsed with exhaustion.
‘My Sherpa checked on him and said his oxygen was OK. We then clipped our safety lines together, and I tried to lead us towards where I thought the fixed lines would be, and to safety.’
But for the mountaineers the crisis was only beginning.
‘Things began to get really out of hand at this point. Sunita and Subash kept collapsing, unable to walk unassisted,’ says Leslie, a military ski instructor in Norway who has trained students on cold weather warfare and survival.
Then Leslie took one wrong step in the snow and found himself plummeting into a crevasse.
Waist deep in snow, it was with great difficulty that he extricated himself. ‘Five times I fell into such crevasses; I was extremely exhausted and my energy was dwindling. We were also crossing blue ice – compressed snow on a glacier – which is very dangerous as it’s extremely slippery.’
After plodding along painfully for a few more metres, the Sherpa suddenly spotted the fixed line about 20m to their right. ‘He unclipped himself from our group, plodded over to the fixed line, then began climbing down. That was the last I saw of him until we arrived in the camp.’
Subash and Sunita’s condition was worsening. ‘I had to scream and shout at them to keep moving, and literally drag them lest we freeze to our deaths,’ he says.
Several more painstaking steps towards the fixed line later Leslie realised that it’d be impossible to continue dragging two people down the mountain.
‘I had to take a decision. I unclipped Sunita and guided her towards the fixed line,’ he says. ‘She was in a very bad way but to her credit she kept fighting.’
The pair had barely taken a few steps when they slipped yet again on the ice and started hurtling down the mountain.
‘It was by sheer luck that we managed to arrest our fall after a few metres. I looked up and saw Subash too had slipped down the mountain and was close to a crevasse.’
Leslie, whose energy levels were fast depleting, climbed back to Sunita and dragged her to the fixed line. ‘Her condition was deteriorating quickly. She could hardly walk and seemed past exhaustion. I somehow pulled her and kept encouraging her to keep on and struggled on to the camp, where I found my Sherpa.
‘Once inside, I gave Sunita my sleeping bag and we tried our best to get her warm by rubbing her and giving her some hot ginger tea. She was suffering from hypothermia and her severely frostbitten right hand had turned dark blue.’
It was only when she seemed to have recovered a bit that Leslie relaxed. But dragging Subhash and Sunita through the snow and then Sunita into the tent had left Leslie exhausted, and the mountaineer fell down into a deep sleep.
‘I remember hearing Subash’s voice but I was dead tired and could barely move a muscle,’ he says. ‘I kept hoping he could survive a few hours until daylight without freezing, then I collapsed and fell asleep.’
An hour later he woke up, got a doctor to check on Sunita, found her team Sherpa and handed her over to him.
‘We said our goodbyes and I wished her luck. I didn’t hear about Sunita until I spoke to my fiancée a day later who told me she was in the news and was recovering in a hospital in Kathmandu. I felt truly relieved.’
Later that morning, Leslie began to make his way down from South Col, heading to camp two. ‘As I was climbing down I noticed a body partially covered with snow on the lower side of the trail. My heart raced and my stomach turned when I recognised the clothing and gear – it belonged to Subash.’ Leslie would later learn that Subash had collapsed and died while descending.
‘I truly regret not being able to do anything more for him. But I had nothing left in me that night and I tried my level best to rescue him, but he could not be moved.’
While he was immensely proud to have helped Sunita, he says he wishes he could have done more. ‘It later turned out that her expedition had 16 bottles of oxygen stolen from just below the summit. This was the catalyst that led to all the trouble that night.’
Sunita showered praise on Leslie for the huge sacrifice he made on the mountain. ‘I owe my life to Leslie,’ she told reporters. ‘I could return to see my 11-year-old son only because of him.’
Congratulatory messages are still pouring in from across the world upholding Leslie as a hero for giving up his dream. ‘Sometimes the peak is not the summit,’ said Subhojit Roy, a mountaineer. ‘This man from Yorkshire reached higher than the top of Mount Everest, a place that is taller than any pinnacle of sporting achievement… He shall remain one of the greatest that went on the trail. Because he showed humanity, compassion and conscience.’
Leslie himself is modest about it all.
‘Physically and psychologically this is the most demanding mountain I’ve ever climbed. I’m planning to do it again next year. I’ve already started training and raising funds for my trip.
‘But one thing is certain,’ he says. ‘No summit is worth a life.’