Jochen Hemmleb observes the climbers making their way from Camp V.
Waiting in Silence
by Liesl Clark
May 1, 1999
The first call came in at 5:00 a.m. "We're ready to go," said Dave Hahn in
the early morning light from Camp V. "We're putting on our crampons."
"Did you sleep well?" inquired Jochen Hemmleb from Base Camp. "Negative."
Hahn's voice came in crystal clear. "We didn't come here to sleep. We came
to climb and search." It was a "go" for Hahn, Andy Politz,
Conrad Anker, Jake Norton,
and Thom Pollard to climb up out of Camp V
and aim for the location of a body found in 1975 by a Chinese climber. No
one has expressly climbed to this location, since then, to search for the
We knew we would have to wait in silence until 7:00 a.m. for their next
call. The previous night had been unsettling, as our tents trembled quietly
in the wind, light gusts sending ripples through the rip-stop fabric. Today,
the gusts have turned more vigilant with the rising sun, blasts of cold
penetrating through even the thickest of down jackets. We wonder how cold it
must be up at 27,000 feet where the climbers are headed.
7:00 a.m brings the first news about the team's progress. "Thom made it
about 15 minutes out of camp and then I think he turned around."
At 9:20, Hemmleb is able to see the climbers through his telescope. "They
are climbing in the gully at the same elevation as the snow terrace where
the body is. They now have to traverse over to the right about 825 feet to
First, Norton called to report that he had found a long oxygen bottle with
remnants of blue paint, like the 1975 Chinese bottles—a clear indication
that the climbers were on the right route. It was only 10:45 a.m.
Then Anker called over to his search mates: "Can you see what I'm pointing
at on the ledge?" Moments passed as we could only guess at what Anker was
referring to. Then Richards came on the radio: "I've found two bodies at the
base of the fall line."
"Can you determine how old the bodies are?" asked Hemmleb. "I see red, white
and blue nylon on one and a jumar on the other," responded Richards, "so I
think they're at least 20 years old."
Hemmleb thought for a moment and then responded: "It sounds like you've
found the Chinese climber who died in 1975 who fell from the First Step. My
guess is that the other body is that of a Russian climber who also fell."
With his eye glued to the 200-power telescope, Hemmleb was able to follow
the climbers as they broke into three straight lines. Anker was on the
bottom of the snow terrace, Politz at the base of the Yellow Band, and Hahn,
Richards, and Norton in between.
In less than an hour, Anker called in again. We caught only pieces of his
transmissions: "Why don't you come down for Snickers and tea?" he seemed to
be asking the other climbers. When no one responded favorably he came in a
little more clearly: "Mandatory group meeting." This was the last we heard
from the climbers for the day.
It became clear that what seemed like a normal series of radio calls was
actually a signal that something was up. From his telescope, Hemmleb could
see the five climbers coming together on the bottom edge of the snow terrace
where Anker stood. Was "Snickers and tea" a code for something found? We are
very aware of other expeditions listening in on our frequency, and had
previously agreed that if the body were found we would keep the radio
transmissions to a minimum. This "mandatory meeting" which sent Politz some
330 feet down from his search position could only mean that Ankers had found
something. But what?
We now know that we will have to wait two days to hear the news from Anker
and the climbers when they come back to Base Camp. The wind continued to
blow outside as Hahn came on the radio for the last time tonight, leaving
Jochen Hemmleb, finally, with what he's been waiting for all day: