"Oh Harry, why didn't you save my dear Thomas!" Those words were posted on the SightonEverest website, shortly after it was known that Thomas Weber had died on Mount Everest.
Last year, Dutch climber Harry Kikstra summited Everest for the first time but barely made it down alive. Without a working radio, water, headlamp and after crashing in some unknown Sherpas' tent in camp 3; Harry was finally carried by expedition Sherpas the last few hundred meters back to Advanced base camp almost 48 hours after setting out for the summit of Everest. Andrei, the expedition doctor told Harry that he had a serious cerebral edema when he was brought in, calling his survival "a fairytale".
Leading a blind man into the deathzone
This year, Harry returned to Everest - as a private guide for disabled German climber Thomas Weber. Since a removal of a brain tumor, Thomas vision was deteriorating whenever he got into a low pressure environment such as high altitude.
Now, climbers have stepped forward accusing Harry Kikstra for serious negligence. Four climbers in separate interviews have told ExplorersWeb that Thomas was turned back way too late on his summit push - after spending prolonged periods without oxygen, and showing serious signs of cerebral edema. They were also shocked at Harry's uncommon passivity towards his client.
Above the third step, at 8700 meters, in spite of Thomas "holding onto the fixed rope and swaying from side to side as he was clipped in with a jumar and a carabiner; like a fish wriggling on the line, swimming from side to side and clearly using the rope for balance," the decision was made to continue ascent.
Definition of a Mountain Guide
According to Wikipedia, the definition of a guide is "a person who leads or directs another person over unknown or unmapped country, or conducts travelers and tourists through a town or other place of interest."
As for mountain guides, the responsibility goes further, Wikipedia continues: "A particular class of guides are those employed in mountaineering; these are not merely to show the way but stand in the position of professional climbers with an expert knowledge of rock and snowcraft, which they impart to the amateur, at the same time assuring the safety of the climbing party in dangerous expeditions."
"Thomas launched straight towards the Kangshung face"
In his debrief of the fateful climb, Harry reported that Thomas was doing well until above the third step, where his vision deteriorated to seeing rough shapes only. Harry reported, "Suddenly Pemba and I noticed Thomas swaggering and walking towards the edge of the snowy hill after the 3rd step. We pulled the rope tight, so Thomas could not continue; he was on his way - about a meter from the edge - to walk right off the Kangshung face of Everest!"
Climbing 10-20 minutes behind, a member of another team - American climber and mountain guide Anne Parameter - saw the same picture. "Thomas launched straight towards the Kangshung face," she told ExWeb. "One Sherpa was just in front of him. It was easy to see who Thomas was, as we all had red down suites in our team while they all wore yellow - and Thomas was the only one climbing with a ski pole."
Without oxygen for at least 40 minutes
Anne's team mate American climber Chris Klinke arrived at around 8 am, about 20 minutes after Anne. He says, "I immediately observed several problems that Thomas was having in moving up the mountain. The first was ataxia. He was holding onto the fixed rope and swaying from side to side as he was clipped in with a jumar and a carabiner. He was like a fish wriggling on the line, swimming from side to side and clearly using the rope for balance. As I approached closer up the snow slope below the summit pyramid, Harry had just turned the corner for the traverse across the snow slope and was sitting waiting for Thomas."
"Thomas was also sitting on the snow. Harry was about 20 feet beyond Thomas and there were no Sherpa's present."
Several climbers said that Thomas was wearing no goggles and his O2 mask was askew off to one side of his face. Anne Parameter said that he was without his mask on for the entire 30 minutes it took her to pass by. With Chris reporting the same observation 20 minutes after Anne - Thomas was without oxygen for at least 40 minutes - while Harry was sitting farther away with his own mask on.
According to BasecampMD, as a rule of thumb when at altitude, all sickness should be treated as AMS (followed by HACE or HAPE) unless there is another obvious explanation (such as diarrhea). Loss of coordination (ataxia), and staggering walk are the most significant signs of HACE, loss of speech and judgement are common. BasecampMD writes "Immediate descent is the best treatment for HACE. Delay may be fatal. People with HACE usually survive if they descend soon enough and far enough, and usually recover completely."
Chris and the others went to Harry, and said that Thomas appeared to have HACE. "Harry, replied that no his client was fine. He always was like this. That caused me some concern but I had spoken to Harry earlier and knew he was a guide and so I assumed he was competent," Chris told ExplorersWeb. Chris asked Harry if he had Dexamethasone and he stated that he had the pill form. "I was implying that he should give some to Thomas, but to my knowledge he never did."
A hole in Thomas oxygen mask
Chris reported that he later saw the Sherpas at the body of the fallen Frenchman, taking his oxygen mask and possibly personal effects that his wife had requested be looked for - the O2 mask was to replace the faulty one that Thomas appeared to have during his climb.
Harry reported that at the third step, he and team Sherpa Pemba had discovered a hole in Thomas oxygen mask, and replaced it.
However, already 6 hours earlier - at 2 am - Harry had been shocked to see that Thomas and himself had used up 3/5 ths of their first oxygen bottle in 2 hours, in spite of the flow set at 2,5 l. Harry lowered the flow further. Combined with the hole in his mask - Thomas - suffering a brain tumor and becoming blind on altitude, was therefore likely climbing Everest with very little oxygen support since the very start of the push.
In fact, Thomas AMS might have come on already by the second step. Harry wrote "I went first, pulled Thomas through the difficult sections, while Pemba pushed from below." As Thomas sight was reported still OK at that stage, it is surprising he needed so much assistance at the section.
Harry, "...if you are not 100% fit, forget it!"
"Should I have turned around? Of course! Especially when you know all the facts afterwards...if you are not 100% fit, forget it!" Harry had concluded in his debrief of his own climb the year before. Yet now, above the third step and in spite of Thomas serious condition, the decision was made for the ascent to continue because - according to Harry - "When we changed his oxygen mask Thomas improved in seconds."
One hour later however, at 9.15 am on the snow triangle, Harry reported that Thomas suddenly became totally blind, incoherent, and unbalanced. Harry called expedition leader Abramov and the team turned back - 50 meter short of the summit. Fredrik Strang, a Swedish climber reached Thomas at this point and asked him in German why his goggles were off. "I'm blind and I see shapes better without them on," replied Thomas to him. Fredrik told the climber to descend as fast as possible, and approached Harry with the same advice but got no reply as Harry was talking to Abramov on the radio.
Harry: "I asked Pemba to help but he looked at me and said: 'Thomas is dead'
Back at the second step, after 3 hours of steady descent, Thomas became agitated Harry reported. When Pemba Sherpa began to replace his almost empty oxygen bottle, Thomas looked at Harry in utter panic and after a few moments said 'I am dying', closed his eyes and collapsed in an awkward position, on his face and head down the slope.
Harry wrote that Thomas collapsed attached to the rope Harry was holding tight for him: "He slid towards me, but also towards the abyss. I managed to grab his down suit, but could not prevent his 90+ kilos from sliding downwards as I was barely in balance on the slope myself. I asked Pemba to help, but he looked at me and said: 'Thomas is dead' as it had been a well established fact..."
"I slowly released the tension on the rope, so I could leave my spot and slowly worked my way to the place where Thomas had come to a stop, a few meters down from the track, on a steep slippery slope. I contacted Alex on the radio and he asked if I could give CPR (heart massage), but Thomas was upside down in 2 ways and though I tried I could not get him upright, as I was almost sliding down the face myself and had no hold or grip and was only attached to the same rope."
Chris: "Pemba sherpa was trying to hold him up. Harry was 25 feet away."
Meanwhile, the other climbers had caught up after their summit, and were now also descending. Chris saw Thomas again at the middle of the second step. "I came upon Thomas standing on the ledge just before the move around the rock to down climb to the true bottom. I sat down on the ledge and watched as Pemba sherpa down climbed in front of Thomas."
"Then Thomas stood there for approximately 20 minutes as I was sitting waiting my turn. I spoke to Thomas 3 or 4 times during this period and got no response. He seemed to be looking at me but his eyes were distant. When Thomas got to the bottom of the second step, Pemba Sherpa was right next to him trying to help him out of the tangle of ropes at the bottom and Harry was on the other side of the large rock that juts out into the trail, approximately 25 feet away from Thomas."
"As I got down to the little ledge just above the start of the second step, Thomas started to collapse. He put his head against a rock and went into a fetal position while still standing. He appeared to be trying to gain control of his balance or was just a little tired. As he continued to collapse he was leaning against a rock and Pemba sherpa was trying to hold him up. Thomas was still 25 feet away and not moving any closer to his client. He did not move anywhere towards his client as a matter fact."
"Pemba was holding the rope trying to keep him from sliding further"
"I started yelling at Harry asking him if he had given him any Dex and he stated that no he only had the pill form, which was the same response I had gotten up higher. Thomas at this point had collapsed onto the narrow snow ledge trail that was a blessing for all the climbers going up and down to the summit, instead of the usual rocky shale slope. After his collapse on the trail Thomas continued to slide downhill. Thomas had slid at this point about 3 feet off the trail and Pemba was holding the rope trying to keep him from sliding further. Harry appeared to be just leaning against the rock and looked exhausted."
"I told him I had injectable Dex and downclimbed past Thomas and Pemba and went to Harry and gave him the injectable Dexamethasone which might or might not have helped Thomas at that point. Harry stood there with the Dex in one had and his radio in the other calling Alex. My sherpa Dawa was concerned about me and asked me to keep moving forward. At this point I was calling Scott Woolums to come down quickly and that we had a big problem here."
20 minutes for Harry to come over to Thomas
Chris continues his report, "Scott downclimbed and immediately went to Thomas who had slipped another 5 or 6 feet off the trail and was hanging in an unsustainable position with both his head and feet going downhill. Scott was trying to get him upright and in a position where he could breathe. It was at this point that Harry had come over to Thomas."
"It had been approximately 20 minutes from the time that Thomas had first started to collapse to the time that Harry actually went to his client and only after an experienced guide with another company had started to make a rescue effort. At no point did Harry give Thomas Dex, nor did he make any effort to save Thomas's life from my vantage point on the scene."
Fredrik: "Scott got Thomas in upright position"
Fredrik was just above the second step when Anne Parameter called up to him that there had been an accident. Fredrik leaned out in the fixed ropes and saw Thomas lying below, in a weird position. "Harry was sitting 2 feet beside him, with a dex shot in one hand and a radio in the other. Everything happened terribly slowly. 'Why the hell doesn't anyone help him up so he can breathe' was my first thought." Fredrik reports that Chris had witnessed Thomas die 15 minutes earlier, offered Harry help to lift him up, but while Harry accepted the Dex shot - there was no attempt to lift Thomas. According to Fredrik, his expedition leader Scott Woolums arrived next and called out Does someone have any slings?
"He just fell down right before my eyes," Harry answered Scott, motionless, according to Fredrik. Using a carabiner and the fixed rope in a pulley arrangement, Scott got Thomas in upright position and checked for signs of life. Fredrik called out to him to check for heartbeat, Thomas has no pulse and he's not breathing, Scott replied. Fredrik said, "Scott looked at me in anguish, still holding Thomas lifeless head in his bare hands."
Thomas girlfriend: "It hurts worse with every passing day"
Scott Woolums confirmed to ExplorersWeb that: "Not until I went down to Thomas did Harry follow to help. Thomas had been in that position all of the time (approx 20 minutes) it took me to come down the second step. (Eds note: Scott was helping one of his own clients). I felt a need to check Thomas out as no one was near him then. With Harrys help, I could pull him upright after I tied a cordelette to the top loop of his pack. Getting him to a place I could just check his pulse and respirations took about 10 minutes more as he was in an extremely difficult and dangerous position." When ExWeb asked his opinion about Harry's passivity Scott figured that "he might have been in shock".
"This is yet another tragedy on Everest, and one that had the opportunity to be avoided" ended Chris Klinke his report to ExWeb.
On the SightonEverest website, Thomas Weber's girlfriend ends her call to Harry Kikstra: "We had plans for the future which would never come true. It is such a terrible loss for me. I know I can't blame you but it hurts so much and it's getting worse with every passing day."
Harry Kikstra has earlier written his own account on the events, find the debrief in the links section below images. ExplorersWeb have sent out questions to Harry Kikstra offering him to respond to the latest statements.
Russian Alex Abramov and Dutch Harry Kikstra run the joint guiding company 7summits/7-summits club on Everest. Together they assembled one of the largest Everest teams of the last few years: A total of 30 clients were catered to by a staff of 43 people, climbing on Everest North Col route. Abramov offered a full service trip, but requested his clients be self-sufficient and well trained.
Harry Kikstra and two Sherpas climbed as special guides for Thomas Weber. Thomas had climbed Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Denali and 5 of the 7 Snow Leopard peaks in the Pamir Mountains.
Last year, the outfit lost one of its strongest climbers, Marko Lihteneker from Slovenia, who died high on the mountain in bad weather due to problems with his oxyen.
This year, the team lost Russian Snow Leopard Igor Plyushkin, 54, on May 22. Igor complained that he didn't feel well at 7800 meters. Guides administered supplementary oxygen and adrenaline shots in a struggle for his life that lasted 1,5 hours. Igor died at 1.45 pm local time due to AMS.
May 25, Thomas Weber, 41, and Lincoln Hall, 50, collapsed within a few hours of each other at around the same altitude, but Lincoln was later miracuously saved by the expedition and other climbers on the mountain.
The professional class of mountain guides arose in the middle of the 19th century when Alpine climbing became recognized as a sport. In climbing in Switzerland, the central committee of the Swiss Alpine Club issues a guides tariff which fixes the charges for guides and porters.
On Denali in Alaska, the guiding service must be authorized by Denali National Park & Preserve. Illegal guiding is prohibited and such climbs can be canceled at any time.
There are no authorizing instances for Everest guiding.
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