Ken Kamler: When Crisis Strikes On Everest — How Do You Respond? Physician Ken Kamler describes his experience as a doctor on Mount Everest during one of its deadliest days in its history.
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When Crisis Strikes On Everest — How Do You Respond?

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When Crisis Strikes On Everest — How Do You Respond?

When Crisis Strikes On Everest — How Do You Respond?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. One night 20 years ago, a guy named Ken Kamler was sitting in a tent about 5,000 feet below the summit of Mount Everest.

KEN KAMLER: We're at camp three. And camp three is 24,000 feet.

RAZ: Wow.

KAMLER: And the summit is 29,000. So we were...

RAZ: Pretty close to the top.

KAMLER: Well, yeah. It was really pretty close to the top. There's another camp above. There's - the highest camp is at 26,000 feet. And we had some pretty good weather, and things were actually, yeah, going very well.

RAZ: Ken Kamler was the doctor on this expedition. He was assigned to a group of explorers and scientists with National Geographic.

How many people were you - sensibly - sort of there to kind of look after in case there was a crisis?

KAMLER: Yeah, that's a very interesting question. That's - and it involves moral issues as well. I'm there to take care of my team - 12 climbers and about 50 Sherpas - people who help us up the mountain. But if another climber from a different expedition has a problem, I feel obligated to treat that climber as well.

RAZ: And all with a very limited set of supplies. So the way these expeditions work is that at any given time during the climbing season there are multiple teams - dozens and dozens of people at various points along the three-month journey to the top of Everest, and it's a journey that includes stops at four different camps. And so on this particular day in 1996, when Ken was at camp three...

KAMLER: It started to get really windy and cold, and the teams had doctors but only at base camp. They didn't have doctors high up on the mountain. I was the only doctor within reach.

RAZ: The only person who could respond if there was a crisis. Today on the show, we're going to explore Ideas about Crisis and Response - why people decide not to let a crisis define their lives and how a crisis can actually open up opportunities to change things.


KAMLER: OK. This is Mount Everest. It's 29,035 feet high.

RAZ: So Ken Kamler described in his TED talk that he's actually been to Everest six times.


KAMLER: I've been there six times. Four times, I did work with National Geographic making tectonic plate measurements.

RAZ: It's one of the harshest environments on earth.


KAMLER: There's only one third as much oxygen at the summit as there is at sea level.

RAZ: And it is very, very cold.


KAMLER: And I remember one time being up near the summit, I reached into my down jacket for a drink from my water bottle inside my down jacket only to discover that the water was already frozen solid. That gives you an idea of just how severe things are near the summit.

RAZ: And that is on a normal day. But on May 10, 1996, the winds were getting even stronger and the temperature even colder. A storm was moving in. And Ken Kamler, like we said, was holed up at camp three with some other climbers, and they were using their radios to track the progress of two others from a different group higher up the mountain. One was Rob Hall, and the other was Doug Hansen, and they were trying to reach the summit before the storm arrived.

KAMLER: We got word that they had summited at about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And it was already cold and windy, but what made us the most nervous was that 2 o'clock in the afternoon is a very late time to summit Everest. Generally, if you're not up on the summit by noon, you should turn around and go back down because you don't want to get caught in the dark with no oxygen on your way down.

RAZ: In fact, Ken says eight times more people die on the way down Everest than on the way up. So as the storm around them got worse, Ken and his team were increasingly worried about Rob and Doug's team above them.

KAMLER: We were listening on our radios. We were hoping we would hear that they were all back at camp four. But the radio calls got worse and worse actually, and Rob said that Doug was out of oxygen, exhausted, could not get down.

RAZ: Meanwhile, Ken got word of whiteout conditions at camp four. That's the camp Rob and Doug would have descended to.

KAMLER: Meaning you couldn't see outside your tent.

RAZ: Wow.

KAMLER: So that meant that people trying to get back to camp four would not be able to see the camp.

RAZ: And even 5,000 feet below camp four, where Ken was...

KAMLER: The wind was howling so loud it was like a freight train. The only way that we could converse between the two tents, which were only a yard or two apart, was by radio.

RAZ: What unfolded over the course of the next 12 hours was one of the worst crises ever to strike Everest. There've been movies and books about what happened. Jon Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air," is probably the best known. That afternoon, Ken Kamler and his team stayed hunkered down at camp three. The wind was so strong, he says, that they laid fully dressed with all of their gear on the tent floor just to keep the tent from blowing off the mountain.

KAMLER: Yeah, no one expected to be hit by a storm like that.

RAZ: By the next morning, 18 climbers were missing.

KAMLER: These guys were stuck out overnight. There's no way that we're not going to be dealing with hypothermia and frostbite and who knows what else? And then we got the terrible news that Beck Weathers had been found dead in the snow.

RAZ: Wow.

KAMLER: Two climbers had come by him and looked at him and said, Beck is dead. It was a completely chaotic situation.


KAMLER: Our two strongest climbers, Todd Burleson and Pete Athans, decided to go up to try to rescue who they could even though there was a ferocious storm going. They tried to radio a message to Rob Hall, who was a superb climber stuck sort of with a weak climber up near the summit. I expected them to say to Rob, hold on, we're coming. But in fact what they said was, leave Doug and come down yourself. There's no chance of saving him, and just try to save yourself at this point. And Rob got that message, but his answer was, we're both listening. Todd and Pete got up to the summit ridge. It was a scene of complete chaos up there, but they did what they could to stabilize people. I give them radio advice from camp three. And we sent down the climbers that could make it down under their own power.

RAZ: As the crisis continued to unfold, Ken Kamler eventually made it down to a safer part of Mount Everest - it was camp two - and that's where he had access to more medical supplies. And there, climber after climber stumbled into his tent. And this is where Ken learned that sometimes the best response to a crisis is not to treat it like one, but to kind of remind yourself that you've prepared, that you're up to it, that you're ready.

KAMLER: I had a little time. While I waited for those climbers to come to me at camp two, I could visualize every step that I would take for each scenario. What would I do if he's carried in or if he walks in? What would I do if he's unconscious or conscious? What would I do if he's having trouble breathing? You know, what would I do to treat his frostbite? How would I warm him up? I was able to think through all these scenarios so that when I actually got put to the test, I just sort of had to plug in the right scenario. I didn't have to rethink the entire situation.

RAZ: That's amazing 'cause hearing you describe the experience, it's almost like hearing somebody - and, I don't mean this in a callous way at all - it's just, it's almost like hearing somebody describe, like, a, you know, a technical manual. Like, you were really doing exactly what you had to do. Like, you responded to this crisis in a very specific way.

KAMLER: Yeah, I did. I think - I think it helped me to know that I had a large responsibility. If I had just been a bystander and seen my friends in critical condition and seen them die, I think I maybe would've lost it. I don't know. But I knew I had a job to do, and I focused on doing that.

RAZ: Course, all the preparation in the world can't prepare you for some things. And a full 36 hours after the storm hit, something happened that proved to Ken that you can never really know how you'll react in a crisis until you're in it. So just to set this up, you might remember another climber Ken mentioned, Beck Weathers. And Beck Weathers had already been seen dead, lying in the snow a day and a half earlier.


KAMLER: Out of nowhere, Beck Weathers stumbled into the tent. Just like a mummy, he walked into the tent. I expected him to be incoherent, but in fact, he walked in the tent and said to me, hi, Ken. Where should I sit?


KAMLER: And then he said, do you accept my health insurance?


KAMLER: He really said that.


KAMLER: (Laughter). So he was completely lucid but he was very severely frostbitten. You could see his hand is completely white and his face, his nose is burned. So as I was taking care of Beck, he related what had been going on up there. He said he had gotten lost in the storm, collapsed in the snow and just laid there unable to move. Some climbers had come by and looked at him, and he heard them say he's dead. But Beck wasn't dead. He heard that but he was completely unable to move. He was in some sort of catatonic state where he could be aware of his surroundings but couldn't even blink to indicate that he was alive. So the climbers passed him by, and Beck laid there for a day, a night and another day in the snow. And then he said to himself, I don't want to die. I have a family to come back to. And the thoughts of his family, his kids and his wife generated enough energy, enough motivation in him so that he actually got up and found his way back to the camp. And I can only try to speculate on how he did it.

RAZ: Well, what explains it, how he was able to survive it?

KAMLER: Yeah, you know what? It's - when you go to medical school, one thing you learn is that if your body temperature drops to a hypothermic level, there's no way you can survive without an external heat source. Beck had no external heat source. And yet after a day, a night and a day in the freezing temperature, laying in the snow, Beck was able to get himself up. And not only did he get his muscles going to get up, but he got his mind going to the point where he reasoned that he had been climbing with the wind at his back so to get back to the camp he'd have to face into the wind, and he did that. He actually staggered forward into the wind and he said he saw some blue rocks. And he moved toward the blue rocks and the blue rocks turned out to be tents. So, you know, you really never know how you're going to respond to a crisis until that time happens, you know? But I think Beck owes his survival to himself, to his incredible will to survive. You know, far more than anything I did for him.

RAZ: Ken Kamler is an orthopedic microsurgeon in New York. He wrote about his experience in the book, "Doctor On Everest." You can see his entire Ted talk, which includes lots of visuals from Everest itself, at Today on the show, crisis and response. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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