In August 1979 twenty-seven-year-old Mike Trueman set sail from the south-west coast of Wales, en route to Cornwall. The young army helicopter pilot was helping to move his friend’s yacht from Northern Ireland to the south coast of England. But as they sailed out into the Irish Sea, the sky turned progressively darker and the winds gathered pace.
Over the next twenty-four hours the two young sailors battled to survive force-10 gales in what became known as the Fastnet disaster and which claimed the lives of fifteen sailors off the coast of Ireland. Almost seventeen years later, Trueman was at Camp 2 at 6,400 metres on Mount Everest as the May 1996 tragedy unfolded high above him. As stricken guides, clients and Sherpas tried to survive the fierce storms which engulfed the upper mountain, Trueman was able to descend and – using his twenty-four years of experience as an officer in the British Army – coordinate the rescue effort from Base Camp.
The Storms is the remarkable memoir of a British Army Gurkha officer. Trueman, a veteran of twenty expeditions to the Himalaya, gives a candid account of life inside expeditions to the highest mountain in the world. He gives a unique personal perspective on the 1996 Everest storm, as well as on the fateful day in May 1999 when Briton Mike Matthews disappeared high on the mountain after he and Trueman had summited.
This was another good book about the 1996 Everest disaster from the viewpoint of Mike who was part of Mal Duff's expedition, spending some time with a Yugoslav team and the South Africans. He had previously given an opinion that Ian Woodall was not right for an expedition leader years before based on alleged lying about his experience on mountains and in the army.
Mike backs up what Ian Woodall said about the behaviour of South African team doctor Charlotte Fox, who was fired from the team, and backs up claims made in two books about her climbing illegally on the mountain without a permit. Mike says she went down the mountain ignoring a sick climber needing help, knowing she would be in trouble if she helped him as she was not meant to be there. Angry climbers reported her and she was kicked out of base camp. He does not agree with Ian's assertion that Deshun was on the climbing permit, indicating that Ian's father was on it instead. Not seeing the permit myself, I can't comment on it.
Illness hampers Mike's preperations for the climb and bad weather brings the rest of Mal's team down to Base Camp as the other teams head for the summit. Mal's team and the IMAX had already helped sick climbers on the mountain and were to play a crucial role in the unfolding disaster. On May 10th, the other teams made a summit push when the wind suddenly dropped and Mike was at Camp two. Those lower on the mountain watched and waited for news about who reached the top. Seeing several of his experienced team turn around for varying reasons would have disappointed Rob Hall, having expected them to summit, and it may have explained his increased desire to get Doug Hansen to the top.
This book agrees with other books about poor management of resources. Faster climbers forced to wait on slower climbers, distribution of guides adding to the slow progress, missing fixed ropes at crucial points, lack of oxygen, bad decisions made. The first people on the summit at 1pm were already seeing signs of changing weather but their retreat was hampered by waiting at the Hillary Step as more climbers climbed up. Beck Weathers was left sitting all day at the Balcony with deteriorating eyesight, waiting vainly for someone to help him down. By the time some of these people had got near the South Col, visibility was at zero and they were lost in the storm.
Mike retreats to Base Camp when it becomes clear that a disaster has hit as he can speak Nepalese. He indicates that Ian Woodall was made a scapegoat for everything that went wrong and Mike states that Ian DID offer some help, contributing to radio calls to pass information but Base Camp people did not trust what he was saying. So some of what Ian says he did in his book 'Everest Free to Decide' may well have been true. Maybe the truth lurks somewhere in the middle of all the viewpoints, lost in the confusion of the storm.
I liked seeing the disaster unfold from the viewpoint of those trying to get a rescue started. Mike was in charge at Base Camp, trying to get locations and status of every climber still on the mountain and listing available resources to use in possible rescue. He says the liason officers chose to moan about western weather reports instead of doing anything to help. By now Beck Weathers had been found alive and abandoned in a tent and help was finally prepared for him and the fate of the others were all confirmed. It must have been chaos trying to make sense of everything that was happening.
Mike's book also goes on to talk about disasters on later expeditions with seven of the storm survivors dying in the next six years including Mal Duff at Base Camp the following year. This was an interesting if sad addition to the book. I found this to be an excellent read.
Read June 2016.