Q&A With the Late (Sort of) Lincoln Hall
Australia’s Lincoln Hall didn’t live through his descent from the summit of Mount Everest in May 2006 – or at least that’s what his companions thought. He tells his unlikely survival story in Dead Lucky, a new book he’ll share with an audience at the Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch (click here for the specifics) – and he provides a detailed and intriguing preview in the following Q&A.
Hall begins by talking about his first climbs, which cemented within him a love for expeditions that many folks would go out of their way to avoid – including a dangerous late ‘70s trek in the Himalayas that he now concedes was far beyond his capabilities at the time. He then gets into the nitty-gritty of his 2006 adventure, complete with descriptions of the cerebral edema that nearly killed him, plus hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and an inexplicable alteration in the color of his eyes that lingers to this day. He concludes by musing about the psychological changes he’s undergone since that fateful day in May – all of them for the better.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that you discovered rock climbing when you were fifteen. What were the circumstances?
Lincoln Hall: The circumstances were… well, I guess when I was much younger, when I was five, I got quite involved in gymnastics. My older sister was into that. And I guess ten years later, when a teacher for school took two kids, me included, out rock climbing at some cliffs near where I grew up. I discovered that this was sort of what I was born to do. That’s how I felt about it. I had the strength and flexibility and acrobatic benefits that had come from my gymnastics, and suddenly here was something I could do well as a teenager. And obviously, when you’re teenager and you do something that you like, you want to do more of it. So that’s how it all started.
WW: On that first climb, was there a moment of danger that cemented the appeal of climbing for you? Or was it more that you were able to use the athletic ability you talked about to reach new heights?
LH: Actually, on that first day, the weather wasn’t very good, and it was a five- or six-hundred foot cliff, and a hundred feet off the ground, I couldn’t see the ground. It was really scary, actually. But we managed that climb, which wasn’t all that difficult in terms of climbing. And then that afternoon, we didn’t another climb that was steeper and harder, and it poured with rain. I just couldn’t get up. I sort of got half pulled up. I was really scared. But somehow, that wasn’t enough to put me off. The next weekend, I went out again with the same two people and it was perfect weather, and I just enjoyed it so much – sort of realized that sure, there’s a sense of danger there, but it’s also really safe with all the safety precautions and the highly engineered ropes and all the equipment. Rock climbing is actually really safe but very exciting. That’s when I was hooked.
WW: Your mention of safety ties into something I wanted to ask you about. Some people may look at folks like yourself, and when they see the kinds of things you do, they may think you’ve got a death wish, or at least that you have an unhealthy obsession with risk. Is the climbing you do actually safer that people realize?
LH: Well, rock climbing really is very safe. There are various climbs where you can’t protect yourself very well with a rope, and they can be dangerous. But you can certainly avoid them if you choose. When you get into mountaineering, it is different, because there are definite dangers, and ones that are beyond your control. Things like avalanches, hidden crevasses, sudden storms, getting lost in a white-out. Those kinds of things can happen to you very quickly. But what that means is, you owe it to yourself to understand those dangers as much as you can so whatever you’re doing on a mountain, you’re subconsciously monitoring all those dangers that are just lurking around you. So it is a dangerous process, and sometimes things go wrong – and that’s when people do die. You can’t really make mountaineering a hundred percent safe. There’s no way that’s possible. There are mountains you can climb that are basically just snowy walks, and they can be fine. But when you get into serious mountains, the places are littered with dangers.
WW: For you, what’s the appeal of facing those kinds of challenges?
LH: I guess it’s what first hit me with the rock climbing. Because of the apparent danger of rock climbing – the vertical cliff and your mind saying, “If you fall, you’re going to smash into the rocks and be dead,” which is seldom the case because you’ve got a safety situation set up there – but that kind of apparently dangerous environment focuses your mind tremendously. You’ve got this mix of emotions. A little bit of fear is good, but a lot of fear is panic, and you can make mistakes. But you’ve got a lot of mental control and physical control and balance and strength and judging what you can do. You’re looking up at a rock face and wondering what you’re going to be able to do twenty feet up, because twenty feet up, you can’t really even see what’s up there. You’ve got to judge how you’re going to get up, how you’re going to get down. It’s a very complex mix of things, and it requires a very intense focus. And that very intense focus sort of makes your life much brighter and stronger. It’s a very addictive experience in that way.
WW: I understand that you wrote your first book at 22 while recovering from frostbite you got during a Himalayan expedition…
LH: That’s right.
WW: Was that a climb where you encountered the kinds of dangers you’re talking about? Or was that more of a standard climb, particularly in comparison with others that you’ve had since then?
LH: It was actually my first Himalayan trip, and it was back in 1978. It was a long time ago, and I was really young, and high-altitude physiology was less understood then. It ended up that my climbing companion, the guy I’d been climbing with in Australia and New Zealand and so on, we ended up as the team, the pair that went for the summit. And it really was a difficult mountain for a first Himalayan peak. It had a very long summit reach, so you got up to 22,000 feet, and then you had a half a mile or more of high ridge we had to go along. So we spent a lot of time between 22,000 and 23,000 feet, and the first time you go up that high, you really don’t know how to manage it. We sort of succeeded. I ended up getting frostbite on the way down because we were trapped in a storm overnight. But it was a very intense climb. It certainly wasn’t a beginner’s mountain, but we had no yardsticks by which to judge things. We didn’t know how much harder things are up there, with the air so thin.
WW: Looking back, is that a climb you shouldn’t have attempted at that stage of your development as a mountaineer?
LH: Well, I suppose all’s well that end’s well. Particularly in mountaineering, the way you become a good mountaineer is you push yourself to your limits, and that’s sort of fun – but then things go wrong and you have to push yourself beyond your limits, and you sort of redefine your limits in that way. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was able to survive that night alone up on Everest.
WW: What were your goals on that 2006 Everest climb going in? Was there a special goal you’d set for yourself beyond simply scaling what’s arguably the most famous mountain in the world?
LH: Not at all, actually. I was engaged during that expedition as a cameraman, a high-altitude cameraman. I’ve done this on a few other mountains, including Everest in the past, and Makalu, which is the fifth highest peak. So my job wasn’t to get to the summit. Of course, I was keen to do so, but that wasn’t my role. But as it turned out, the two guys I was filming had serious health issues of very different kinds, and they both had to pull out. So I had nothing to film. But they were fine with me going to the summit, and that’s what I did. Once I got the green flag there, a hundred percent of my focus was on getting to the summit, or if I wasn’t going to achieve that, getting as far as I could safely and getting down safely. That’s always what you’re thinking about. You can’t be thinking of anything else once you start going up a big mountain like Everest.
WW: In the beginning, were you surprised how smoothly things were going?
LH: Yeah. I didn’t start using the oxygen until about 25,000 feet. It was a struggle. I had actually never climbed with oxygen before. Before, I’d gotten up to 27,000 feet on Everest without oxygen. But this time I was a lot older and wasn’t in as good physical shape. I was in good physical shape, but back in the days when I was doing a lot of climbing, I was super-fit. So I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I had to be very careful of what I was doing.
WW: You talked earlier about how quickly things can go wrong. Is that what happened in this case? One moment, everything was fine, and in the snap of a finger, it wasn’t fine?
LH: That’s certainly what it was. It wasn’t quite a snap of a finger, but what happened was, we had a perfect run to the summit. Well, run is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but everything went very smoothly. It was a huge effort, and I knew that it would be, but perfect weather on the summit, and when I got up there, there was no one else there. The Sherpas who came up were with me, so there was just the four of us. It was a real privilege to have the place to myself, just because of the solitude and no distraction from anyone else. I could just enjoy being there. But a hundred feet below the summit – when you get to the summit, you’re only half way, and you can’t indulge in too much celebration, and I knew that, and I expected to be really tired on the way down, because that’s just how it was going to be. But the tiredness turned out to be a lot more severe, to the point where I sort of collapsed in the snow, and that’s because I was hit with cerebral edema. It’s caused by the shortage of oxygen in your system. It interferes with your metabolism in all sorts of ways, and the most dangerous way is when it leads to fluid retention in your skull, which is what happened to me. That puts pressure on your brain and on the base and at the top of your spinal column, and generally that kills you. That’s the prognosis, and I guess that’s what happened. But the curious thing is, that process reversed.
WW: Had you suffered any of the kinds of effects that accompanied the cerebral edema on any of your previous climbs?
LH: Not really. I guess once, way back when, I had a miniature blackout, but it was because I was hyperventilating. And then I realized it wasn’t altitude – it was me hyperventilating, trying to get more of the oxygen out of the air than was available. But I had actually rescued someone who had cerebral edema, so I know what I was like, and the Sherpas confirmed that I behaved in the same sort of way, which was being aggressively uncooperative and wanting to jump off the mountain. Actually, that’s what I wanted to do, not this other guy. He just wanted to sit in the snow and utter nonsense. But really, he struggled when we tried to get him to walk with us. There were two of us, and we had one arm over each of our shoulders and he just didn’t want to go anywhere. But we got him down 2,000 feet; it was actually a bit dangerous because we took a shortcut down a gully that could have avalanched, but luckily that worked out fine. And once we got him down, he got better pretty quickly, and the next day, he was a hundred percent apart from being really exhausted and having a little bit of frostbite on his fingers. So that’s sort of the scenario I was in, except that I was much higher up, and there was a much longer way to get down.
WW: Was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book to translate what you were going through when you weren’t entirely lucid?
LH: I have very vivid memories of what I went through in terms of hallucinations and in terms of some near-death experiences – like, out of body experiences. But I guess my difficulty was in thinking, how am I going to write this, because no one’s going to believe this stuff. It was just so unreal. And ultimately – and I guess we’re talking about the last third of the book here, or maybe it starts a bit earlier than that – but I was worried about how I was going to write about this. And when I got to it, I struggled with how to deal with some of the smaller unexplainable things. For instance, my eyes changed color. I’ve got no idea why.
WW: Your eyes permanently changed color?
LH: Yeah. Well, I don’t know: They might go back. They’ve faded a bit already. They were a blue color, and they’ve gone to a hazel color. That’s nothing major, but it’s just very odd. And also, when at last I got through the night and I was coming down, it was perfect weather, beautiful sunshine, and being from Colorado, and when you’ve got the sun on the snow, you know how bright that is. And for a day and a half, I didn’t have sunglasses, goggles or anything, because the Sherpas had taken all my stuff – because I was dead. And I didn’t get snowblind, whereas one of the other Sherpas who was with me was snowblind when he left me. He was going down because he was snowblind. And another Sherpa got snowblind, too. But I didn’t get snowblind. And sure, I was trying to squint to prevent the snowblindness, but you’ve still got to see what you’re doing. So that was unexplainable, too. And I wrote about these things and was sort of defensive in my writing – like, this happened, and so did all this other stuff. But in the end, I thought, just forget all that. Just write it the way I experienced it. And that’s what I managed to do, or what I attempted to do, and I think I actually managed to do quite well, which is to describe exactly how I felt with the hallucinations and the near-death experiences. It is hard to believe, but I feel comfortable in myself, because that’s what I experienced.
WW: Among the vivid experiences you had was undoubtedly the moment when the fog lifted. What went through your mind at that point? Did you realize that you were alone and you probably weren’t going to make it? Or did you have a very strong sense that you were going to make it?
LH: Fog lifting isn’t quite the right term. I know what you mean, but I came to in the middle of the night. I was suddenly awake somehow. I’d been lying down, and here I was sitting cross-legged, so something had happened that my mind didn’t register as a memory. Obviously, I’d sat up. Then I realized that my fingers were frostbitten. I felt around and I couldn’t feel properly, and I could feel the wooden touch of frostbite. I’d had frostbite before, but it had all recovered apart from some toes. That was back in the Himalayan trip in ’78. But here I had frostbite again, and it seemed more serious. I realized, there’s nothing to stop me from my whole arms freezing. I thought, this is it. The hypothermia, the hypoxia, the dehydration, the exhaustion, the cerebral edema. There was just no hope. Well, there’s always hope, but there just seemed to be no chance there. And in that situation, it’s so easy to just drift off into a trance-like state or into sleep. The hypoxia, the lack of oxygen, you’re light-headed and I think a lot of people just drifted off. But the fact that stopped me from doing that is that I had to get back to my family. I’m actually a very safe climber. I’ve turned back from Everest in the past, I’ve turned back from quite a lot of major climbs my friends have gone on, I haven’t always reached the summit. It’s always been a survival decision on my part to play it safe – but this time, things just went wrong. And I had to get down, and the way I managed to do that was the focus that I’d developed over a couple of decades of meditation. I didn’t want to go into a meditative state, because who knows where that would have taken me. Probably somewhere I wouldn’t have come back from. But I was using the focus that you need in order to meditate successfully, and that focus I just applied to my physical body. I rocked from side to side, so I had something to concentrate on, something to put my focus own – the movement of my body. I tried just focusing my body, but that didn’t work, so I had to move it. So I moved my body, and then I’d change it, move it a different way. Put my hands under my armpits or swap my hands around under my armpits. That kind of thing. Just focusing on what I was doing, and in that way, I managed to get through the night until it was first light. And at that point, my luck changed big time, because four climbers came up on their way to the summit and found me sitting there.
WW: You mentioned your family, and I’m sure this was traumatic for them, particularly given that I found some reports of your death on various mountaineering sites. Was the fascination in seeing some of that material after the fact tempered by your understanding of how hard it was on your family?
LH: No, it was nothing like that. Sure, the news had gone out, but it was only when I got back to advance base camp… Well, I died during the night, and the next day, I got down to the 23,000 foot camp from 28,000 feet at something like 9 o’clock in the evening. The next day, midday, I was down at advance base camp, and it was only when I got there that one of the guys in the camp, he told me that I’d been left for dead, that I was believed to be dead. And in fact, he was on the radios trying to radio to say I wasn’t dead. They had some sort of radio blackout, and that delayed the news. But anyway, my family at that stage did know I was dead, because they couldn’t get base-camp news out that they got from advanced base camp. In fact, my wife was told that I was dead about twenty minutes after I died, because the Sherpas up at 28,000 feet, where I was, were so exhausted that they couldn’t go any further – the Sherpas there radioed down to advance base camp, to the leaders, saying, “We’ve got this dreadful situation.” And the leader told them to monitor, to see if they could get any signs of life from me – but nothing, nothing. So after two hours, he officially ordered them down. So they knew. The word was out. I was the last one to know. So there was no sort of memory and them finding out that way. But there was a whole lot of really inaccurate stuff on the net, because there aren’t always professional journalists like yourself. They’re more kind of cowboys with laptops, and they’re not being malicious, but they don’t really understand the implications of what they’re saying. There was another guy, Thomas Weber, on our team who died – well, when I was in difficulty, he actually died at the same time, but in a different way. And when he died, that was on this other guy’s website down at base camp. He put it on his website twenty minutes later. No fault of what his family would think. It’s the wild west out there in lots of ways.
WW: The title of your book makes it very clear how fortunate you were to survive. Has that made you moderate the way you’ve lived your life since then? Any fear that you’ve used up all that luck?
LH: Oh, no. There was more than luck there. There was thirty years of climbing experience. There were the four other people who died in exactly the same circumstance as me in terms of their exhaustion and their cerebral edema. And they died, but I managed to just hang in there until the next day, and I don’t know if I would have survived the next day. Quite likely not. But I managed to get through to the next step. And it’s really broadened my perspective. Strangely, I’m not afraid of death. I came quite close to death, and I could feel that it was welcoming me, but I decided to decline the invitation. It was so welcoming, but I thought, no, I’m not ready yet. And that changed me. I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of death, and as a mountaineer with a dozen friends who’ve died over the years, I thought I’d have a realistic approach to death – and I did perhaps. But my understanding of death is different now, and I guess my whole understanding of what’s possible has been shattered. My understanding of what is impossible has been shattered, too, because I basically survived the impossible. And sure, I put some effort in and there were people who were able to rally and rescue me and help me certainly contributed. But there are other things in there. Call it luck, call it providence, call it whatever. Doctors can’t explain why I’m alive. And now the world is so much richer for me now, because there’s potential there that I never believed was possible.
WW: What’s the message you hope readers will take away from your book?
LH: Well, there’s not a message, actually. I’m not a proselytizer. But I think what I try and do in my writing is convey the human experience of mountaineering. The public may think I’m crazy, but I just want to convey what it’s actually like. There’s a lot of people who have no conception of mountaineering and why one would do it. It’s really a rich form of experience. And as a writer, there are a lot of opportunities to write about these experiences. It’s not like Patricia Cornwell inventing dead people and that kind of stuff. There are realistic inventions in fiction, too, and I write fiction as well. But the thing about trying to convey what happens on mountains is the opportunity to write about the spiritual experience, the beauty, the camaraderie. It is an extraordinary thing.