Sherpas save climbers from death in heroic rescue on Everest
But as they straggled down the 8,848-metre peak, Abdul Jabbar Bhatti and Dawa Sange Sherpa, a rookie climber, ran out of supplementary oxygen about 100 metres below the summit.
As a result, the two were forced to spend the night in the so-called "Death Zone," an area above 8,000 metres where every breath is a labour and temperatures reach a brutal minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Well aware of the dangers of spending the night at the ominous, unforgiving place, Bhatti and Sherpa pleaded for help, asking climbers for oxygen cylinders so they could continue to the safety of Camp 4, the last camp at 7,900 metres above sea level.
Dozens of climbers passed by, but none stopped to help. Some ignored their cries for assistance while others assumed the pair were dead.
But their prayers were answered at midnight when a group of four Sherpas from Sherpa Khangri Outdoor, a Kathmandu-based tour operator, came across the two and gave them a spare oxygen cylinder.
Nima Gyalzen Sherpa, a veteran guide and eight-time Everest summiteer, and Pemba Onchhu Sherpa, who completed his ninth summit this season, checked the pulse of the Sherpa guide, who was squatting beside his backpack.
"He was alive, but his hands were hard like wood," said Pemba, recalling that when he urged the stranded climber to resume his descent, he was unresponsive.
The Sherpa guides gave him hot water, covered his frostbitten hands with a down jacket and attached an oxygen mask to his face. Ten metres ahead, they found his client, Bhatti, the adventure-loving Pakistani father of two, lying on his belly on the icy slope.
Nima Gyalzen fed the Pakistani climber and gave him a full flow of oxygen, helping him regain his strength.
Several hours later four mountain guides including Ang Tshering Lama, an experienced mountain rescuer, decided to attempt one of riskiest and highest rescue operations on the mountain.
Pemba took responsibility for all three clients of his fellow guides and handed a 30-metre rope to the team. Ang Tshering was climbing alone and was supporting the expedition as an instructor.
As the first light brightened the sky over Everest the next day, Ang Tshering and Nima Gyalzen dragged the unconscious Sherpa, taking turns pushing and pulling him.
"On the one side was Tibet and on the other Nepal. We were dragging his body clipped to a rope along the ridge, which at some point was slightly over a foot wide," said Jangbu Ang Sherpa, a rescuer.
Ang Tshering said the technique they employed was called "lowering the body," in which one member served as a guide while the other released the rope.
"I was already exhausted from the climb. And then the nearly vertical slope beckoned us," he said. "It was one of riskiest of the rescues I have ever been involved with."
The Sherpa's body at times stumbled upon rocks, which the rescuer cleared before they continued the perilous descent.
In comparison, Bhatti was in better shape. So the rescuers helped him down the rocky spine to Camp 4, nearly 500 metres below.
The guides typically complete the trip in four hours, but the operation that day took them nearly 12 hours.
Recovering at a Kathmandu hospital, Bhatti, a deputy registrar at the National University of Medical Science in Islamabad, expressed gratitude to the Sherpas for saving his life.
"When my Sherpa told me 'Doctor, no oxygen,' the ground beneath my feet started to shake. After some time, I slipped just below Hillary Step. I thought I was going to die right there," said Bhatti, a medical doctor who became the fourth Pakistani - and the oldest of his countrymen - to scale Everest.
"We climbed down to the South Summit and searched for spare oxygen bottles, but couldn't find any. Many climbers went up and down, but no one came to help us," he said.
"I had lost hope. I was in agony. I wanted to sleep so that I would easily die on the mountain, but I couldn't," he said.
At one point, he contemplated suicide but decided against it because as a Muslim he considers it a crime.
"This was a miracle," he said of the rescue. "On Everest, you can minimize the risk, but you can't eliminate it."
Bhatti blamed a lack of supplementary oxygen for the eight-hour ordeal at 8,600 metres, but his guide Dawa Sange said the Pakistani continued his slow ascent despite the guide's suggestion they turn back as the weather deteriorated.
"That day, I climbed without supplementary oxygen because saving my client's life was most important. On our way back, he ran out of it. I couldn't just leave him there. Soon after, I collapsed," said the Sherpa, who started guiding climbers on Everest last year.
Savouring sweets at the hospital before his flight home to Pakistan, Bhatti was in a jocular mood.
"By just sacrificing our fingers, we have become celebrities," he said with a wry smile.