Heroism on Everest


Rodika Tollefson, KP News

Dan Mazur, who made international headlines last month after rescuing an Australian climber left for dead on Mount Everest, appears nonchalant about the dangerous job he has as a climbing guide.He’s matter of fact about the decision he and his climbing team made when they encountered Lincoln Hall on their way to the peak — so close within their reach — while so many others would, and did, simply pass him by.

“All of us have the ability to stop (to help) inside us, and maybe we all have the ability to not stop,” he said. “There’s a very fatalistic mentality (on the mountain). That wasn’t what I was taught.”

Mazur, whose legal residence and business address are in Lakebay — he even votes here — lives in Olympia, where he owns an expedition guide business, SummitClimb. He has found himself in the international media spotlight after giving up his group’s attempt to the summit to save Hall’s life. The feat was featured by media outlets ranging from People Magazine to Dateline NBC and the Today show.

“I’m really surprised that people are into the story. I had no idea,” he said in an interview less than a week after his return home.

Even his mother, Longbranch resident Mary Mazur, started fielding media phone calls as early as the next day after the May 26 rescue. “I’m very interested to find out how they found me,” she said.

What makes the story so compelling is perhaps the fact that Everest has been criticized as a place where it’s no longer en vogue to help a fellow climber in trouble. Even Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit the peak and live to tell about it, has criticized Everest for its commercialized culture. The ascent is quite expensive, and it could take years to prepare for it. One or two hundred people have lost their lives trying to reach the peak.

For Mazur and his two paying clients, May 26 was a perfect day. The weather was great, there was no wind, and they were feeling pretty good as they climbed toward the peak, just two or three hours away. Then they encountered Hall — with no oxygen mask, sleeping bag or other gear — perched up on a peak at 28,000 feet, not tied to any ropes. His gloves were off, and he had started to take off his suit. It was 20 or 30 degrees below.

As they moved quickly to give him oxygen and some food, they tried to convince Hall’s own team, at base camp, that he was alive. The night before, his Sherpas left him up there for dead, after trying to rescue him themselves. Hall was suffering from cerebral edema, a common effect of the high altitude. His wife had been told he was dead.

“We had to do like a sales job to convince them he was alive,” Mazur said.

Mazur is familiar with such close calls himself. An experienced climber who has scaled some of the world’s tallest peaks--including Everest in 1991 — he had altitude sickness similar to Hall’s during one of his climbs. He had fallen off a cliff in loose snow, and his team could not go down so they had to go over the top with him. “Those guys saved my life,” he said.

By the time rescuers showed up to help take Hall to base camp, Mazur had to scratch his team’s summit attempt. The weather had worsened, and he knows “when to turn around.”

“You have to have respect for the mountain,” he said. “I’m very careful.”

The two clients, who spent years of fund-raising and physical preparedness, didn’t hide their disappointment in missing their opportunity, after spending several weeks on Everest (so the body can adjust to the altitude). For Mazur, the heroism could be bad for business.

“People want to know your success rate, that’s all they care about,” he said. “Climbers want to go with someone who will get them up.”

Still, asked by Matt Lauer in an interview in New York if he ever questioned whether he should stop to help Hall, he said: “How could you sleep a good sleep at night thinking that you passed somebody who needed your help? I mean, that’s just the way I was raised…”

Mazur, who is 45, says human bodies have limited mileage and it’s not as easy to make the climbs for him as it was 20 years ago, but he plans to keep it up as long as he can. He goes on expeditions twice a year to Tibet, the Himalayas, Africa or South America. The business, which is owned by nine people, started out as “a group of friends who climbed together” 15 years ago and slowly evolved.

Mazur, a Boy Scout who’s been climbing since age 17, has organized and led overland, trekking and mountaineering expeditions for nearly two decades, and was named “the most successful American to ever launch an expedition” by Climbing Magazine. He is also actively raising funds through a nonprofit foundation for a village near Everest, to build a hospital and school and provide clinics.

Mazur finds the local area a great place for climbers, with its proximity to Adams, St. Helens, and Rainier. When home, he tries to visit the local peaks every two weeks. Mount Rainier, covered with glaciers and snow, is where he first learned to climb. “It’s like Mount Everest, only small,” he said.

To visit his parents in Longbranch and to get his mail, Mazur often “commutes” by boat — the 12-mile, half-hour scenic trip sure beats Interstate 5. Devil’s Head at Dana’s Passage is his most favorite place.

Mary Mazur used to stay awake at night during Dan’s startup days, but has gotten used to her son’s dangerous line of work and “doesn’t do that anymore.” She says one thing she learned about this rescue is how much media scripts stories. Seattle news station reporters who came to her home “asked lots of questions” about Dan’s life, but “when they got back to their editors, all they wanted was ‘mom.’”

“I was very disappointed, as I don’t see myself as ‘the mom,’” she said. “Dan is my colleague.”

She added, “I’m proud of him as a climber and leading (other) climbers… someone who’s extremely involved and concerned about the Nepalese backcountry people.”