By Jessica Hanewinckel
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very un-dramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost.” — Arthur Ashe, professional tennis player and civil rights leader during South African apartheid
Who hasn’t known someone who idolized an athlete? Someone who viewed Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, or any number of world-class athletes as their hero?
Michael, Wayne, Muhammad, Sandy and Jack were all the epitomes of excellence in their respective sports, but that came with a combination of God-given talent and lots of practice. A hero embodies courage and nobility — unnecessary (though not unheard of) qualities to be a stellar athlete. These men could have been heroes for other reasons, but for their athleticism alone, I’m not so sure. True athlete-heroes are harder to come by.
Israeli 24-year-old Israeli Nadav Ben Yehuda is one of those rare cases. In late May, this mountaineer with tremendous physical and mental strength performed one of the most selfless acts I’ve heard of in the sport. Poised to become the youngest Israeli ever to reach the world’s tallest point, the summit of Mount Everest, he turned back just 300 yards from the top to save the life of Aydin Irmak, his Turkish friend. Ben Yehuda found Irmak lying in his path nearly dead, passed by many other climbers who were determined to reach the summit at all costs.
According to a May 23 report in the Times of Israel, Ben Yehuda, who had started his final summit push at 9 p.m. May 19, had just passed two fresh corpses (four people died that weekend on the mountain, on account of poor weather and human traffic jams that delayed climbers for too long in what’s known as the high altitude Death Zone). The Israeli was on his way up the steep slope toward the South Summit before stumbling across Irmak, who was unconscious and without gloves, oxygen and a supply bag. “He was waiting for the end,” Ben Yehuda was quoted as saying of Irmak.
Without a second thought, and though he says he was sure he would have summited had he continued, Ben Yehuda began working to rescue his friend. He placed his own gloves on Irmak, setting himself up for certain frostbite, and in the process of preparing to descend, his own oxygen mask broke. Already feeling the effects of oxygen depletion (muddied thinking and fatigue, to start), he now faced an oxygenless nine-hour journey to Camp IV, where he could get help from other climbers hoisting Irmak further down the mountain. Remarkably, both men survived.
Ben Yehuda’s heroism is admirable in and of itself, and the fact that the rescue was between an Israeli and a Turk adds further meaning. So few people do what Ben Yehuda did, despite having the opportunity season after season. Of course he would, you think. Not to would be unforgivable.
In recent years, Everest ethics have become highly controversial, because that exact situation has led to the deaths of several climbers, most notably in Everest’s 1996 season, its most deadly, as recounted in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and its 2006 season, as told by Nick Heil in “Dark Summit.” Over the past few decades, the mountain has become overcrowded; as more methods of high-altitude rescue become available and as more companies are willing to assist climbers every step of the way, the doors are opened to those who have the cash but no business being there. It’s the perfect recipe for disaster, and disaster has struck.
So the question is, if you see a dying climber 20,000 feet on the mountain, should you abandon your own summit bid to save him or her? Being at that altitude is not like hiking around the sea-level hills of San Diego. Every single step is tantamount to running a marathon. You’re exhausted, not thinking clearly, starved for oxygen, battling frigid, heavy winds, trying not to unclip from the rope and fall off the side of the mountain or into a crevasse, or to start hallucinating and undress because you suddenly feel hot and walk into the abyss or off a cliff (it’s happened), or be hit with falling ice or sit down because you’re just so tired and want to rest for a second, and instead fall asleep and never wake up (and you’ve paid at least $25,000 to do all that — ha!).
Then, suddenly, you see a climber. He’s not yet dead but clearly not far off. The necessary manpower, the risk, the impossibility of getting that person off the mountain alive are all great. Success would mean a miracle. Not to put a price on human life, but if the odds are against that climber, is it worth it? You’ve just saved for years for this once-in-a-lifetime shot, worked extra jobs, and you’re contemplating abandoning the summit on the offchance you might save this person’s life, or further endanger your own (then again, what’s a little more danger at this point?). But if you passed that dying person, would you feel like you truly earned the summit? Would you feel guilt knowing you did it at the expense of another life? Would it be worth it then?
I don’t know what I would do. There are so many circumstances that would come into play. But I know what the right thing would be. The fact that Ben Yehuda, despite all those varaibles, still chose to save the life of another is more than commendable. It’s why President Shimon Peres awarded him Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor. Maybe, as Irmak told the Times of Israel, they’ll one day return to the mountain and reach the summit together. Do the right thing, and summit, moreover. Imagine that.