by David Kramer
Posted on October 25, 2020
In May 2012 Israeli mountain climber and photographer Nadav Ben Yehuda was only 300 meters from the summit of Mount Everest and on his way to becoming the youngest Israeli to climb the world’s highest mountain, when he spotted someone lying inside a crack in the ice, clearly in trouble. He recognized Aydin Irmak, a Turkish climber he had first met down at base camp lying unconscious in the ice. He had no oxygen system, gloves or shelter. At the time, more than 200 climbers were also making the ascent to Everest, trying to reach the top before the weather deteriorated. Set on reaching the summit, or just too exhausted by the altitude, they passed right by Aydin without offering to help.
With time running out and in the darkness, Nadav abandoned the goal he had been training himself for over the past two years and stopped his ascent. He connected Irmak to his harness and held him, as together they descended for eight hours, in complete darkness and in minus 60 degrees centigrade temperature (minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit), until Nadav’s fourth rest-camp at 8,050 meters. During those hours, Nadav’s oxygen system broke, and his right hand became paralyzed from severe frostbites. From that point it took 23 more hours to reach camp number two (6,450 meters), the highest point a helicopter could land in the harsh conditions. From there, they were both evacuated to Base Camp, and then back to Kathmandu for medical treatment.
As a result of the rescue, Nadav lost 19kg of his body weight, and was at great risk of amputation of his right-hand fingers, and parts of his toes from both feet. When interviewed several days later by an Israeli paper, Ben Yehuda said, It was very hard to carry him because he was very heavy. At times he would regain consciousness, and then faint again. When he woke up he would scream in pain, which made it even more difficult. If I had continued climbing, he would have died for certain. Other climbers just passed him by but I had no second thoughts. I knew that I had to save him.
I would have died on the mountain. It was a miracle . . .”Irmak said. I remember falling down. I woke up with Nadav standing over me and shouting my name. Nadav did a great thing. He built a bridge between Turkey and Israel, and our leaders can learn a lot from him. . . . I may have missed the summit, but I gained a new brother.
For publicity-shy Nadav, who went on to receive a Presidential Medal of Honor from the late president Shimon Peres, the decision to save the life of 46-year-old Aydin Irmak was automatic. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press from Nepal, Ben Yehuda attributed his decision in part to his military training in Israel. You never leave a man in the field, he said. A person’s life, any person’s life, is more valuable than anything else. Before being presented the Medal of Honor, Ben Yehuda tried to dodge the ceremony saying, I heard about the people who received this medal, and I don’t think I am in the same caliber. Some of these people did amazing things.