Jason Tanguay '01: Moral dilemmas in the clouds

By Andy Dappen

Jason Tanguay blames a five-day mountaineering course at Mt. Rainier, attended as an 18-year-old, as the root of his addiction. Tanguay, 25, who received his master’s in teaching at Puget Sound last spring, says, "I was so excited about the sport that I kept asking the guides, ‘What do I do to become a guide.’"

Two years later Tanguay had the prerequisites in hand and was working as a guide on Mt. Rainier. He spent one summer leading climbers up Washington’s highest peak; then his persistence in asking for loftier assignments landed him jobs on both Rainier and Alaska’s Mt. McKinley for four summers.

Having worked with Himalayan climber Eric Simonson on Mt. Rainier and having "shamelessly begged to be taken on a Himalayan expedition," Tanguay finally got his wish: In 1999 Simonson asked him to help guide clients up Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak. That experience, "along with more begging," landed Tanguay a berth on Simonson’s 2001 expedition to Mt. Everest.

At the heart of the Everest expedition was the hope of clearing up the controversy over whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who were last seen climbing into the clouds shrouding the top of Everest, had actually summited the 29,034-foot peak some 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary. An earlier expedition had already found Mallory’s frozen body thousands of feet below the Northeast Ridge, solving the mystery of his death–he had fallen. But whether he had actually tagged the summit remained unknown, and Simonson was returning to look for needles (like the camera Mallory carried) on the haystack of Everest.

All of which had Tanguay, two teammates and two Sherpas poised at Camp 6 (27,200 feet) in late May of 2001. "We were given the chance to make the summit and, while descending the summit ridge, were to look for artifacts. If we could find something [an oxygen bottle, piton, camera] belonging to Mallory above the Second Step [the most difficult obstacle along the ridge], it would suggest that Mallory probably made the top."

Tanguay, however, was about to learn that getting off Everest alive is harder than getting up it. On May 24 he and his partners left their high camp and by dawn had reached Mushroom Rock, between the obstacles on the Northeast Ridge known as the First and Second steps. Here they encountered three Russians who had not made it back to camp before nightfall and were in rough shape. Donating water, oxygen and drugs, the Americans got the Russians headed downward before climbing on.

For another hour Tanguay’s team moved higher, surmounting the most difficult part of the route in good time. But only 500 vertical feet below the summit they encountered Guatemalan climber Jaime Vinals and Colorado guide Andy Lapkass, who had summitted the day before but had not descended far before fatigue and vision ailments forced them to spend an exposed night out at 28,500 feet. "We spent an hour reviving them with food, water, oxygen and drugs. We hoped to get them moving down under their own power so we could climb on, but they couldn’t walk."

The ethics of climbing high peaks are shady and many venturing into the so-called Death Zone above 26,000 believe that maintaining life there is so iffy that it’s an every-man-for-himself domain. Indeed, over the next hours, Tanguay witnessed parties climbing past that offered no assistance. His crew, however, sacrificed their summit hopes to help the half-dead climbers. "How could we go ring some imaginary bell on the summit and leave these two to die?"

Sandwiching the troubled climbers between healthy ones, they began an agonizing descent. "Initially we’d make five or 10 steps before the two would collapse." With lost altitude, however, the suffering climbers strengthened and eventually rescuers sent by their own expedition joined the Americans to accelerate the descent.

Not far from High Camp the group re-encountered the Russians. One of that trio had collapsed in the snow; a second, nearly spent himself, sat next to his companion; while the third had continued on. "We tried reviving the one … his wrist was still warm but he had no pulse. Eventually we had to leave him and concentrate on getting the last Russian down."

In the aftermath of these rescues, Tanguay says, "Obviously we didn’t look for artifacts on the summit ridge that might have belonged to Mallory." He also admits, "It was hard spending so much training and energy getting that close to the summit and giving it up. Still, saving four people–that’s powerful stuff."

Now in his first year of teaching biology at Vashon Island High School in Washington state, Tanguay is a role model most parents could only wish upon their kids–a model who knows how quickly focused ambition can carry you upward, yet one who understands that ambition needs the guidance of a moral compass.