To make it to the summit of Mount Everest, descend safely and live to tell the story, just once, is amazing.
To make it to the summit twice, descend safely and live to tell the story hints at remarkable courage and strength.
To make it to the summit of the world’s highest mountain as a married couple is truly remarkable.
And yet, modest Canberra electrician Ben Darlington has done all of these things, this year with his equally courageous wife Laura, who is now one of fewer than 15 Australian women to reach the summit.
This tale of survival rarely gets bigger for one man who had cheated death on several occasions – not just in mountain climbing, but also by defeating cancer.
What happened on the way down from Everest in May this year elevated Ben from a strong, successful, courageous and tenacious adventurer, to a life saver.
Descending to Camp 4 (at 26,000 feet it’s just 3,000 feet below the summit) Darlington committed self-sacrifice to save the life of a climber trapped and edging closer to death.
This part of Everest is known as the “Death Zone”, and it is very difficult to survive on or above this deadly altitude.
Incredibly, Ben, Laura, and the trapped climbers made it out and back down to Base Camp, but Ben suffered severe frostbite on his toes.
The condition of one of the trapped climbers, Robert Kay, was severe and could have taken his life easily had he not received vital aid from the healthier married couple.
“Along with altitude sickness, two common conditions that extreme altitude climbers suffer from are pulmonary oedema – fluid on the lungs – and cerebral oedema – cerebral fluid on the brain. Robert had both.” Darlington explained.
Ben and Laura, with enough oxygen supply to last them through, opted to stay with Robert overnight at Camp 4 – both risking the same conditions which were threatening Robert Kay’s life.
Kay was found on the other side of their camp, barely breathing.
“He had minutes to live.” Ben said.
“We dragged him into our tent with the help of another team member and injected him with Dexamethazone. This steroid injection put a small amount of life back into him and Robert was just alive”.
“We spent the whole night keeping him that way. Every moment that he was slipping away, Laura would administer drugs. She was amazing. To be able to do what she did at sea level is one thing, but at 8000 metres after her first summit was incredible and I was proud to watch”.
“I’m hopeless with patients so I was organising the rescue for the morning and keeping the maximum flow rate of oxygen to Robert”.
“That night was the longest night of our lives”.
“[Laura and I] had enough oxygen to last us the night, but we had to save it to keep a sufficient supply.” Ben said.
The couple and the stranded climbers were at 7,000 metres at the time and Robert had to be brought down to 6,500 metres in 14 hours in order to save his life.
“Robert survived but was very weak. We needed to move as three nights at Camp 4 is the maximum and Robert wouldn’t last another night. We left Camp 4 with our lead Sherpa clipped, and we pulled Robert from the front and I held Robert vertical from behind as we started to descend.”
Laura continued to supply drugs and oxygen to Robert as they ascended down to Camp 2, with her and Ben’s oxygen supplies running low.
They made it to Camp 2 safely, where a helicopter eventually arrived and took Robert to Kathmandu hospital, where he received expert care and eventually recovered.
The journey to the summit of Mount Everest is one of the toughest challenges known to man. Altitude sickness, oedema, hypothermia and falls have taken the lives of almost 280 people in the last few decades.
For Ben and Laura, it was a tight race to the top, pushing past other climbers, and they had to watch their oxygen flow rates.
But once at the summit, Ben described the feeling at the top of the world with his wife as a rare feat.
“After spending a planned extra day at camp 4 we left on our summit push at around 8am, but quickly found ourselves catching up to slower climbers, with too many to pass.” Ben stated.
“Experience told me to turn down our oxygen flow rates and settle in to a slow pace for a long night”.
“Laura fell into a small crevasse that I failed to point out. But she gets up and keeps going. It was peaceful with medium wind, beautiful sheet lightning over the mountains behind us and the odd “what the f*** are you doing here? Hurry the f*** up or f*** off!” coming from my mouth”.
“We continued higher with me watching Laura’s every move but she was climbing like a pro. Every hard section I thought she might crack, but she powered up. By this time the sun was rising and we were a couple hours from the summit”.
“I knew we were going to make it”.
“We crested the south summit, carefully climbing along the traverse, up the Hillary step and on to the summit”.
“What an amazing and scary feeling, being on the top of the world with your wife. I couldn’t believe we both made it together”.
“It will be hard to top in our lifetime.”
The electrician revealed that he was aware of his frostbitten condition while at Camp 4 and how it came about, but that he had more important matters to worry about at the time.
“When at Camp 4 in the tent with Robert, he was hypothermic and the tent was small. I had my feet under him and they got cold, real cold, frostbite cold”.
“At the time, I knew I was getting frost bite, but we had bigger issues”.
“I have paid the price”.
“Once frost-bitten, you don’t take your boots off until you have options, as feet swell and my boots wouldn’t go back on. So at Base Camp I took my boots off and realised I had bad frost bite. The next morning, I was choppered to Kathmandu”.
“Life is not meant to be easy”.
“Our experiences shape who we are, and help us understand life. 8000 metre expeditions certainly have many highs and lows but this takes the cake.”
Darlington, who owns and runs a very successful electrical contracting company in Canberra servicing Property Management, Strata and Facilities Management companies, began his passion for mountain climbing in Peru, South America in 2011, before beginning his first ascent to Mount Everest in 2012.
However, Ben was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013, and, despite successful treatment and recovery on the first round, it returned again in Peru in 2014.
This time it had spread to the stomach, and he had to undertake further treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He eventually recovered for the second time.
Despite this, he would not let such a setback halt his dream and passion for mountain climbing, and proved it by ascending the deadly top-of-the-world summit once again.
It proved a very successful comeback.
Darlington also had some useful advice on what it would take to survive such a deadly mountainous adventure.
He said that one must first know their area and allow their bodies to adapt to altitude without ‘cheating the system’.
“Skiing and camping out on the mountain over time is a useful way of becoming familiar with your altitudinal surroundings.” he said.
“Your body must learn to adapt to 6,500 metres, to allow the number of blood cells to increase. No ‘artificial doping’ helps.”
He revealed that the drug he used to save the life of Kay was a form of steroid that has limited availability for purchase.
“There are prescription drugs used on the mountain that are available in hospitals but not over the [general pharmacy] counter.”
One such prescription drug included Illoprost, which Ben used to treat his frostbitten toes, but not without a sufficient sting in cost.
“[Illoprost] is used to treat hypotension in blood vessels. One injection for seven days costs around $US10,000”.
“[The frostbite] could heal over time, but nobody knows how or what will happen.”
He also refuses to accept that his condition will restrict him from furthering his mountain climbing ambitions.
“Frostbite will not hold me back. I would hate for Everest to be my last one, but I would not want to go back there.”
He had also developed a kinship with the native Sherpas, who are more adapted to the altitudinal conditions and act as the guides for climbing Everest. They also have the authority to permit mountaineers to climb when safe.
This included halting the climbing of the mountain indefinitely after the deadly avalanche in 2014, which took 16 lives, and then again after the earthquake in 2015 that triggered another avalanche and killed 22 people at Base Camp.
When asked about the psychological challenge of the eerie sight of dead bodies on or below the summit of Everest, Darlington said that the experience acted as a motivational tool to aid in overcoming the odds against surviving.
“You must think about what the people who died did not do that inspires you to think about what you can do to survive.”