Rob Hall was a legendary New Zealand mountaineer, who etched his name eternally in mountaineering annals when he was buried alive atop Mt. Everest after reaching the summit for the fifth time. Rob’s mountaineering expeditions started taking shape after he teamed with mountaineer Gary Ball. Rob and Gary earned worldwide acclaim when they scaled the Seven Summits in seven months. 1990 was a watershed year for Rob as he led an expedition to Mt. Everest for the first time and completed it successfully. In that very year, Hall also befriended Jan Arnold, a physician who was busy treating climbers in a clinic. Jan and Hall completed many climbs together including an expedition to Mt. Everest and eventually got married within two years of getting acquainted. Rob Hall was awarded the New Zealand Commemoration Medal for scaling the Seven Summits. Hall and Gary, in order to commercially exploit their mountaineering experience, incorporated an enterprise called, ‘Adventure Consultants’. Soon after setting foot on Mt. Everest’s peak for the fifth time along with his clients, Rob was caught in a blizzard and was swept away while endeavoring to rescue a fatigued client. Frostbitten, haggard, and running low on oxygen, Rob Hall was stable enough to make one last call to Jan Arnold before breathing his last.
Early Life: The Making of a Seasoned Mountaineer
Born to a Roman Catholic family in Christchurch on 14 January, 1961 Robert Edwin Hall was the youngest of nine siblings. He developed a self-reliant and enterprising attitude early on in his life as he witnessed his parents striving hard enough to keep the wolf at the door.
Staying near the Southern Alps, Rob Hall was instinctively drawn to the mountains, and took to mountaineering on his own during his growing up years. He dropped out of school at 14 and knocked on the doors of Alp Sports, a firm manufacturing mountaineering apparels and accessories, with samples of tents and rucksacks.
After joining as a designer at Alp Sports, within two years Hall became in charge of production. In the meantime, he persisted with fine-tuning his mountaineering skills, and in 1980 scaled Ama Dablam (6856 m)—his first Himalayan summit—in Nepal’s Sherpa region, when he was just 19.
In 1981, he conquered another Himalayan peak, Numbur (6954m). He earned widespread recognition and became a national icon when he edged to the peak of Mt. Cook from the Caroline end in just eight and a half hours flat—a feat no other mountaineer had hitherto achieved.
Rob Hall judiciously complemented his climbing expeditions with production of mountaineering gear. He accepted an offer of employment from Macpac Wilderness Ltd, New Zealand’s most well-known outdoor equipment firm where he worked for four years. He soon established his own production unit, ‘Outdoor’ that gave him the leeway to schedule his mountaineering trips.
Rob Hall, on one hand steered his outfit, ‘Outdoor’, and on the other, thrived as a guide for the national Antarctic Research Program team. He resumed summiting of Himalayan peaks along with Gary Ball, his senior climbing colleague, and attempted to climb Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga.
Gary and Hall, after several attempts, reached the summit of Mt. Everest for the first time in 1990. The two of them were leading a group of climbers which included Edmund Hillary’s son, Peter Hillary who relayed the news over the radio to listeners in New Zealand.
Inspired by their stupendous success, Rob and Gary decided to scale the Seven Summits in the shortest time span possible and started scouting for sponsors. Their sincere attempts and earnest labour bore fruit as they were successful in climbing Mt. Everest, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Carstenz Pyramid, and Vinson Massif in about seven months.
The duo’s mountaineering expeditions entailed making necessary arrangements for guiding a team of climbers to scale summits as well as taking complete medical care for which they charged a fee. Rob and Gary invested proceeds from their expeditions for establishing ‘Adventure Consultants’ with the sole objective of helping mountaineers climb peaks.
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The Climbing Expeditions
Rob Hall capitalized on his entrepreneurial bent of mind and Gary exploited his extensive climbing experience to set up ‘Hall and Ball Adventure Consultants’ in Christchurch in 1991. They started planning their first supervised commercial trip and in 1992 were ready to set out with a group of 10 climbers to scale Mt. Everest.
Rob and Gary had requested another fellow Kiwi, Guy Cotter, an accomplished climber who was employed with the military, to provide his support for their debut commercial trip. The 1992 expedition to Everest was thoroughly successful as the team comprising Hall, Gary, Cotter, four sherpas, and six clients all reached the summit.
The group of six climbers constituting the first batch of clients for Adventure Consultants included an Israeli, Belgian, and a Hongkonger who became the first individuals from their respective countries to scale Mt. Everest. In 1992, Rob Hall helped clients climb Mt. Aconcagua and Mt. Vinson Massif, highest peaks in South America and Antarctica respectively.
In 1993, the trio of Rob, Gary, and Guy teamed up again for taking a team of seven to scale Mt. Everest. Rob’s wife, Jan Arnold, accompanied him on this trip making them the second couple to scale Mt. Everest.
Veikka Gustafsson who was one of the clients in the 1993 batch, was the first Finnish to attain the zenith. The year ended on a disastrous note for Rob as he was devastated by the loss of his mate Gary who succumbed to pulmonary edema during an expedition to Dhaulagiri.
Though Rob Hall was overcome with grief at the unexpected passing away of Gary, he continued with organizing trips under the banner of ‘Adventure Consultants’ (the prefix Hall and Ball was dropped). Trips to Vinson Massif became regular, conducted once in a year.
1994 turned out to be the most eventful and prospective year for Rob and his firm, as all the clients who signed up for the third trip to Everest reached the peak. Erling Kagge became the first Norwegian to scale Everest from both sides on foot.
Rob Hall along with Ed Viesturs, a high altitude climber from Seattle, whom he had contracted in place of Guy Cotter, embarked on a mission to climb Lhotse, shortly after their descent from Everest. Hall also scaled K2 in that year and steered successful missions to Carstensz Pyramid and Cho Oyu peaks.
Rob Hall was honored with an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his immense contributions to mountaineering.
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Hall, Cotter, and Viesturs joined hands for the 1995 Everest expedition which was marred by heavy snowing leading to delays and ultimately compelled the team to turn back. Only one climber, Lobsang Jangbu made it to the peak while the rest returned to base camp.
Rob, Gustaffson, and Viesturs teamed up in 1995 to ascend the 5th highest peak in the world, Mt. Makalu.
The Catastrophic Everest Expedition in 1996: An Eventful Life Cut Short
As both Guy Cotter and Ed Viesturs were unavailable for the 1996 Everest mission, Rob Hall signed up Aussie mountaineer, Mike Groom. and Andy Harris, a guide from NZL to assist him. The team comprising two Sherpas and six climbers reached the summit on 10 May 1996.
Soon after the climbers had started to descend, they were stopped in their tracks by a severe blizzard. Rob relentless attempts to help Doug Hansen, a client, to descend proved futile, and gradually he himself became too feeble to continue the downward journey, staying put for two days in the death zone—‘South Col’.
All endeavors to salvage Rob and remaining climbers by mountaineers from below came to a naught because of the rough weather and snowstorms. Andy Harris, a team member, attempted to climb back to South Col to rescue Hall but failed.
Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climber and acting as a guide for Mountain Madness, another mountaineering company, saved three stranded clients but could not trace Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers, Adventure Consultants’ clients.
Beck Weathers made a miraculous recovery and was finally rescued by climbers representing other teams. On 11 May 1996, nearly 12 hours after the snowstorm had begun, Rob Hall made radio contact to inform that he was struggling to survive as he was unable to inhale oxygen since the regulator was blocked with ice.
At 9.00 a.m., Rob Hall informed that he was not in a position to climb down the fixed line of ropes as his hands were completely frostbitten. Sometime in the midday, he radioed Base Camp requesting the climbers to establish contact with Jan.
Rob Hall assured Jan Arnold over the satellite phone that his expedition was successful and that he was on his way back. He passed away shortly afterwards and his corpse was identified by mountaineers representing IMAX expedition on 23 May 1996. His body still lies in the upper reaches of the Mt. Everest.