Nadav Ben Yehuda, aged 24, a law student from Rechovot, loves mountain climbing. His quest was to be the youngest Israeli climber to reach the peak of Mount Everest.
Two hundred climbers were attempting to scale the summit of the 29,035-foot mountain that bitterly cold weekend last May. Still, all was going well for Ben Yehuda who was tantalizingly within reach of the world’s highest peak.
He continued slogging upward, his Sherpa guide behind him, until he suddenly came to a stop just 250 meters away from the summit.
He stumbled across the unconscious body of a Turkish climber, Aydin Irmak, lying in the snow. Nadav had to make an excruciating decision. He could continue to climb and reach the mountain peak, or he could try to save Irmak’s life.
Israeli-Turkish relations have been under heavy strain in recent years, reaching its nadir in May 2010 when Israeli naval commandos prevented the Mavi Marmara flotilla from breaking Israel's legal maritime blockade of Gaza and nine Turks were killed when the Israelis were attacked.
But when Nadav saw Aydin stranded on the mountain, he was not thinking of politics. He saw a fellow human being who was about to die.
“I had already passed two corpses when I found him,” Nadav said. “He was unconscious. He had no gloves. No oxygen. No crampons. No cover… He was waiting for the end. I was certain I could have made it to the summit. But if I had continued climbing, there’s no question Irmak would have died. Other climbers just passed him by and didn’t lift a finger, but I had no second thoughts. I knew that I had to save him.”
Israeli mountain climber Nadav Ben Yehuda, with Aydin Irmak.
Nadav tied Irmak to his harness and began the descent, a nine-hour journey to the nearest base. Saving Irmak was probably even more difficult than trying to reach the summit.
“It was very hard to carry him because he was heavy. At times he would gain consciousness, but then faint again. When he woke up he would scream in pain, which made it even more difficult.”
“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.”
Four climbers lost their lives on Everest that weekend. Nadav saw the route was “strewn with bodies.” Thanks to him, Irmak was not one of them.
The minus 40-degree Celsius temperatures left both men with severe frostbite and Nadav’s ungloved hand was blackened. Eventually, they made it back to Camp IV where they were safely evacuated by helicopter.
Upon his return to Israel for medical treatment, Nadav received a hero’s accolades. In June he received Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor at President Shimon Peres’ residence in Jerusalem. However he does not believe his actions deserved such an esteemed award and doesn’t regret his decision.
“Saving a life is a greater priority than being the youngest Israeli to scale Everest,” Nadav said. "You never leave a friend in the field."
The story was also reported in some Turkish newspapers – a rare piece of positive news about Israel.
Asked if he still hoped to scale Everest, Nadav said, “I do want to see the view from the top.” He still plans to make it to the summit one day. The man he saved, Aydin Irmak, hopes they will reach that goal together.