By TIM WATKIN in Kathmandu

When six year-old Sarah Arnold-Hall arrived at her hotel in Kathmandu she was thrilled by the formal letter of welcome from the hotel manager and wanted to reply.

She wrote that she came from New Zealand, had a cool baby sister, and wanted to climb Mt Everest one day. Her dad had died up there, she explained.

Her mother, Jan Arnold, has always told her the truth about Rob Hall, the New Zealand mountain guide who died in 1996 when he refused to leave a client high on Everest's South Summit.


Hall spoke to his wife three times before dying in a wild storm that killed eight people.

"She has always known that Rob loved her, wanted her, had felt her move, that we'd named her," Arnold said in Kathmandu.

"We talk about him a lot and she tells me she's going to climb Everest. I've never encouraged or discouraged her."

Sarah saw Mt Everest for the first time as they flew into Kathmandu last week. She got very excited.

Yesterday, she flew on a scenic flight for a closer look.

They are here for the celebrations around the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent of Everest in 1953.

An accomplished climber, Arnold met Hall on the mountain and summitted in 1993. She remarried last year and has moved to Nelson with her husband, Andreas Niemann, a cabinet-maker. They have a seven-month-old baby, Helena.

Arnold is working as a part-time GP and, seven years after a very public tragedy, she is happy.

She first visited Nepal in 1988 and heard of two New Zealand doctors working at the high altitude medical clinic just two days from Everest base camp.

"When they told me what they'd done I had to do that," she says. There, in 1990, she met Hall.

They married in 1992, two years after Hall, who had his own company manufacturing sleeping bags and packs, had got to the summit on his third attempt.

That year Adventure Consultants, the company he had set up with friend Gary Ball, took its first clients up the mountain.

Arnold worked as the expedition doctor.

Arnold sat out the 1996 expedition because she was seven months pregnant with their first child. She had sat up waiting for news that Hall and his clients had reached the top and were back on the South Col. The bad news came with a knock on the door at 3am.

"They're not back yet," a friend told her. "It's chaos up there, there's a storm raging and there's 22 people still out."

At 11am NZT (5am in Nepal) base camp heard crackling on the radio. It was Hall. Miraculously, he had survived a night on the South Summit.

"I spoke to him and he sounded terrible," Arnold recalled.

He was confident a rescue team could reach him, however. She spoke with him again at 3pm.

"I suppose he'd been in the sun for a while. He sounded better, but the rescue team had had to turn back, which I knew. I knew he was going to die."

When they spoke for the third and final time he had tapped into discarded oxygen tanks on the South Summit and thought he could survive another night. "I'm ok," he said.

Surviving a second night on Everest proved to be a miracle too far. There was no response from Hall the next morning.

Some would see those calls as a cursed combination of heart-breaking closeness and powerless distance. Arnold thinks of them as a blessing.

"We had nothing left on the slate left unsaid," she says. "In that situation you get to hold their hands across space, across the telephone lines somehow, and I'm really grateful to have had that."

Arnold knew Hall wouldn't abandon his client Doug Hansen. But he wouldn't have decided to sacrifice himself for someone who was going to die anyway.

"Knowing Rob, he would have believed that he would be able to look after Doug, whatever that meant in those circumstances, and would be able to get down in the light of day."

"He'd been away six weeks already, and then it was well, he's still not back, but you think ... maybe. You think, I don't mind not seeing him for a while. I can wait a while. But not never."

She bows her head. "Not never."

For months after she struggled to find time to grieve. She had a new baby. She felt responsible to the family of the two clients and other guide from Adventure Consultants who had died.

She also found herself in the public eye. Strangers expressed their sorrow, and within three months Hollywood producers were on the phone bidding for the rights to Hall's life story. "It was like it wasn't mine, like it belonged to everyone else. I couldn't rescue myself and my baby. It probably took 18 months."

She tried to keep busy.

"I had this moving baby inside me to kind of cuddle, physically but also emotionally. I wasn't left alone and that helped me."

She said: "I make sure I tell her stuff - your daddy used to love chocolate ice cream so she can get a sense of him.

"As she gets older she will have different questions and will get more answers from Rob's brothers and sisters and friends."

She will know he was a wonderful mediator, a peaceful person and a loving husband.

Tomorrow Arnold will join a jubilee procession of Everest summiteers through the streets of Kathmandu, accompanied by her new family. "Mine is a happy ending story," she says, smiling.