After summit, it's all downhill

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Editor's Note: Baltimore County resident Chris Warner successfully summitted Mount Everest on May 23. After the summit, Warner was involved in several rescue situations at high altitude. Here is his account.

Meeting Andy, Asmuss and Jaime

I crossed the summit snow pyramid about 11:30 a.m. and came upon Andy, Asmuss and Jaime.

"Hey Andy, you are at least 3 hours round trip. Are you sure you want to be going on."

"Yeah, we are climbing smoothly and Jaime really wants to keep going." All three of them were smiling and patting me with congratulations.

"It's the chance of a lifetime," Jaime said so lucidly I was impressed.

Russ came on the radio: "Andy are sure you want to keep going. It's getting late."

"Yeah, Russ, we are going to pull it off. We've got the strength."

"What about oxygen?"

"Russ, Chris here, I can leave my bottle on top of the second step. That bottle is 3/4 full."

"Listen Andy, this is your call. You’re the guide on the spot. But you've got to get moving."

Managing the lunatics

Throughout the afternoon, I heard Russ calling up to them, but I was too busy with my own trials to listen in. I found myself managing a lunatic asylum. Bottlenecks kept occurring as tired, perhaps suffering from cerebral edema, climbers simply sat down along the route and zoned out. We'd be stopped for 10 to 30 minutes at a time. My oxygen supplies were rapidly draining.

Just below the Third Step I passed a cluster of climbers and dragged Naoki, Karsang and Dawa with me. At the top of the Second Step a Spanish climber, who had summited all 8,000 meter peaks was laying, passed out on the rocks, a Venezuelan was fighting with his Sherpa at the top of the rappel. I was pulled by two arms at once. The Venezuelan eventually succumbed to my shouting and let his Sherpa rig his rappel.

The Spanish claimed he was blind, but no worry. Did he have other symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema- of course not. Well, these little tablets will cure your blindness. He greedily ate the Dexamethasone and now would let me touch him and help him, but not to let himself use oxygen because this was an oxygen-less ascent.

We got him down the Second Step, but it was like watching a drunk walk a tightrope. Once on the slightly leveler ground, he tried to wander off, using the train track walking technique of speeding up rather balancing out. Ten of us were on egg shells, waiting to see him peel away from the face and fall to his death.

At the First Step, he barreled past a few of us, almost running down the bulging crest. Eric, an Austrian and paternal figure, and I stopped him and eventually he agreed to follow Eric on rappel. Eric hopped down the face in two rappels. The Spaniard, attached himself to three different ropes and proceeded to tie himself in a knot in the middle of the face.

I descended to him and freed him, but now he was unattached to any rope, in the middle of the face. Insisting I go first, I lowered myself to the bottom and shouted directions up to him. Suddenly he was bounding down. Ten feet from the end was a knot, where folks would stop rappelling and climb down to the safety of a narrow trail. He stopped at the end of the knot, untied the two ropes and was about to jump. Directly below him was the frozen body of an American woman. Was he going to jump on her?

Eric and I were frantic. We yelled and screamed at him. He eventually downclimbed and bit, then jumped. Eric actually tried to catch him. It seemed suicidal to me, but just another day in the asylum.

I snatched the walkie-talkie from the Spanish and screamed at his teammates on the other side. More anger and frustration than logic came out of my mouth, but when you learn your Spanish in New Jersey the vocabulary is limited to car accidents and failed romances. Besides, I had run out of oxygen more than two hours earlier.

My own client and Sherpas were still rappelling the First Step. I needed to wait for them. Some divine being was keeping the Spaniard alive. I'm sure he was better off with out me. Until he jumped down another small cliff and thought he broke his leg. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, "Can you help me with my broken legs?"

"Your legs can't be broken," I said because I knew he was dead if they were. But I went back to help him, because he was causing a bottleneck and my client was stuck behind him. "Get up!" I demanded. And he forgot his legs were broken, now more fearful of me. He pushed, I pulled and he stood. "I guess they are not broken," with that he scrambled on.

Trouble Up High

By the time I got to the top of the Exit Cracks, two Sherpas were trying to help the Spaniard down. Naoki was was being pulled by Karsang, his speed and energy had rapidly diminished. I was becoming hypothermic after more three hours without Oxygen. Russ was constantly on the radio, first helping me deal with the Spaniard and then encouraging Andy, Asmuss and Jaime to keep moving.

Before departing the ridge crest for high camp, I found the bottle with the least amount of Oxygen and began to suck O's. I made it back to the safety of high camp at about 3 p.m. Naoki was the only client in sight. By this time Owen was safely at ABC, Evelyne, Robert and Marco also arrived for dinner. Keiron and Ellen slept at Camp 2. Naoki and Karsang made it to Camp 3 by dark.

The last of our team (Andy, Asmuss and Jaime) had summited at 2:30. There were still climbers from the south side up there at the time. With the North Ridge in daylight until 7 p.m., there still was plenty of time to get down.

Unfortunately, the oxygen was draining from the cylinders and cerebral edema was setting in. Jaime started to complain of fogginess in his contact lenses. Actually, his brain was shutting off his eyesight. With little to no vision he could barely walk. The descent of the summit pyramid became a crawl. Andy's eyes became to fog as well. Asmuss guided them to the top of the Third Step.

Russ knew there was a stash of oxygen at the top of the Second Step. Asmuss left to find it, a remarkable feat when you think of being oxygen-deprived, climbing downwards, collecting the four bottles, adding that weight to your pack, then climbing all the way back up to your friends who had by now made it down to the bottom of the third step.

It was now obvious that Jaime could not descend any further without fresh help. I pleaded with Russ to have Andy and Asmuss secure Jaime and get out of there alive. We could go back in the morning and see if Jaime was still living and then worry about rescuing him. We knew that almost no one could survive a night out at that altitude. There were dead bodies all over the ridge and a few corpses were only meters away. Our friend Mark Whetu had lost all of his toes, but his partner froze to death only 60 meters higher. Rob Hall had died clinging to a client a few feet lower on the South Side. Scott Fisher...the list goes on.

Of course, Russ was steps ahead of me. During his 11 trips on Everest he had helped with 14 extreme altitude rescues. In his mind, the details were unfolding. He knew just which teams to go to for help: who to ask for labor, who to ask for oxygen and who to keep out of the way.

Please come down. We can go back for Jaime.

Asmuss was the first to realize that Andy, too, was fading. While he dug a nice hole in a wind protected spot, Andy and Jaime were bedding down in a windy notch. Asmuss climbed up to them with the Oxygen, placing three bottles among them. He then headed towards Camp 4.

Chuldim, Dawa and I were the only ones left at Camp 4. I was convinced that Asmuss and Andy were descending in the dark. All of our Oxygen was depleted at the high camp, however Russ had the climbing Sherpas stop at Camp 3, where there were reserves of oxygen. Russ also had the reserve Sherpas climbing down to the North Col, in the night, to grab more bottles and shuttle them upwards. By dawn these bottles were at Camp 2, at 7 a.m., they were at Camp 3, and by 9 a.m., the bottles started to arrive at high camp.

Few expeditions put standby Sherpas and oxygen in position for emergencies like this. In the past we've used these reserves to rescue other teams' members. Now we were putting all of our reserves and communications resources to the test.

Around 8:45 p.m. on the 23rd, I went to the Americans and woke Dave Hahn. Between gasps of breath, and fighting back tears, I told him about our epic. Dave is a powerful person, and his climbing partners (Tap, Jason and Andy Politz) are equally gracious. He rallied from the fitful sleep of super high altitude and asked about our plans, fears and hopes.

At that point, we thought that only Jamie would be there in the morning and that if the Americans could give him fresh oxygen and a few other supplies, Jaime could wait there for Lopsang and Phurba to climb back up and rescue him.

I slipped into my sleeping bag about 9:30 and called Russ to confirm the American's help. Two hours later Asmuss shows up, after a harrowing, hallucination-filled descent. "You'll sleep with Chuldim and Andy will sleep with us." "Oh, Andy's not coming down."

As absurd as it sounds, Asmuss' arrival made me aware that gas was leaking in our tent. I tried to rouse Dawa, but he was passed out. I dug through all of the tent, and there in my back pack was a compressed gas cartridge that was slowly fizzing out iso-butane. We were lucky to not be asphyxiated.

I fell back into a fitful sleep.

At dawn the radios were crackling. Russ was trying to contact Andy. Eric was trying to contact his team. Asmuss was nearly comatose with exhaustion. Sherpas were pushing upwards with Oxygen cylinders. Our clients were waking up, first to the satisfaction of summiting, but soon to the realization that a drama was unfolding above them.

Andy and Jaime actually picked themselves up and found a more sheltered spot just as the sun was setting. They weren't the only two climbers sleeping on the ridge. A couple of hundred meters below, three Russians were huddled under the "mushroom" rock. Andy pulled his "emergency space blanket" out of his pack, but its thinness made it impossible to unfurl with mittens on. Taking off his heavy mitts, the first attack of frostbite hit. Later, trying to change his radio batteries, gave frostbite its second chance. Within minutes he was unable to re-zip his jacket.

Andy and Jaime hugged each other through the night. They knew that sleep was death and so became each other's guardian: shaking, pleading, creating incoherent conversations.

Shortly before dawn the Americans came across the Russians. Despite the cold, each Russian had their parkas unzipped (a bizarre and often cited Everest dead person phenomena). They gave the Russians Dexamethasone to treat the likely cerebral edema. They also reported, although apparently lucid, the Russians did not acknowledge the approach of the Americans.

Later, when approaching Andy and Jaime, they noticed the same things: no acknowledgement, appearance of lucidity, jackets unzipped. In fact, on the surface, Andy and Jaime were fine. They could answer questions, but they were conscious on a superficial level. The first order of business was drugging them up with Dexamethasone. Oxygen cylinders were switched. But neither climber could stand up. When the drugs finally kicked in, Jaime had a small seizure, as if his engine was restarted.

The descent was slow. The Americans decided to forgo their summit, showing true heroism by guiding Andy and Jaime downwards.

Phurba and Lopsang, who had summited on the 23rd, rushed up again on the 24th. Now, the quickest ever turnaround has been five days on the North Side by the legendary Ang Babu Chirri (who died this year on the South Side). Both of these amazing Sherpas had the reserves to go back up. By the time they reached the Americans, additional help was needed.

The Russians

Back at high camp, the movement of oxygen was our primary concern. I stumbled to the Russian Camp, in which a lone woman, who spoke no English was in distress. Her three friends were missing. Her radio did not work. But it was rumored oxygen cylinders were stored in this tent, and we had her expedition's permission to use them to help both our team and the Russians trapped above.

We rigged a radio transfer in which a Russian team mate in ABC could talk to her, but we couldn't talk back. With tears in her eyes, she tried to listen, but her heart was so full of questions. She reluctantly gave me some oxygen and two more of our Sherpas set off, laden with the precious gas.

A few hours later a Russian stumbled down to us, and as we fed him tea and Dexamethazone, two new Russians climbed up to us.

"My partners are coming, only a short way back, but one has stopped breathing."

" For how long?" I asked.

"More than 15 minutes."

"Well, after 8 minutes and it is too late."

" But you are American, you must have some adrenaline or other drug to bring him back."

"OK, try this." and I pulled a syringe from my kit and gave him the only injectable drug I had: Dexamethasone. "But, you better get going."

Within an hour, with Sherpas, American heros, Russian optimists, and Jaime the Guatemalan, all spread along the few hundred feet of rock and snow above high camp, I noticed a flash of yellow tumbling among the rocks and through the sky.

The Russian who had stopped breathing over an hour ago, slipped from the North Face of Everest. He would not have to spend eternity, as another corpse, frozen in place along the route.

The Homecoming

Jaime and Andy were slowly lead back into high camp. I cried again during their return. The radio transferred the news to ABC, where Owen called Jaime's wife and Andy's girlfriend. We had been keeping them up to date. Trying to stay one step ahead of an internet-distorted media.

That afternoon, Asmuss and I lead them down to Camp 3, at 7,900 meters. Phurba and Lopssang met us there with hot drinks. The next day, around 3:30 on the 25th, we stumbled into ABC. Each of us had tears in our eyes.

In our group, 14 of 15 summit hopefuls reached the top. Evelyne Binsack became the first Swiss woman to reach the summit, seemingly with ease. Marco Siffredi snowboarded from the top, down an improbable line, skidding to a stop in ABC. Karsang (Tibet) became the first Yak herder to summit the mountain that stands above his house (last year, he summited Cho Oyu with Himalayan Experience, another peak he can see from his doorway).

Naoki finished his seven summits and three poles. Jamie finishes his seven summits, becoming the first Guatemalan to do so. Ellen Miller became the first American woman to successfully climb the North Ridge. Asmuss tags his second Everest summit. Andy gets his third Everest summit. Karsang has four Everest summits, Lopsang his third, Phurba his second and Dawa his first.

Jaime and Andy both survived the second highest forced bivouac. Jaime looks none the worse for the wear, and Andy could care less about a little frostbite, now that his girlfriend accepted his marriage proposal.

Today we finished cleaning up all of our camps on the mountain. The yaks are coming tomorrow. We'll be leaving ABC over the next two days and will return to Kathmandu on June 1.

Of course, Russ considers the expedition far from being over. His criteria involves us all safely stepping into a hot shower in Kathmandu.

The seriousness of climbing Everest can't be misunderstood. Guiding Everest puts your life in even greater danger. We depended on more than excellent logistics, the kindness of friends and the perseverance of the human spirit to climb Everest. Russ is always well aware of this and endeavors to run his expeditions as safely as possible. However, Andy, Jaime and all of us were very lucky this year.

We are packing away the computers now, and so will be off line until we reach Kathmandu. Those of you wishing to reach team members should begin to use their personal email accounts.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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