Himalayan expedition gives climber shot at summit he has longed to scale


November 18, 1990|By PETER BAKER

Chris Warner sits at a small table in a modest apartment in Ellicott City and sips from a cup of coffee. His mind, he is saying, already is on the other side of the world. On Tuesday, his body will follow, and within two weeks he will be trekking east-northeast from the village of Lukla toward a peak called Ama Dablam.

Lukla? Ama Dablam?

Think Mount Everest, Lhotse, the Himalaya and the Sherpa Kingdom well east of Katmandu.

Warner, coordinator of Baltimore Outward Bound's rock climbing and ropes programs, is going climbing for a couple of months with a few close friends in Nepal.

The ultimate target is a two-man ascent of the West Face of Ama Dablam, a 22,494-foot peak some nine miles as the crow flies from Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. The ridge route that Warner and Glen Dunmire of Estes Park, Colo., have selected never has been climbed.

"I have summit fever really bad," Warner was saying. "My mind has already made up the decision that I am going to make it. You never know, though. The weather can crap out on you or you can get hurt, whatever.

"But once you make up your mind, it is a lot easier to overcome the hardships."

Hardships are a way of life in Khumbu, the remote Mount Everest region of Nepal. Warner's base camp at the foot of Ama Dablam will be seven days' walk from the nearest paved road and the nearest airport, a short hillside strip in the village of Lukla.

Warner, Dunmire and Bryan Blair of Catonsville have been putting together this expedition for a couple of months. On Tuesday, the trip begins to Katmandu, where 10 days will be spent organizing the equipment and completing necessary paperwork.

Then there will be a short, harrowing flight through the Himalayas to Lukla.

"You get in a 14-seater plane and cut up this valley right toward Mount Everest, right in the heart of the region with the biggest peaks in the Himalayas," said Warner, who has climbed two other peaks in the area. "You're flying along and saying, 'Hey, look at that soccer field,' and suddenly the pilot guns the engine and descends.

"What looked like a soccer field really is a landing strip on a steep hill. The strips aren't really long enough, so the pilots stop the planes by running them uphill."

From Lukla, it will be a seven-day trek to the base camp, a period that will help the climbers acclimate to the altitude.

"The summit of Everest, for example, has one-third the usable oxygen as sea level," Warner said. "If you are at 20,000 feet, you might have less than 50 percent usable oxygen. The biochemistry has to have time to adjust."

It also will be a time for the climbers to eat in preparation for the ascent by increasing storage of calories in body fats. Once on the mountain, Warner says, "There is no way that you are going to be able to take in as many calories as you expend."

In the case of Warner and Dunmire, that will be especially true, because they will climb Alpine style, carrying all their supplies in their backpacks. They also will be climbing in winter conditions, which are far more demanding than the summer, when most ascents are attempted.

"Originally, there was expedition or siege-style ascents, where you went camp to camp and made the climb in stages," Warner said. "In the '70s, people realized that you could put everything on your back and try to make it to the top in one climb.

"You and your friend put on your backpacks at the bottom, and you go to the top and work your way back down."

Warner says it is the purest form of mountaineering, and he admits that it is by far the more dangerous, because "you don't have a way to get down when someone gets injured or the weather gets bad."

The crucial element in the climb will be teamwork, Warner said.

"The most important thing is finding a partner who is not going to panic," Warner said. "Also, he must be comforting enough to you so that you can work as cheerleaders for each other, patting each other on the back, and refusing to say how bad things really might be. Once you admit that the situation stinks, then you are in real trouble."

The situation would stink for most of us from the outset.

During a winter climb, the lower third of the ridge route up the west face of Ama Dablam will be in shadow all day. Warner says their assumption is that temperatures will be 30 below zero fairly often, and the climbers will be limited to a total of about 25 pounds of gear per man for the five or six days they expect to be on the mountain.

The ridge route up the west face was picked purposely, Warner said, because gully routes to the north and south of the ridge have gigantic ice falls, where blocks of ice are calved regularly and sweep the gullies clean.

A New Zealand group that included Peter Hillary, son of Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary, was swept away by a block of ice in the gully to the south of the ridge. One of Hillary's legs was broken, and another climber was killed.

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