20 years to prepare, 10 weeks to conquer

Everest: Chris Warner will attempt to climb the world's highest mountain, fully aware of the dangers that have claimed 161 lives.

March 26, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

For 20 years, Chris Warner has been preparing for the Death Zone.

Soon he'll find out if he's done enough to survive.

If Warner does everything right, if the brutal cold and physical pain don't crush him, if the weather smiles on him for a few days, he hopes to stand atop Mount Everest in the Himalayas in mid- to late May. And if he is successful, it is believed he will be the first Marylander to rise above it all.

"You have to be a little bit off your rocker to think about climbing Everest," says the 35-year-old Ellicott City resident. "There's a lot of things that could go wrong."

Warner has said goodbye to his mother and other family members. On March 18, he did the same at a boisterous send-off party with 400 well-wishers at Earth Treks, the Columbia climbing gym he owns.

Tomorrow, he'll embrace his wife, Joyce, and board a plane for the 30-hour flight to Katmandu, Nepal, and head to Tibet for a 10-week assault on the world's highest mountain.

The veteran alpinist goes into the challenge knowing that while 808 people have reached the summit, 161 have died.

"It's all about making good judgments up there," says Warner, who has turned back on other expeditions with the summit in sight.

Still, he acknowledges, sound thinking has eluded some of the world's greatest climbers, men and women killed doing exactly what he has been training for.

Death Zone

Everest is 29,035 feet high. Near the summit, the body gets one-third of the oxygen it would at sea level. Warner has been as high as 26,902 feet -- the fringe of what is labeled the Death Zone, where oxygen-starved muscles and brain cells begin dying and the thought process misfires. Bottled oxygen helps, but it is no substitute.

Warner is one of three guides on the expedition headed by Russell Brice, a New Zealander with nine seasons of Everest experience on his resume. The group consists of eight clients, including a 65-year-old Frenchman who hopes to be the oldest man to reach Everest's summit and beat a record set last year by a 60-year-old.

"My responsibility is to get people down alive. Of course, we hope to come down via the summit," Warner says.

A doomed attempt

The climbers will take the North Ridge route, considered somewhat safer than the popular South Col route, but technically more challenging. It also was the route chosen by George Mallory in 1924 on his doomed attempt to be the first to conquer the mountain.

Last year, the international fascination with Everest, fueled by the 1997 book "Into Thin Air" and the IMAX documentary "Everest," got another boost with the discovery of Mallory's body at 27,200 feet. At least four books and two documentary films followed.

Partner still missing

Brice's expedition this year has a Mallory connection as well.

Graham Hoyland, a producer for the British Broadcasting Corp., will be trying to find the body of his granduncle's friend and Mallory's climbing partner, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine.

With the body, Hoyland hopes, is the camera his granduncle lent Irvine, which might show whether the two Englishmen made the summit before their deaths, beating Sir Edmund Hillary to the top by 29 years.

Hoyland told the Scotsman newspaper that he hopes the 500 or so climbers on Everest this year don't set off an "unholy race" to find Irvine's body and garner publicity.

"It's a subplot to the whole story, and I don't know how developed it is," says Warner. "That's what makes these trips so exciting."

The expedition will travel from the Tibet side along Everest's North Ridge, following a route pioneered by a Chinese team in 1960.

At 17,000 feet, base camp is the anchor, a large tent city providing hot meals, hot showers, a satellite phone and an Internet connection.

"The ability to pick up the phone and call your wife is a huge psychological edge," Warner says.

Stringing along the mountainside to the summit will be about a half-dozen tent villages; the higher up they are, the more Spartan the conditions.

Jet-stream danger

Above Advance Base Camp at 21,300 feet, there's always the danger that jet-stream-driven storms will shove the nylon shelters off the mountain, imperiling the expedition.

The jet stream will dictate when the climbers move and how high they go. During the winter months, the air roars across the top of Everest, making travel almost suicidal.

As May progresses, the jet stream moves north, away from the summit. The climbing window is usually the second two weeks of May.

High camp sits about 1,835 feet below the summit in an area large enough to hold about four tents. It is from there the late-night summit push will begin.

In an Internet interview, veteran Everest climber Eric Simonson, who helped find Mallory's body last year, describes his 1998 climb: "Above [high camp] you'd better be able to climb. There is a long way to go to get to the top, a lot of different kinds of terrain, a long time to be spent at extreme altitude, and if you have a problem, you are toast. No rescue. Period."

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