Everest climb is down to wire

Howard man's team has one week to reach peak before monsoon

May 30, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

After two months of battling white-out conditions, avalanches and thin air on Mount Everest, Ellicott City resident Chris Warner is poised to make his final assault on the world's highest peak.

Time is running out for the veteran mountaineer. Summer monsoon soon will rip the Himalayas, making further attempts impossible. If Warner and the other climbers in his team don't make it this week, they'll have to try again next year.

"Walking away just isn't an easy option," Warner, 35, wrote in an e-mail message he sent using a solar-powered satellite phone.

"Everest gets under your skin. Despite the amount of torture it inflicts, it is so hard to walk away from the challenge it presents."

The expedition is trying to make the 29,035-foot summit from the north side, considered a more difficult technical challenge than the popular southern route used by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.

On at least two occasions, members of Warner's team have been beaten back from tiny camps high on the mountain by blizzard conditions that buried their tents and required them to poke ski poles through the snow to make breathing holes.

Eating at high altitude is nearly impossible and sleeping isn't much easier, Warner said in an e-mail message home.

A team member likened sleeping above 25,600 feet to being "in a deep freezer for the night whilst the freezer is shaken violently from the outside and then in the morning you get woken up by someone spraying your face with ice cold water."

One climber, a 62-year-old Frenchman who was trying to become the oldest to ascend Everest, dropped out.

This year, at least two climbers have died on the North Ridge, and countless others have required emergency medical assistance for high-altitude sickness.

Both sides of Everest were crowded this season with climbers and expeditions trying to set records, and there was a scramble to be the first to reach the summit this year, which many consider the new millennium.

That mark was claimed May 15 by a pair of Russian climbers using the northern route. The next day, the summit was reached from the south by teams from Spain, South Korea and Britain, all arriving within 15 minutes of each other.

Warner said a summit attempt May 22-24 ended when an unexpected low-pressure system hung above the mountain. Climbers huddled in three tents at the edge of the "death zone," where oxygen-starved muscles and brain cells begin dying.

The e-mailed journal said: "The wind is hammering us down with 50-knot winds blowing continuously. The snow is being driven like knives into [our] flesh."

The climbers descended to a lower camp Thursday to regroup and fight doubts. The foot of Everest, once a bustling tent city of several hundred climbers and support staff, is down to a handful of adventurers.

Three more climbers from the team dropped out, leaving Warner and two others. Warner said yesterday that they believe they have one more attempt left in them.

"We are far from done on Everest," he wrote. "We will definitely make a summit attempt, either on June 1 or 2."

The climbers probably will begin their push up the mountain toward high camp today. The weather forecast radioed from expedition leader Russell Brice in base camp will determine which day will be the best.

If Warner reaches the summit, he will unfurl the flags of several local schools that have been participating in a "Shared Summits" education program. Elkridge Elementary and Ilchester Elementary in Howard County, Park School in Baltimore County and North County High in Anne Arundel have been studying the culture, history and religion of the region by exchanging e-mail messages with Warner during his trip.

Descending the mountain, the expedition will have to confront one more obstacle: A growing glacial lake, 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep, is threatening to block the route down for climbers above 21,000 feet.

"Our best hope is that the dam of ice and gravel bursts by the time we need to leave," he wrote. "With acres of water trapped behind the dam, its destruction could be deadly."

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