Everest adventure ends on a downer for climber Warner

Weather forces retreat from summit effort

Mountain Climbing

June 02, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Everest has taken his dream, but it did not take his life.

Chris Warner, who spent 20 years preparing to conquer the world's highest mountain, is on his way home to Maryland today without experiencing the thrill of standing on top of the world.

After huddling for 18 hours at 25,000 feet in tiny tents being shaken apart by high winds and driving snow, Warner and seven other members of the party were ordered down Wednesday by expedition leader Russell Brice. They are believed to be the last team off the mountain this season.

In an e-mail message from the mountain, Warner, 35, called the situation "a living hell," but also expressed bitter disappointment.

"Even the obvious reasons aren't easy to accept. At the moment I realized that our summit bid was over, I also realized how badly I wanted to climb Everest. The tears were spontaneous and instantaneous. The disappointment was so powerful," he wrote.

But Everest wasn't done with them yet. As they retreated from the 29,035-foot mountain, two Sherpas leading the way triggered an avalanche that swept them down the slope and covered them in snow. Team members staggered back up to the tents and steadied their nerves. When the winds momentarily died down, Warner led the group to Advance Base Camp at 21,300 feet.

The Web site Everest2000.com, which tracked all 50 expeditions this season, heralded their safe descent as "The Last Best News of the 2000 Season."

Although the climbers are out of the "Death Zone," where muscles and brain cells begin dying for lack of oxygen, they must still find a way across a growing glacial lake 20 feet deep that is between them and Base Camp.

Sherpas are building a raft to float their equipment across, and the climbers will try to skirt the water's edge and get as far downhill as possible before the water breaches a rock and ice dam and rushes into the valley below.

This season on the north side of Everest has been especially brutal. Two climbers died and many others had to be treated for high-altitude sickness and cold-related injuries. Veteran mountaineers said the weather caused some of the worst conditions ever.

Four of the original team assembled by Brice dropped out before this week, leaving Warner, five Sherpas and two other climbers on the mountainside for the season's final assault before the monsoons arrive in the Himalayas.

Sunday, Warner called his mother, Barbara Warner, in New Jersey.

"I just didn't hear the confidence in his voice," she said in a telephone interview last night. "He put so much of himself into it, but the weather wasn't cooperating. It wasn't meant to be right now. We're so disappointed for him."

Barbara Warner works for the Archdiocese of Newark, where nuns had offered prayers for him and Sister Sandy DeMasi had given him a Jubilee Crucifix for good luck. Warner was going to leave it at Everest's summit, but now he's bringing it back to her.

Joyce Warner, a climber herself, said her husband called her yesterday morning at their home in Ellicott City. She said she's glad he had a chance to vent his feelings.

"For 2 1/2 months, he's not been allowed to have emotions. He was there to guide, and emotion clouds judgment, emotion kills," she said. "I cried for him because I knew how sad he was."

The expedition still has to pack its gear and travel by foot and truck to Katmandu.

"He's still confused about what day it is and he wants to be home now, and now he realizes it's probably going to be another two weeks," Joyce Warner said.

Her husband hopes to get back in time to visit the schools that participated in the "Shared Summits" education program. Students at Elkridge Elementary and Ilchester Elementary in Howard County, Park School in Baltimore and North County High School in Anne Arundel sent him e-mail questions, and he responded with stories, photos and video.

He also hopes to get back to running EarthTreks, his Columbia climbing school.

Joyce Warner said her rail-thin husband has dropped 20 pounds, and she hopes to stock their kitchen with "snacky things ... that he can graze all day on."

She said she hopes people don't think her husband's quest was a complete failure.

"Just because you don't get the ending you had hoped for doesn't make it a waste," she said.

And Warner, still up on the mountain, said in his last e-mail that though he needs time to put the entire expedition into perspective, "One thing I've learned [and you have to keep this a secret from my mom] is that I will be coming back to Mount Everest."

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