Going To Extremes

It might seem the height of absurdity, but Chris Warner is about to tackle the summit of Mt. Everest with a ladder.

Cover Story

April 29, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

Last year, Chris Warner came within 4,035 feet of standing on top of the world.

This time, he's bringing a ladder.

Sometime before the end of May, the veteran mountaineer from Baltimore County hopes to reach the peak of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. It is believed he would be the first Maryland resident to make the 29,035-foot summit.

The challenge is immense. Just 981 people have surmounted Everest, which straddles Tibet and Nepal (about 300, mostly guides, have made multiple trips); 167 have died on the slopes. And Warner and Co. -- he's part of a 34-member team -- are doing it the hard way, going up the mountain's notoriously difficult North Side.

FOR THE RECORD - In the April 29 Arts & Society section, the graphic on Mount Everest on page 9 should have contained a source line crediting information to PBS/NOVA, "Lost on Everest."
The Sun regrets the errors.

The weather there is more fierce than on the South Side, the crumbly slopes more perilous. Near the top, climbers teeter on metal-spiked climbing boots on a knife-edge ridge with 10,000-foot drop-offs.

If that weren't enough, Warner's team has added another element of difficulty to their already difficult assignment, something he dryly calls "an interesting engineering problem."

About 800 vertical feet from the summit, the climbers will pause below the so-called Second Step, a 100-foot-high rock face considered one of the most treacherous stretches on Everest. Veteran climber Eric Simonson, who is also taking on Everest this year, describes the Second Step this way: "The thing is dead vertical. ... There are usually some ropes of dubious quality hanging down (to use as safety lines)."

"Dubious quality" are not words you want to contemplate while dangling nearly two miles above Central Rongbuk Glacier. Enter Warner and his ladder.

A ladder, surprisingly enough, isn't such a far-fetched notion in the world of mountaineering. Climbers have been taking them on expeditions for years, using them to safely cross crevasses they encounter. On Everest, though, all but one of those makeshift bridges are at much lower altitudes. All but a relatively ancient piece of metal at the Second Step.

Back in 1975, Chinese climbers attempting this same route lashed to the steepest section of rock a 15-foot ladder to make the passage easier and safer for climbers.

Safer? Perhaps. But Simonson notes that it's not too well anchored "and tends to twist when you're halfway up."

And there's another problem: The ladder is at least 5 feet too short. Oxygen-deprived climbers wrapped in bulky clothing and standing on metal ice-climbing spikes must pull themselves up, thrash and wiggle about before landing like a fish on the ledge above.

Warner's team hopes their 30-foot Second Step-ladder will end all that. Their plan is to haul the unwieldy ladder up the mountain, wrestle it into place, fasten it to the rock and then head onward and upward.

"It sounds crazier than it is," says Warner. "Well, maybe not."

'Chris was the Pied Piper'

Warner, 36, spends a lot of time explaining to people why he does the sometimes crazy things he does. The tall, rail-thin man with twinkling eyes and a Puckish sense of humor has been described as "everyone's favorite uncle."

"You have to be a little bit off your rocker to think about climbing Everest," he cheerfully admits. "There's a lot of things that could go wrong."

Warner, though, has been preparing a lifetime for his moment at the top.

He spent his early years in the wilds of New Jersey, leading his siblings and neighborhood friends on adventures up trees, over walls and into the woods, his mother, Barbara Warner, recalls.

"Chris was the Pied Piper and Boy Scout leader all rolled into one," she says.

A former earth science teacher and Outward Bound instructor, Warner still hangs out with kids. Before each major expedition, he visits elementary schools to show videos of his climbs and allow students to try on his mountaineering equipment and clothing, even putting both feet inside one of his size 14 boots.

He started the "Shared Summits" program to allow students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to follow his exploits online and send him questions that he can respond to -- direct from snowcapped peaks -- via laptop and satellite phone. Teachers can download curriculum written by Virginia Tech to teach geography, history, math and social studies lessons that relate to the climb.

Warner, owner of Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, is a certified Alpine Guide and veteran of 70 high-altitude climbs, including one of Cho Oyu, a 26,902-foot mountain in Tibet.

It was on that mountain in 1999 that he met Russell Brice, a New Zealander with years of experience on Everest and other peaks. Warner joined Brice as one of four guides for the unsuccessful 2000 expedition and again for this year's attempt.

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