Marylander conquers world's highest peak

Surmounting illness, fears and weather, Warner tops Everest

May 24, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

As other Marylanders slept early yesterday, Chris Warner stood on top of the world.

The Baltimore County man joined an elite club of 1,000 climbers when he reached the summit of 29,035-foot Mount Everest. He is believed to be the first Marylander to conquer the world's highest peak.

He posed for photos on the summit - a pool table-size slab of snow and ice - and left a few mementos, including a gold cross given to him by a nun in New Jersey.

Hours later, in classrooms across Maryland, students who had followed Warner's expedition on the Internet as part of a "Shared Summits" curriculum cheered.

"All of the sudden, I had kids running around in the back of the room, their fists raised in the air and screaming, `He made it! He made it!'" said Robert Keddell, a teacher at Howard County's Wilde Lake Middle School. "The announcement came over the public address system. The whole school stopped and applauded. The emotional attachment of the kids to him was so apparent."

Today at noon, Warner hopes to take questions during a live online chat from 21,400 feet on The Sun's Web site, www.sunspot.net, where he has been filing dispatches and photographs during the two-month expedition. After a short rest, Warner, his fellow climbers and support team will break camp and head for home. Warner plans to be home in Oella by the end of the first week in June.

To get to the summit, Warner, 36, had to overcome a severe respiratory infection and days of high winds and heavy snow that threatened to postpone once again his attempt to fulfill a 20-year dream. Last year, brutal weather and avalanches forced him to turn back at 25,000 feet.

Yesterday's celebration, however, was short-lived. On their way back to Advance Base Camp, Warner and other members of the expedition stopped to help a climber just below the summit who had temporarily gone blind in the oxygen-thin atmosphere. The climber, a Spaniard who had climbed without supplemental oxygen, is being treated and is expected to recover.

Joyce Warner, who waited up until 3 a.m. for news from her husband, was thrilled when she got word of his success seven hours later.

"He worked so hard for this. I want to see him and hug him and share this with him," said his wife, herself a mountaineer. "But I have to wait two weeks until he gets back."

Warner's mother, Barbara, cried as she talked about the fear of waiting for word from her eldest son.

"I am so happy for him, but the tension just builds up," she said, her voice shaking. "It's what he wants to do, but it just scares me."

Warner, a New Jersey native, has been climbing mountains since he was 18, when he tackled Grand Teton in Wyoming. Since then, he has reached the summits of some of the toughest mountains in South America, the Himalayas and the Alps. In 1997, he opened Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, and as a certified Alpine guide, began teaching others to climb on its walls.

Climbing Everest

On this expedition, led by Everest veteran Russell Brice, Warner was one of three guides leading eight clients up the mountain's technically challenging North Side.

The weather started out warmer and less snowy than last year's, giving expedition members hope that their luck had changed. But then some of the worst snows in 30 years brought progress to a halt. Sherpas were unable to establish and stock camps high on the mountain and could not fix safety ropes. The climbers were forced to stay at lower camps and could not acclimate themselves to the high-altitude conditions they would encounter once they reached the mountain's so-called "Death Zone" at 25,000 feet.

Warner got violently ill and dropped 20 pounds from his already rail-thin frame. Finally last week, Warner recuperated, the weather broke and Brice selected May 23 as summit day.

To reach the top, Warner and the others had to cope with temperatures of minus 30 degrees, crumbling rocks and a knife-edge ridge with 10,000-foot drop-offs on either side.

In dispatches filed by laptop and satellite phone from the mountain, Warner acknowledged the "doubts, anxieties and fears" that surrounded each of them like the down sleeping bags they carried. But he always insisted that the team was strong and would make it if the weather held.

`Praying like crazy'

But to be on the safe side, his mother, who recently retired from the Archdiocese of Newark, enlisted some spiritual support from former co-workers.

"The nuns," she said, "have been praying like crazy."

Sister Sandy DeMasi, who gave Warner the cross last year, said she printed out his e-mail dispatches and put them on the chapel altar each day.

"This is just unbelievable. It makes you weepy," said DeMasi. "The cross is on top now. It was in my hand to his hand to Everest."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has climbed the 14,700-foot Matterhorn in the Alps, said she was "psyched" by the news.

"It's a true tribute to his spirit, grit, sheer guts and courage. It's great that students were able to follow him, to see the challenges and what risks he was willing to take," she said. "I want to meet him and hear all the details of his climb."

While standing atop Everest, Warner no doubt was measuring the challenge he plans for next year, nearby K2, the world's second-highest peak.

But his mother won't hear of it, at least not now.

"I think I'm just going to pretend he's just not going," she said. "He has to stop this climbing and put some weight on."

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