3 die in rush to Everest's peak

Md. man joins effort to rescue 4

Scores reach summit, including Sherpa, 15, the youngest to the top

May 25, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Three climbers died and four suffering the effects of high altitude were the target of a rescue mission yesterday as scores of mountaineers raced to reach the top of Mount Everest before bad weather sweeps in.

A Russian, an Austrian and an Australian on separate expeditions died near the 29,035-foot summit of the world's tallest peak. More than 50 people reached the top from the Nepalese side and a smaller number from Tibet in a two-day span.

The jet stream dictates when climbers can make their attempts, but usually the season lasts from mid-May to the end of the month.

This year, high winds and heavy snow delayed the start of the season, causing a traffic jam on the mountain eerily reminiscent of 1996, when a record 15 climbers died, including eight who became the basis for the Jon Krakauer best-seller "Into Thin Air."

The Nepalese Tourism Ministry reported that in a 1-hour, 37-minute period on Wednesday, 37 climbers from a dozen expeditions took turns at the top of the world, a pool table-size slab of snow and ice.

One of them, Temba Tsheri, 15, a Nepalese eighth-grader, lost five fingers to frostbite last year on Everest but reached the top this time to become the youngest ever to reach the summit.

A French couple avoided the departing crowd by parachuting into Tibet after their successful climb. Another Frenchman rode a snowboard down.

But in perhaps the most dramatic moment so far this season, mountaineers struggled overnight to save four climbers at 28,540 feet, just below the summit. The rescue attempt is believed to be the highest ever on the Tibetan side of the mountain.

"The rescue is still in progress," said Adrian Ballinger, director of mountaineering for Earth Treks Climbing Center, a Columbia firm headed by Chris Warner, who became a member of the rescue team on his way down from his conquest of the peak. "People are still high on the mountain."

Few details are available from Advance Base Camp, the communications hub for most expeditions. But Internet dispatches posted by EverestNews.com and veteran mountaineer Eric Simonson paint a desperate picture of the rescue mission.

At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, mountaineers waiting in high camp at 27,300 feet to begin their ascent to the summit learned that a climber who had reached the top late in the day had collapsed from a brain swelling on the way down and a guide had elected to stay with the stricken climber.

Their identities were not known. Both were members of Russell Brice's expedition, as was Warner, the Baltimore County mountaineer who reached the summit on Wednesday.

Climbers from Simonson's and Brice's teams formed a rescue party and started out for the 28,540-foot bivouac. But before they could reach the pair, they found three Russians who had run out of oxygen and were huddled at 28,200 feet in minus 30 degree temperatures.

Rescuers gave the three Russians oxygen and dexamethasone to combat brain swelling. At 7 a.m., they reached the guide and his client.

"Neither climber could even stand up. Both were partially blind. ... Both had some frostbite," Simonson reported. "Trying to get them to walk was agonizing. It took fully an hour to go 50 yards down the ridge."

Sherpas working without rest shuttled fresh oxygen bottles up the mountain and helped drag the injured mountaineers lower. Two of the Russians improved, but the third unidentified climber died. The client and the guide are being treated at a lower camp; their conditions were unknown.

Simonson said that as the rescue party reached safety, it learned that an Australian climber died in his tent at 25,920 feet on the Tibetan side despite efforts to save him. Australian television networks have reported that Mark Auricht could not be resuscitated by the Australian Army Alpine Association team.

On the Nepalese side, an Austrian television engineer, Peter Ganner, fell to his death Wednesday, just 165 feet from the summit.

About 1,000 people have reached the summit of Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain in 1953. One hundred and seventy-one have died.

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