Standing tall on Everest

Climber: While a grueling rescue mission may not sap Chris Warner of his joy at reaching the summit, it leaves him a changed man.

May 30, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

Chris Warner is not the same man he was before he left in March for Mount Everest.

For one thing, he's a member of an elite club of 1,000 climbers who have made it to the top of the 29,035-foot mountain. For another, he's 30 pounds lighter for the effort.

And, after a near-disaster just below the summit that almost took the lives of two climbing friends, he says, "I'm not the optimist I was when I left home."

But he still has his sense of humor, answering the satellite phone yesterday at his tent at 17,200 feet: "Everest Base Camp Pizzeria."

The Baltimore County resident fielded questions from online readers yesterday about his time atop Everest and the frantic two-day mission to bring four people stricken by the effects of high altitude down to safety from just below the summit. (A transcript and audio excerpts from the conversation can be found at www.sunspot.net)

Still hoarse five days after the rescue mission and his voice sometimes thick with emotion, Warner gave thanks to four American climbers who abandoned their summit bid to save fellow guide Andy Lapkass and his client, Jaime Vinals. During that effort, the team also rescued two Russian climbers, but was unable to save a third.

"The guys on the mountain are good human beings ... incredibly generous human beings. Without their help, Andy and Jaime would never have gotten down alive," Warner said.

Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, Jason Tanguay and Tap Richards were on Everest as part of an American expedition looking for the body of Sandy Irvine, the mountaineer who with George Mallory first attempted to reach the summit in 1924 and disappeared. The Americans and Sherpas Phu Nuru and Phu Dorge climbed overnight from high camp at 27,300 feet to Lapkass and Vinals at 28,540 feet. The two climbers had spent the night in minus-30 degree temperatures, blinded by brain swelling and without sleeping bags or a tent.

"It came down to Andy's instincts and training," said Warner of his companions. "Andy held Jaime all night long. He held him like a baby, and Jaime held him."

The rescue party reached them just before 7 a.m. and began the 36-hour ordeal of lowering the injured men over icy ledges and crumbling rocks in what became the highest rescue ever on Everest's treacherous North Side.

Warner, spent from his own climb and from aiding a Spanish climber blinded by altitude sickness, helped coordinate fresh supplies and manpower coming up the mountain from Advance Base Camp. He, too, was without bottled oxygen for a part of the time.

"I've been days without food and water and been OK, but the lack of oxygen was an entirely different problem. Maybe losing a lot of blood is comparable," he said. "It became a huge chore just to listen to the radio and come up with a coherent answer."

But, Warner said, the low point was still to come.

"I was standing at [high camp], our guys were coming down. ... All of the sudden a body comes flying through the air, rolling down the hill. It's the Russian climber who died and his body slipped off the rocks. It was unbelievable," Warner said.

The entire team continued moving down the mountain to safety. Lapkass, a guide from Vail, Colo., suffered from severe frostbite of his fingers, toes and nose. With the exception of losing 50 pounds during the two-month expedition on the mountain, Vinals appears to be fine.

Warner said there was never a question that the American team would help. "If you are going to the grocery store, would you step over the body of someone having a heart attack? You wouldn't do it; you would stop and help."

This was Warner's second assault on Everest. Last year, high winds and heavy snow forced him off the mountain. Success this time was nice, but the chaotic scene at the summit with 37 climbers vying for space on a summit the size of a pool table took away some of the enjoyment. "My Everest was obviously down below," he said.

He picked a quiet spot below the summit and left his mementos: a gold cross, a picture of a friend's son, a crystal from Mount Kailas, one of the most sacred sites of Hindus and Buddhists. And finally a pointing tool used by a quadriplegic Everest fan who died last year.

The 36-year-old, who owns Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, said he is bone tired - and bony. He thinks it'll take him three months to regain his strength. "I can't go to the beach. I can't take my shirt off," he joked. "I have no muscle mass. Every muscle-bound person would just snicker at me and kick sand on me."

Mentally and emotionally, however, healing will take a long time.

"I'm definitely not going back to Everest next year," said Warner. "I have a lot of thinking I have to do. My idea of mountaineering is climbing at Earth Treks.

"I hate talking about Everest right now," he added, ruefully. "I'm not making it sound romantic."

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