High Risk

IT IS AN AREA ABOUT THE SIZE OF A LIVING ROOM, A BRO- ken platform of rock and ice nearly six miles up in the sky. Higher than most airliners fly; so high that it sits, most of the year, in the jetstream itself, and the storms blow in at 100 miles an hour. It takes around two months to walk up to it, but once there nobody stays for more than an hour or two, because if you reached there in the first place you probably used up most of your luck with the weather. ..MR0-

On a sunny afternoon just over a week ago, climbers at the Everest base camp at 17,700 feet saw the sky over the summit turn an ominous deep purple, while the handful on top felt the wind pick up with the suddenness of an opened window. Clouds boiled up from the slopes below, where the nearest shelter, a cluster of wind-whipped tents, was a 10-hour walk away in a little saddle called the South Col. Over the next 36 hours, five people would die between the summit and South Col, and three others, approaching the peak from a different direction, would disappear in the same storm. Others would survive with hands so frozen they clinked like glasses, dead black flesh peeling from their faces. And all so they could stand on that little patch of rock, where you can almost feel the wind of the planet's rotation in your face, the place on Earth that's closest to the stars.

A lifetime is not too long to prepare for such a journey. Of those who set out for the summit, on average, only around one in seven actually reaches it. Since the first Western expedition, in 1921, fewer than 600 people have set foot on the top -- there's no evidence the indigenous Sherpas, whose highest nearby village is at 14,000 feet, ever considered climbing it on their own. More than 140 have died trying, or else succeeded and died trying to get home. Their bodies, zipped for eternity into bright nylon parkas, lie where they fell.

Even the survivors will have died a little along the way. Above 18,000 feet, human life is in a losing battle against cachexia. Cuts never heal; throats dry out to the point that climbers literally fracture their ribs coughing. The South Col route up Everest is not the world's most demanding technical climb. Taken individually and transported, say, to the Cascades, none of its traverses would pose unusual difficulty for a skilled amateur rock climber. Snow-blind at 28,000 feet, with an 80-mile-an-hour wind trying to blow you to Australia, it's a different situation. "People don't climb Mount Everest to risk their lives," said Dr. Jim Litch of Seattle, who had just come down from nearby Ama Dablam and immediately hiked up to the Everest base camp to help with the rescue work last week. "There's a passion and a closeness where you face your mortality with your closest friends. Climbers are people who hold onto life more than people who don't climb, and what we learn up there we bring home to our loved ones."

So it is axiomatic that those who make it to the top and back safely are exceptionally fit, skilled and well-equipped mountaineers. Unfortunately the converse does not always hold. The mountain magisterially drops snow equally on the strong and the struggling alike. The three who died on Everest's north side in the storm of May 10-11 were expert climbers of the crack Indo-Tibetan Border Police, while three of the five fatalities on the southwest face were professional guides. Two of them -- the American Scott Fischer and the New Zealander Rob Hall -- were considered among the world's best. "I was too tired, weak from no food, no water, no oxygen," said one of the survivors, Makalu Gao, an experienced climber who had led a Taiwanese expedition to the summit that Friday, then sat down in the snow at around 27,000 feet and never got back up. Near death, Gao was rescued the next day by Sherpas, then plucked off the mountainside in what may have been the highest helicopter rescue ever. But Everest took its accustomed toll: doctors say he has a 50-50 chance of losing all his fingers and toes.

But not everyone who sets foot on Everest today is second cousin to a mountain goat. Every year more and more amateurs attempt the climb in the face of long odds, grave risks and a $65,000 price tag, with no refunds for those the leader decides can't make it. Among the 150 climbers at the various camps on Everest that weekend (not counting some 300 Sherpa guides and porters) were Mark Pfetzer, a 16-year-old from Rhode Island, and Pete Schoening, a 67-year-old mountaineering veteran. They would have been the youngest and oldest persons, respectively, to reach the summit, if they hadn't turned back before the storm.

OTHERS WHO MADE THE SUMMIT included New York socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, whose electronic diary, transmitted by satellite phone and posted to the NBC Web site, paid the Himalayas her most heartfelt tribute, "cheaper and more satisfying than a New York shrink." Also Charlotte Fox, an Aspen ski instructor, and Seaborn Beck Weathers, a Texas pathologist about to celebrate his 50th birthday. All of them were experienced climbers who survived their nights out on the mountainside, although Weathers came very close to dying and may lose most of his right hand. They are lured to Everest by ads like the one in the current issue of an American mountaineering journal boasting "100% Everest Success." That was in May 1994; the company that placed the ad, Adventure Consultants, neglects to mention that in 1995 it failed to get a single client to the summit. Of its two founders, one, Gary Ball, died of altitude sickness in the Himalayas in 1993. The other was Rob Hall, whose frozen body now lies near the peak where he had had "100% success."

It was late on the evening of Thursday, May 9, that about two dozen climbers in three groups -- Hall's, Fischer's and Gao's -- left Camp 4 on the South Col for the summit, 3,000 vertical feet and about a mile along the narrow Southeast Ridge. Most had been on Everest for more than a month, hauling gear to the base camp and then furnishing successively higher temporary camps along the glacial valley known as the Western Cwm (pronounced "coom"). "At 10 p.m. it was pitch dark, and we were finding our way with head torches," said Jon Krakauer, a travel writer from Outside magazine who was climbing with Hall's group. "Then from 11:30 we had a brilliant moon over Makalu. The weather was perfect, and Rob thought it was going to be a great success."

The first hint of trouble came at the Hillary Step, a narrow defile just below the summit; the expected guide ropes were not in place, and climbers piled up like traffic at a roadblock. "It was so many people -- like a supermarket," Gao recalled. His trip had already been marked by tragedy the day before, when a close friend had succumbed to one of the particular hazards of mountaineering -- leaving his tent after dark to answer a call of nature, he had slipped down a crevasse to his death. Arriving at the peak around 3 p.m. on Friday, Gao found that the clouds had beaten him there. Somewhere was the world's greatest view, but he couldn't see it. "I wanted to look at every peak, but there was nothing to see," he said. "There was a Buddhist prayer flag and some rock, and some Sherpas on the rock. And you had to wait your turn to take a picture."

He started down quickly through the clouds, in temperatures below zero and a whipping wind. By 5 o'clock, the snow was blowing horizontally and the wind-chill figures were in triple digits. Everyone still on the mountain was in danger now. Neal Beidleman, a guide with Fischer's group, passed Fischer between the summit and Hillary Step. "He said he was having trouble, a hard time," Beidleman reported in an interview with Outside Online, an Internet publication of Outside magazine. "But he was Scott and I wasn't too worried about him." Exactly why Fischer, one of the strongest climbers in the world, lagged behind remains a mystery, although there is no doubt he'd been pushing himself exceptionally hard on this trip. "He'd been up and down that mountain like a German shepherd," his business partner, Karen Dickinson, said -- including three separate trips with the same sick client back to base camp.

Somewhere on the Southeast Ridge, Fischer met up with Gao, who was also in trouble. They were sitting together when Fischer's close friend and climbing partner, the Sherpa Lobsang Jangmu, reached them in the blizzard sometime Friday afternoon. Lobsang knew that it could be fatal for a climber to sit down during a descent, and that Fischer wouldn't do it unless he was terribly sick. "Get up!" he urged, then pleaded, but Fischer had no strength left. The Sherpa chopped a horizontal ledge in the ice for Fischer and Gao to rest on. He stayed with them as long as he dared, then headed back down to Camp 4 for help. But it was dark by then, the trip was treacherous, and not even he could make another effort that night.

Meanwhile, farther up the mountain, Hall had stopped to help one of his clients, the American Doug Hansen. A postal worker from Renton, Wash., Hansen had scraped together the money for an Everest trip with Hall in 1995, when Hall's whole group failed to make the summit. Now he was back and although he was climbing with difficulty, Hall may have felt a special responsibility to get him to the top. They made it, but Hansen couldn't go much farther. Just below the peak of the highest mountain in the world, the two men lay down to wait out the storm.

AND MUCH LOWER DOWN, BEIDLEman and another group of climbers were caught on the narrow Southeast Ridge when darkness fell, "like it was coming out of a large bowl," Charlotte Fox recalls. The tents of Camp 4 were no more than 100 yards ahead of them, but off to either side were sheer drops offering the choice of being smashed to pieces in Nepal or China. It was too dark to see with snow goggles on and blowing too hard to take them off. The tired climbers huddled in a group to keep from walking off the mountain. Sometime after midnight the storm lifted enough to make out the peak behind them through starlight. Beidleman quickly led the stronger ones down to Camp 4, leaving behind five who were too weak to walk. A strong Russian climber, Anatoli Boukreev, was at the South Col; he plunged into the darkness and brought back Fox, then Pittman and Tim Madsen.

Two were left behind, Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba, one of Japan's leading woman climbers. Both were unconscious. According to accounts that are still incomplete, rescuers from Camp 4 apparently reached them during the night and concluded that they could not be revived, and couldn't be carried back down in the darkness. It is impossible to second-guess their conclusions, but a few hours later, Weathers woke up.

"I was lying on my back in the ice. It was colder than anything you can believe. My right glove was gone, my hand looked like it was molded of plastic." He lay there for what felt like an hour, imagining that any minute someone would come by and waken him from this unpleasant dream, before the realization dawned that he was about to die. "I could see the faces of my wife and children pretty clearly. I figured I had three or four hours left to live, so I started walking." It was light by now, Saturday morning. Weathers walked up to what looked to him like a blue rock. "It was smooth, like a tent. I walked right up to it and somebody stood up. I said to myself, "Rocks don't do that'."

They hauled Weathers inside; his clothes were so stiff from ice they had to cut them off him. They held a hot-water bottle to his chest and gave him oxygen. Meanwhile, through the miracle of instantaneous worldwide communications, word of his death was being relayed by radio to the base camp, and from there to Adventure Consultants in New Zealand, thence halfway around the world to his wife in Dallas. She heard the news early Saturday morning, Dallas time. Friends and relatives were already arriving at his home with covered dishes when a second call came through a few hours later, informing her that her husband was still alive, although barely. But the rescuers had been right about Namba, who died sometime that night on the ridge.

Around the same time, on the north face of the mountain, three climbers from India's border police were in deep trouble. Having apparently made their summit in the teeth of the blizzard Friday evening, they were now trapped, exhausted, on a steep rock face just below the top. Two of them were spotted by a party of Japanese climbers who were on their way up. They helped free one of them who had become tangled in his climbing ropes, and gave him something to drink, then continued on their way. When the Japanese climbers returned a few hours later, the Indians were gone, and have not been heard of since. An official of the Indian Mountaineering Federation called the failure of the Japanese climbers to stop and rescue the Indians "puzzling."

On the southern face, the hundreds of climbers were mobilizing for rescue. A fresh group of Sherpas climbed up to Fischer and Gao around 10 a.m. Saturday. Both men seemed near death. They gave Gao oxygen and he revived a little, but Fischer barely stirred. Only one man could be taken down the mountain, and it had to be the stronger. Fischer was left to die, although the Russian Boukreev made one more attempt to bring him down later that day.

And far up on the mountain, the storm was still raging around Hall, who lay on exposed rock with the body of the man he had tried to save, Hansen. Two Sherpas battled their way up the mountain toward them. With 200 yards to go, the weather worsened, and they were forced to turn back. Hall had a handheld radio and was in communication with the base camp, which by satellite phone could call anywhere in the world. Three times Saturday he asked to be patched through to his wife, Jan Arnold, seven months pregnant with their first child. "Don't worry about me too much," he told her on his last call. But Arnold, a climber herself, knew as well as her husband that no one has ever survived two consecutive nights out on Mount Everest. Out of food, out of oxygen, Hall turned off his radio and died sometime Saturday night.

ALSO THAT NIGHT, ONE of Hall's guides, Andy Harris, who had been missing all day, was seen walking through Camp 4. From footsteps found the next morning, it appeared that he became disoriented, walked right past the tents and disappeared into the snow.

And still the rescuers' work wasn't done. Gao and Weathers, still at Camp 4, had to get to a hospital, but neither could walk unassisted. On Sunday, climbers half-carried them down the slick Western Cwm; on the rock faces, they fashioned rope slings for Weathers's elbows and guided his boots into toeholds, because frostbite had left him with no feeling in his fingers or toes. Sherpas dragged him in his sleeping bag for several miles down the Cwm's snow flats. By Monday morning he had reached Camp 1. But between there and base camp lay the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled landscape of deep crevasses and ice blocks as big as houses. There was no way to bring Gao and Weathers down the remaining 1,400 feet to base camp; but no helicopter had ever landed this high on Everest before. A Nepalese army officer, Lt. Col. Madan K.C., put his French-made Squirrel chopper into a hover barely an inch above the ground, and the two injured men were flown to safety.

Gao was joking with the pilot as he was strapped in, "laughing the whole way down," Madan reported, at the thought of the thin margin by which he had cheated death. Hall, after telling his wife not to worry, had discussed with her the name she had chosen for their baby, something she said was a source of great comfort to him. Fischer's wife, Jean Price, who was left with two children ages 5 and 9, said she'd "been prepared for this for a long time." In contrast to the survivors of other great disasters, nobody involved with a death on Mount Everest has to ask "Why"? But even so, the serenity of these climbers and their families seems uncanny. What is it that they see from that place, so near to the stars?

A MOUNTAIN OF BEAUTY AND DEATH ;

Why climb Everest? "Because it's there" was British mountaineer George Mallory's classic answer in 1923. On May 10, eight climbers who followed Mallory's creed and scaled the world's highest mountain also suffered his fate, losing their lives in a brutal storm that descended quickly and hampered even the most valiant rescue efforts. ..MR0-

Thirty-one climbers from five expeditions reach the summit of Everest after about a month of climbing. Among them is American Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness tour, which includes Sandy Hill Pittman. The climbers are descending from the peak when a storm blows in, sending temperatures to 40 degrees below zero. Fischer remains near the top to help lagging climbers. Rob Hall, chief guide of a New Zealand expedition, stops to help Doug Hansen, an ailing American. Hansen dies during the night in a snow hole beside Hall. Only a few summiteers make it back to Camp 4 by midnight.

Rescuers try to reach Rob Hall, but are turned back by winds. A thousand feet below, rescuers find Fischer and Taiwanese group leader Makalu Gao and return to Camp 4 with Gao, who, they decide, has a better chance of surviving. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba and Texan Seaborn Weathers are found and left for dead.

Hall learns over his walkie-talkie that rescuers cannot reach him and has a call patched through to his wife in New Zealand. Weathers, presumed dead, reaches Camp 4 and is escorted down the mountain the next day.

New Zealand guide Andy Harris, who had reached Camp 4, disappears and is now presumed dead.

Weathers and Gao are helicoptered from the mountain at 19,200 feet.

A memorial service is held at base camp for the eight climbers killed during the blizzard.

High altitudes pose many dangers, but careful preparation and the body's own defenses provide protection.

Can cause hypothermia, which slows the heart and can lead to death.

Insulated layers of clothing minimize exposure, while the body defends itself by shivering, a muscular exercise that produces heat.

Summit air contains just one third of the oxygen at sea level.

While climbers carry extra oxygen, the body's defense is hyperventtilation (breathing 50 times a minute as opposed to 12 times at low altitudes). This rids the lungs of excess carbon dioxide and increases oxygen in the body.

The climber loses water with every breath, dropping water content in the blood from 50 to 15 percent. Also, buildup of red blood cells in high altitudes exacerbates the problem by causing blood to become sluggish, increasing the chance of frostbite.

Water consumption is essential. Climbers bring stoves to melt snow.

High altitudes can affect the brain, creating confusion, bad judgment, even self-mutilation.

In closely knit teams, members help each other in times of crisis.

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