My Turn: Climbing Everest with a 'Bionic' Heart

"We are here, on top of the world, and it is still dark. The climb took us 7.5 hours without a real break, without eating, drinking or sitting down. The zipper of my down suit is frozen and I cannot extract my camera—and if I could, it would almost be impossible to hand it to somebody because the oxygen line and the hood are real obstacles. I remove the oxygen mask and take two warm drinks from my thermos bottle."

I wrote these words at 4 a.m. on May 16, 2007, in the middle of my attempt to scale Mount Everest. Everest was the last of the so-called "Seven Summits" (the highest peak on each continent) for me to conquer, but the world's tallest mountain proved a formidable foe. This trip was my fifth attempt in the past five years. Climbing may seem like an unlikely hobby for a professor and chemist, but I have always had an interest in mountaineering. It wasn't until I had a heart-valve replacement 10 years ago, though, that I became determined to lead a full and active life, despite my heart ailment.

When I was 23 I was diagnosed with aortic valve disease, which meant that one of the four valves controlling the flow of blood to my heart was failing to function properly. During the 1990s my condition began to worsen, and mountain climbing became more difficult. By the late 1990s even climbing stairs was exhausting. So in 1997, at age 46, I underwent heart valve replacement surgery and received a mechanical heart valve. Five weeks later I was back climbing mountains with a new determination. In my previous attempts to reach the peak of Everest, it wasn't my mechanical heart valve that held me back: twice it was the altitude and illness, and twice the weather conditions forced me to give up on my quest for the peak. Each time, though, I was able to take something important with me from my trip.

"May 26, 2003: I thought that I would either be happy or disappointed after the expedition. Now I realize that there is a third possibility, namely to be proud."

In 2003 my expedition was tantalizingly close to Mount Everest's summit, but a heavy storm forced us to call off the journey. Although initially disappointed, I was pleased to have climbed to 28,200 feet—my personal best altitude (Everest stands at 29,035 feet). I felt strong and even outperformed many other "healthy" climbers.

In 2005 I reluctantly decided to turn back once again before reaching the summit. The howling winds and frigid temperatures were unrelenting, and I began to question whether the attempts were worth it.

"Now I've spent a total of five months at the feet of Everest—was this a waste of time? Or did I learn something from the mountain? So far I have not yet found an answer. We need to be patient. Nature tells us what to do; we are tiny little beings in this surrounding."

The 2005 expedition also took the life of one of my fellow climbers, offering a sobering reminder of the toll Mount Everest has claimed over the years. His death—like all of them—was tragic, and I think all climbers reflect on their decisions and mortality when something like this happens. I wrote in my journal:

"June 5, 2005: We thought that all team members were safe, two of them (the summiteers) at camp 8,300 m and the third (who had turned back) at camp 7,800 m. But this gentleman had not reached camp—he was found the next morning sitting 100 meters above the tents of this camp, dead. This was a very sad end to our expedition. However, I saw again that my decision to go back made some sense, because Everest can be very dangerous."

Having reached the peak now, at age 56, I feel I have come closer to answering the question: Was this a waste of time? A mountain, especially a very high one, is inorganic nature. I, on the other hand, represent the culmination of life, culture and science. Though my mechanical heart valve by definition makes me "bionic," I view it merely as a necessary piece of equipment that has provided me the ability to live life to the fullest, or to the tallest, as it may be.

"May 16, 2007: Some reflection is also possible: a feeling of great wonderment and the clear knowledge of where I am. Happiness? This emotion is totally absent, it just does not come to my mind, but also unhappiness is not present. Is this the Buddhist state of no demand, of being one with the universe?"

I am one of fewer than 2,500 people to reach the peak of Mount Everest and one of fewer than 250 people to successfully climb the "Seven Summits." As far as I know I am the only person with a mechanical heart valve to achieve these feats. Yet the statistic of which I am most proud is that I am one of several million patients living life with a mechanical heart valve.