Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Second Middle Eastern Guy

There was a second Middle Eastern Guy on the mountain this year that caused an equal stir. Not quite as technically challenged as the first guy, this one at least had enthusiasm, was social, and approached portions of the mountain with open eyes. I first met him on Crazy Ladder #1 when I was headed down and he was heading to Camp I. We chatted for a bit, caught up, and formed a bit of a bond. His team location at Base Camp was midway between our site and the Icefall, so we saw him regularly.

On summit day, our team was heading down from the South Summit to Camp IV. Well below the South Rock Step and closer to The Balcony, we came across him as he labored to make the summit. As the last climber heading up, we all stopped to talk with him- Willie with Francisco first, then me with Tendi a few minutes later. Coming upon him, I looked back to the South Summit and noted how much farther he had to go. Approaching 9:30am, the day was growing long and it had taken him an incredibly long time to reach this spot on the mountain. Willie suggested that he return to Camp IV given his slow rate of ascent, but I asked him if he felt ok and was encouraged to learn that he was coherent, energetic, and still motivated to continue higher. “How much more time do I have?” “From here? Four hours, easy.” “Ok, great!” And on up he continued, Sherpa in tow. It clearly was his own decision, and one that he was determined to continue on with on a beautiful day. At the time, I recall seeing him wearing sunglasses, but from personal experience I know that oxygen masks don’t fit well with sunglasses and he must have been taking them off. The sun shone brightly in the sky and if not properly protected, your eyes can fry in no time.

He did summit- late in the afternoon he made it and his summit pictures show that he was the last person on Everest’s summit on the 21st, the last to leave for Camp IV that day.

Later, as he moved his way slowly down from the South Summit enroute to Camp IV, the second Middle Eastern Guy began going delirious and I’m assuming that the snow blindness was starting to hit him. A tremendously painful experience, snow blindness is essentially sun burn of your eyes that can strike with little warning. Twenty minutes of unprotected exposure at this elevation when the sun is at its strongest is all it takes. Eyes tear, itch, sting and water. You want nothing more than to keep your eyes closed to make them feel better and become incredibly sensitive to light. This lasts for 2 to 3 days before healing. I had a mild case of snow blindness that hit me on Mt McKinley that I was fortunate enough to recover from overnight, but that experience taught me all I needed to know about what I didn’t ever want to experience again.

For him, snow blindness coupled with low oxygen levels were a bad combination. As the temperature dropped, completely exhausted from exerting himself for so long he started to experience a good case of frostbite as well.

It was here that he came upon his teammates struggling with the first Middle Eastern Guy, mentioned above. At that point his team was dragging a kicking and screaming, difficult individual who could no longer speak English. Using his Arabic, the second Middle Eastern Guy acted as translator and assisted his team as best he could.

Oxygen ran low above the Triangle Face when the first Middle Eastern Guy started throwing rocks and decided to go no further. His team lead screamed his now famous “See that climber?! If you don't get moving, that's you tomorrow!” quote. The second Middle Eastern Guy then staggered over to one of the frozen bodies- a man in a blue climbing suit who had a heart attack in 2005 and is still in relatively good condition, located right on the trail.

“Wake up! Wake up! You need to get moving!” The first Middle Eastern Guy started shaking the frozen body, grabbed his suit and tried to move him from the rocks he had been seized to for the last three years. A valiant effort, but clearly, he didn’t wake up. Even five days later when in Base Camp he relayed a story to our Base Camp Manager about how he tried unsuccessfully to revive a guy in a blue climbing suit. Bridie told him “umm.. that guy has been dead since 2005”, which was met with surprise. “Really?”

Finally back at Camp IV, the second Middle Eastern Guy started having his own medical problems. We learned about him as well, and were concerned about his frostbite, now full-blown snow blindness and other problems that had stricken him on his second night above 26,000 feet.

The morning of the 22nd on the South Col was one of chaos in a way. Team leads were busy focusing on packaging the Swiss Guy, trying to medically save the first Middle Eastern Guy, handle the second Middle Eastern Guy, and simultaneously address a wide variety of other HAPE, frostbite and altitude illnesses that were springing up across Camp IV.

In the middle of this, Willie offered to help with the rescue of the Second Middle Eastern Guy. Now with eyes completely covered in gauze and one foot stricken with frostbite, Willie began the slow, laborious job of helping him navigate around and down the challenging Geneva Spur. Vertical in some places, extremely steep in most with sheer drop offs, the Geneva Spur leads to the Yellow Band which is tricky in it’s own right. All of this leading a person who cannot see.

“Ok, left foot now. Lift.. little forward, no more forward. Ok, little left.. more left.. left some more, ok down. There, down. Right foot now. Lift, step forward.. “ On and on. For five thousand feet of some of the most technical terrain on the South Col route, kicking off above the Death Zone and after a summit push that leaves most people thoroughly exhausted.

At the end of the day, he made it to safety largely due to the efforts of people around him. Hobbling around on a bandaged foot that was seeping some sort of weird fluid, he was hailed in Kathmandu as a bit of a celebrity as the first person from his nation to summit Everest. It was also here that he finally started to thank people.

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