Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The South Col Guy

On 21 May, our team had summited and was heading back across the Summit Ridge to the South Summit. The flow was still relatively light, with the exception being at the Hillary Step which turns into a massive traffic jam. It is also where Willie threw some old ropes apart and found a mini notch, right on the Step itself. It was here that Francisco and I sat jammed in for 15 minutes, forced to huddle in this little cave while watching climber after climber pop his head up and look at us with a surprised look when they saw us. Laughing, we talked of how badly we wished we had a massive mallet to play Whack-a-Mole.

After descending the Step and almost to the South Summit itself, we came across a sole climber traversing on his way to the summit. He was not on Oxygen and clearly was exhausted. At one point Willie tossed a spent O2 canister off the ridge and 8,000' down into Nepal, which made this man's eyes go saucer round as his already exhausted and Oxygen deprived brain processed what he had just seen. His face was a nice shade of blue and he was moving extremely slowly. Moving, but cautiously and labored across one of the most technical and dangerous portions of the climb.

"Are you ok?" I asked. "Yes". "Ok, excuse me" I said, shrugged, and gingerly scooted past him to continue on my way down. Everyone up here is tired and running on fumes so other than the blue skin nothing much seemed out of order.

The 45 y/o man continued on to the summit, and succeeded in making what turned out to be his sixth 8,000 meter summit. As a Swiss Mountain Guide, he knew intimately well what it meant to exert one self on a mountain, and what challenges thin air brought. It was at the summit, so I heard, that he realized that he had spent too much energy getting there, and was in trouble. Other climbers spent several hours getting the climber down from the summit and had almost succeeded when he was on the Triangle Face- right above Camp IV.. and had a heart attack.

On the 21st, he was held in a tent at Camp IV, and on the morning of the 22nd he was moved to a quiet part of the South Col and laid to rest as best one can be at 26,500'. We learned that the family wished to have him brought down, but therein lies the problem of that people at Sea Level don't understand. To bring a person down who is under their own power, a rescue can involve a few individuals. To risk a recovery at that elevation is a completely different story, including unnecessary risk to other climbers, 3 to 4 times as many people needed, and much more equipment. In the case of this person, the volunteers to aid in recovery just weren't there and the route wasn't in any condition to allow it. So at the South Col he stayed, and is there to this day.

On our trek out, we bumped into one of his teammates who told us that the year prior, the man had bypass surgery. He told his Cardiologist that not only was he going to attempt Everest the following year, but without Oxygen. His Cardiologist told him not to do it. He did it anyway.

This, and a few goofballs with no fingers and toes that I saw wandering around like vegetables silenced the whole "Oxygen or no Oxygen" argument for me. Going without isn't more gutsy or pure, it's just plain stupid.

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