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MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION : Adventure, the Specter of Death Will Dog Physician's Attempt to Conquer Everest

June 02, 1988|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

Jean Ellis was imprisoned in a dome-shape tent on the edge of the world, helpless to do anything but listen as screaming gales sent snow down in opaque sheets and shook the shelter so hard he expected to be wafted aloft like a hang-glider.

He and nine compatriots were stalled on their six-week climb up the glacial walls of Annapurna IV in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal, trapped in a makeshift campsite, only two days away from the summit.

Now, after the long haul that started six months earlier with the organizing of the expedition in the United States, they had a life-or-death decision to make. Should they wait for the storm to subside as food supplies run perilously low or should they turn back after being tent-bound on this 21,000-foot-high ledge for four days?

They headed down.

"It hurt to do that, but you knew it was the right decision," said Ellis, an emergency room physician at the Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo. Heavy snows arrived the next day and "had we stayed . . . the return route would have been obliterated."

The climb up Annapurna IV in 1986 was Ellis' second trip to Nepal and his first full-scale attempt at climbing a Himalayan peak. But it was only a tuneup for late this summer and fall when he takes on the fabled peak that has totally absorbed him since he first stood before its wonder seven years ago--Mt. Everest.

That first sighting took place in 1981 while Ellis was involved in a medical expedition to study high-altitude effects on the human body. While in superb physical condition (he had been a competitive runner since his early school days), he was to become an involuntary subject of his own study.

"I felt invincible at that time," he says. "I didn't think anything could be as strenuous as running, but I came down with mountain sickness. I had headaches. I had nausea. I had poor appetite and I couldn't sleep."

The experience was obviously a shock to him psychologically as well as physically. It was as if this awesome giant of rock and ice had thrown down the gauntlet.

"I had never been on a mountain before," he says. As a matter of fact, "I had very little outdoor exposure (except for) camping out a few times or going on hikes."

But it was the beginning of an obsession that first led him to South America and instruction from famed hiking guide Sergio Fitch, and then on successful climbs up Alaska's Mt. McKinley, Ecuador's Cotopaxi and Chimborazo and Peru's Chopikalki. And, of course, the aborted Annapurna attempt.

It has affected his life in every way. His house is filled with books and pictures of mountains, particularly Everest. His career is dictated by his training program, working nights in an emergency room so the days are free. Even the license plates on his car give you a pretty good idea of what he's all about. TENZING, they read, in honor of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide who 35 years ago this week accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on man's first conquest of Everest.

Since then, 219 people have reached the summit, including six women. Of those who have been to the top, about 15 were American.

"More Americans have been in space (about 150) than have climbed Everest," said Jim Frush, a Seattle attorney who is leading Ellis and nine other climbers in the Northwest American Everest Expedition.

And Ellis adds: "They play the Super Bowl every year. Just because they play one doesn't make No. 2, 3 or 4 any less significant. To climb Everest is no less significant just because somebody else or a number of other people have done it."

The Northwest expedition, which will attempt to place the first American woman on the summit, has been four years in the making. Frush, 37, lived in Katmandu for a while in an effort to secure the necessary climbing permits from the Nepalese government. Such an enterprise is estimated to cost $250,000 and the climbers are trying to raise money by appealing to corporate America.

The expedition will embark from Seattle July 20 and return Nov. 20. The climbers will spend the first 10 days in Katmandu at 4,000 feet, then start walking about 13,000 feet up to Base Camp at the foot of Everest. The assault will take place in the post-monsoon months of September and October.

Before they set foot on the far reaches of the Himalayas, however, they will spend a month between elevations of 4,000 to 17,000 feet to become acclimatized. This gives them a chance to test equipment, work on climbing technique and gain an insight into Nepalese culture.

Ellis, 41, says that month is as important as any part of the trek, an observation gleaned not only from medical research but from first-hand experience.

Once they reach Base Camp, the climbers will follow what is known as the South Col route, the passage used by the Hillary-Tenzing expedition. The route, which follows the spine of the mountain, is regarded as the easiest to the summit, but that does not lessen its formidability.

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