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Lonely at the Top

In the Same Year 15 died Trying It, Sweden's Kropp Got to the Top of Everest on His Own--Without Oxygen Bottles

February 06, 2000|MARY FORGIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Goran Kropp, May 23, 1996, should have been a day of ecstasy.

That day the Swedish climber stood alone on the top of the world, halfway through his bid to become the first person to travel from his homeland to the top of Mt. Everest and back entirely under his own power.

But he was scared to death.

"I had passed [the bodies of] Scott Fisher and Rob Hall on the way up," he said during a recent visit to Los Angeles to publicize his memoir of the adventure. "I perched for four minutes and rushed down."

Kropp had bicycled more than 7,000 miles from Stockholm through Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India virtually to the base of the 29,028-foot peak in Nepal. He had lugged all his own clothing and gear up the mountain, eschewing the use of Sherpas other expeditions rely on to haul their loads.

Most remarkable, he climbed without the aid of bottled oxygen--something all but a handful of climbers depend on while ascending into the Death Zone, the stretch of desolation above 25,000 feet where the air is one-third that of sea level and climbers' brains turn to mush.

After three punishing tries in 23 days, including one during which he came within 300 vertical feet of the summit before turning back, Kropp finally made it to the highest point on Earth.

His self-styled quest played out during one of the most deadly climbing seasons on the mountain--one that claimed 15 lives, including experienced and popular climbing guides Hall of New Zealand and Fisher of Seattle. The deaths became worldwide metaphors for the dark side of adventure when they were chronicled in Jon Krakauer's bestseller "Into Thin Air."

The terror that seized Kropp at the summit dogged him during his two-day descent. "I still suffered from diarrhea and I coughed up greenish-black clots of phlegm. My bronchi were gone. I couldn't talk even if I wanted to," he wrote in his book, "Ultimate High, My Everest Odyssey," published in 1999 by Discovery Books.

Kropp says he celebrated only after he returned to Everest base camp at about 18,000 feet, realizing at last that the mountain could no longer kill him.

Bound for the Poles

Kropp emerged from the 1996 Everest drama as a quirky footnote, a story of success fueled by his determination and unorthodox journey during an otherwise tragic season. His feat won him mentions in books by Krakauer and David Breashears, climber, author and director of the Imax movie "Everest," whose crew was climbing and filming on the mountain when Kropp made his ascent.

"It's the best life you can have," Kropp, 33, said from Vienna, where he recently spoke at an international avalanche conference. "I spend half the time doing adventure, half the time having lectures and getting money for the next one."

In 2003, Kropp plans another "first": to sail alone from Sweden to Antarctica, ski 1,400 miles to the South Pole and back, and sail home. He doesn't know how to sail, but he's learning.

As a warmup, on Feb. 18 he'll set out from a Russian island on the edge of the Arctic and ski more than 1,000 miles to the North Pole, toting all his food and gear on a 264-pound sled.

"I've trained hard for this one," Kropp said.

On the 60-day North Pole expedition, Kropp will be joined by another extreme countryman, Ola Skinnarmo, who at 26 skied to the South Pole at in 1998.

Though the terrain is spectacularly different between Everest and Antarctica, that same purist theme runs through Kropp's undertakings.

No Help, Please

Kropp was no neophyte when he started out for the top of Everest on May 1, the first person to leave base camp in a season when many things would go fatally awry. He was eager to go after his four-month six-day bicycle trip during which he toted a 284-pound load on a customized trailer.

He started training in 1986 by giving up his apartment and living in a forest to save money for the trip.

In 1989, he climbed Illampu, the third-highest peak in the Bolivian Andes at 21,276 feet--and hang-glided down to base camp at 13,000 feet in only eight minutes, avoiding a two-day descent. In 1992, he climbed the Himalayan peak Cho Oyo, the eighth-highest peak in the world; and a year later, Kropp was the second person to climb K2--the world's second-highest peak and one considered more dangerous than Everest--without bottled oxygen.

Climbers struggle with the thin air above 25,000 feet, using supplemental oxygen to be able to function and stave off high-altitude illnesses such as pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which can be fatal.

"It's impossible to have the same speed as someone climbing with oxygen," he told his audience in Los Angeles. "It changes the height of the mountain." By that, Kropp suggests, those who rely on bottled oxygen have in effect "lowered" the peak. "They might as well climb [19,000-foot] Kilimanjaro," he says.

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