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Murderous Mountain Retains Allure

Climbers risk life and limb to test themselves against Mt. Everest. Thin air, avalanche, bitter winds and thick ice await them.

May 25, 2003|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press Writer

Face down in the snow and ice near the top of the world, Beck Weathers was dying.

Nearly blinded while trying to climb Mt. Everest and then trapped in a vicious storm on his way down, Weathers lay unconscious on the side of the mountain. He had paid $65,000 for the adventure of a lifetime. That adventure was threatening to cost him his life.

A few hours earlier, some fellow climbers had found Weathers and a Japanese climber a few hundred yards from the highest camp on Everest. They chipped away a 3-inch layer of ice on the face of Yasuko Namba only to be stunned to see that she was still breathing.

A few feet away, the badly frostbitten Weathers mumbled incoherently. Somehow he too was clinging to life after spending the night outside, with no oxygen canisters, in a blizzard at 26,500 feet.

The other climbers concluded that the pair couldn't be saved. They walked away, leaving Weathers and Namba to die.

The news was radioed to Base Camp, then relayed to Weathers' wife in Dallas. She went upstairs to tell their two teenage children that their father would not be coming home.

It was May 11, 1996, and the mountain was in a murderous mood. Eight people died that day in two expeditions caught near the summit in a storm so thick that one climber likened it to trying to walk through milk.

Some were seasoned, well-trained guides like Rob Hall, who made an emotional radio call to his wife in New Zealand as he lay dying on the South Summit.

Others were ordinary people like Doug Hansen, 46, a postal worker who held down two jobs to live his dream of climbing the world's tallest mountain. They were people like Weathers, a Dallas pathologist, and Namba, a Japanese business executive.

They went up the mountain knowing the dangers of thin air, sudden avalanches, howling winds and treacherous ice.

For every five climbers who reached the summit before 1996, one climber died. Since seven Sherpas were killed by an avalanche in a 1922 British attempt, at least 175 people have lost their lives while trying to reach the top.

In the aptly named "Death Zone" above 25,000 feet, the dead remain frozen by the side of the trail, mute evidence to passing climbers that the mountain they so desperately want to climb can quickly become their final resting place.

There, 5 1/2 miles above sea level, winds howl up to 200 mph, bodies break down, lungs are starved for air, and minds are addled by a lack of oxygen. Helicopters cannot reach that high, giving climbers as much chance of being rescued as they would of being plucked off the surface of the moon.

"It is a scary place. It can be horrifying," said David Keaton, who climbed Everest in 1994. "The level of risk is extreme."

Boots are lighter, equipment is better and the oxygen most need to get to the top is easier to bring along than it was half a century ago, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the 29,035-foot peak. Radios keep climbers in contact with each other and their camps, and Sherpas fix ropes to help people up.

Still, the mountain can turn on them with sudden and unforgiving ferocity. Avalanches come out of nowhere, burying climbers. Others slip on icy ridges and fall into deep crevasses. With temperatures below zero and jet-stream winds that can make it feel like 100 below, just being outside is deadly.

Feared most, perhaps, are the high-altitude sicknesses of the lungs and brain, which can make breathing difficult and lead to dizziness, hallucinations, confusion, coma and death.

"There is a terrible loss of life on Mt. Everest," said Wally Berg, who has made it to the top four times.

Still, the challengers come. This month alone, there are more than 20 teams from around the world inching their way toward the summit.

"Everest is an icon that speaks to the spirit of adventure," Berg said. "It has not been diminished one bit by the thousand-plus people who have reached the summit.

They come for all sorts of reasons. Some don't return.

"The whole world was saying to me, 'You can't do this and you're going to die,' " said Eric Alexander, who led a blind friend to the summit two years ago. "It fueled my fire a little bit. Mt. Everest was always my dream, just like being a fireman or a policeman is someone else's dream."

Climbing Everest wasn't always Weathers' dream. He saw it as more of an escape.

Plagued by depression, Weathers, 49, turned to mountain climbing as a release. He had done many climbs before.

Still, he was more of a serious hobbyist than a top climber. He knew that he needed help to get up Everest. He found it in Hall, who made his living taking clients up big mountains.

Hall, a New Zealander like Hillary, first reached the summit in 1990. In the next five years, he led 39 climbers up Everest. Hall was tough, well-respected, a professional who seemed to make all the right decisions. He didn't guarantee Weathers and Hansen that they would get to the top for their money, but promised to give them every opportunity.

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