Outlasting Everest

At 29,000 ft. every breath is a battle.

Mount EverestFor Air Liquide’s Christopher Guest, climbing has always been a part of his life. As a child growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, he read Sir Francis Younghusband’s The Epic of Mt. Everest and was immediately hooked. By age 12, he was hiking local mountains. In his teens, Guest took up rock climbing and ice climbing. Shortly after graduating college, he took his first expedition to the Himalayas. Since then he has scaled mountains in several of the world’s most famous ranges, including the Rockies, Andes and Southern Alps.

However, there was one peak that always remained elusive. Despite an attempt in 2000 that ended in injury, Guest had yet to conquer the mountain he had read about as a child. In May 2009, he decided to take one last shot at the world’s tallest mountain—Everest.

The snow-capped peak of Mount Everest pierces the sky at a staggering 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) above sea level. The freezing temperatures and ultra-thin air make reaching the peak an incredibly dangerous undertaking. Estimates suggest that only 4,300 people have ever reached the summit. Furthermore, the unforgiving mountain has claimed the lives of more than 200 climbers.

Christopher Guest was a mere 50 vertical ft. from reaching the mountain’s pinnacle when his oxygen mask began to fail.

O2
The amount of oxygen in the air at altitudes above 26,000 feet is extremely low. In fact, the air in Everest’s “death zone” contains barely one-third of the oxygen found at sea level. The low levels of oxygen can cause disorientation, fatigue and even death. To combat this, climbers spend significant time at high altitudes below the death zone, acclimating themselves to the oxygen level. Also, almost all climbers use some sort of supplemental oxygen mask. However, as Guest was quickly learning, no machine is too sophisticated to fail.

Christopher Guest on the summit of Mt. Everest. He is wearing a TopOut oxygen mask.
Christopher Guest on the summit of Mt. Everest. He is wearing a TopOut oxygen mask.

For years, faulty or ineffective oxygen masks were the catalyst for countless Everest deaths. The standard device was a neoprene mask that was fed by a bladder in a  passive fashion. The problem with these masks was that they came with a staggering loss rate that could exceed 30 percent. A climber might be carrying 8 hours worth of oxygen, but run through it in a 5-hour period, leaving them in a very precarious position. In 2004, Guest’s friend, retired British Royal Air Force Engineer Ted Atkins, had a near-death experience that lead to an oxygen-mask revolution.

Atkins had summited Everest and just descended its “Hillary Step,” a 40-ft. spur of ice and snow situated 28,750 ft. above sea level when he became disoriented and collapsed. Atkins lay alone in the snow, fading into unconsciousness and facing almost certain death. His oxygen had run out prematurely and he had no idea. He’s not sure how long he was unconscious, but after what couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, Atkins was awakened by the hiss of oxygen entering his mask. While he was unconscious, a Sherpa had stumbled upon him, taken a full cylinder out of his own pack, replaced Atkins’ empty cylinder, turned on the valve and pressurized the fallen climber’s mask. Atkins never got to thank the man who saved his life; by the time he came to, the Sherpa was already well on his way down the mountain. Stunned and elated to be alive, Atkins decided he was going to make sure that this never happened to anyone else.

Upon his return to England, Atkins got to work designing what would come to be known as the TopOut oxygen mask . The foundation of the TopOut system is a Russian-manufactured, 4-liter (water volume) Kevlar-wrapped titanium cylinder. The medical-grade oxygen is stored at around 4,700 psi (pressure at 20 degrees Celsius), meaning each tank holds approximately 900 liters of compressed gas. The oxygen flow is controlled by a sophisticated regulator/flow meter that helps climbers minimize loss. The oxygen flows from the tank into a “beer can”  oxygen canister. A series of check valves bring a mixture of pure oxygen and outside air into the mask, creating a blend that nearly replicates sea-level air.

Climbing above the clouds
Climbing above the clouds

Malfunction
Guest was wearing a TopOut mask for his climb, but something went dangerously wrong. The bitter cold of pre-dawn Everest was causing his mask to malfunction. The intake valve that brought in ambient air was failing—ice particles were accumulating on the valve, lodging it shut. As Guest exhaled, the vapors were blowing toward the intake valve, causing each breath to create a line of ice on the valve. Thus, as he was attempting a 50-ft. traverse at a 70-degree angle on a 6-inch ledge, just over 100 yards from the summit, he was suffocating. Initially, Guest thought he had run out of oxygen, but when he noticed that his oxygen canister was still filling, he realized what was going on and quickly made his way off the ledge. Guest hurried over to a Sherpa who blew hot air into his valve, melting the ice. This was only a temporary solution; however, it quickly froze up again. Guest was three minutes from the summit and running out of options.

As he scrambled to figure out what to do next, the sun began to rise over the summit. Guest could literally feel the warmth of the sun at 29,000 ft. and turned to face it. The radiant heat thawed his valve almost instantly and, once again, the oxygen began to flow. “It was a freak thing,” says Guest. “It happens to about three climbers a year. It has to be the perfect combination of moisture, temperature and wind. I was fortunate that the sun came up at exactly the right time.” Atkins has since made adjustments to prevent the issue from occurring in the future.

Summit
With the oxygen mask once again functioning properly, Guest trekked the last few meters, and at 5:30 a.m. on May 22, 2009, he reached the summit, realizing a life-long dream. A lifetime after he first opened Younghusband’s book and nine years after his failed attempt, Christopher Guest stood on top of the world.

A Sherpa uses a radio to contact base camp.
A Sherpa uses a radio to contact base camp.

As Guest stood on top of Mt. Everest, his feeling of accomplishment was tempered by the gravity of the challenges that still lay ahead. “It might have been the mishap with my oxygen tank,” he says, “but I didn’t have that intense feeling of elation. I had my 10-15 minutes of emotion, which wasn’t that emotional. I took a few pictures, and then I switched my focus to getting off the mountain.”

Guest knew before he set off for the peak that he was racing the clock. There was a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, which meant severe weather was headed to the Himalayas. As he stood on the peak, Guest noticed another ominous sign; as he scanned the horizon, cloud cover was increasing. Low-elevation clouds are normal, but the cloud cover Guest saw was at about 35,000 ft. “When you see clouds at that altitude, it usually means a storm is on its way,” says Guest. On Everest, a storm means one thing—high winds. “The winds on Everest are absolutely brutal,” says Guest. “They come without warning, and if you get stuck in them, they will kill you.” With that in mind, Guest and his Sherpas cut the reveling short and headed down the mountain. It was approximately 5:45 a.m. when the descent began, and if the weather held, a late-afternoon return was in the cards.

Descent
A few hundred meters into its descent, Guest’s group encountered its first obstacle. Climbers from other parties were clogging the path down the mountain. This left Guest’s group with two oprions. It could wait for the other climbers to go by and lose precious minutes or it could take a risk and try to go around them. The group chose the latter option. “You’re supposed to be clipped into two protection points as you descend the line, but we decided to use only one so we could loop around the other climbers,” says Guest. It was risky, but with his window of opportunity rapidly closing, he knew it was the right thing to do. The plan paid off and Guest was quickly back at full speed moving down the mountain.

Clipped in, traversing a ridge
Clipped in, traversing a ridge

As he descended the mountain’s upper passes for the first time under daylight, Guest was shocked at what he saw. The trail’s periphery was dotted with the bodies of fallen climbers, ghastly examples of Everest’s wrath. About 120 of the 200-plus climbers who lost their lives on the mountain still remain frozen and unburied on its paths—sometimes a mere 3 to 4 ft. off the trail. Their skin is gone, long ago claimed by the elements; the fleshless faces are forever frozen in hollow grins, providing climbers with a sobering reminder of the cost of failure.

Guest pushed on, and at around 12:30 p.m., he reached the high camp with his Sherpas. They stopped at the camp to get some water and rest for a few minutes. However, the older of the two Sherpas was eager to get moving. Guest told him to start heading down, figuring they would catch up to him in a few minutes. “That was my biggest mistake of the trip,” says Guest. “He was the Superman of the Himalayas. Once he left, he was gone, we never caught up.”

Now hydrated, but still exhausted, Guest and his remaining Sherpa set off for the next camp. There they could pick up their spare oxygen tanks and catch a few hours of rest. About 500 ft. from the camp, Guest looked down the mountain and noticed the clouds increasing in thickness. Then he glanced toward his Sherpa just in time to see a gust of wind come and toss the Sherpa several yards down the mountain. Before he had time to think, a second gust of wind knocked Guest back. While he was still gathering himself, Guest’s Sherpa nudged him and suggested hiding behind a rock to wait out the storm. Having just seen what happens to those who stop along the trail, Guest said no. He knew their oxygen was running low and if they didn’t make it to the tent soon, their lives would be in jeopardy.

The two climbers trudged onward, traveling another 200 vertical ft. down the ridge until they happened upon someone else’s tent and dove inside. They waited in the tent for several hours, hoping the wind would die down. Eventually, it became evident that it wasn’t going to happen and Guest convinced the Sherpa to venture back into the storm. “We were still in the ‘death zone’ at 26,000 ft. and if we didn’t get moving, we were going to die,” says Guest. A few minutes after leaving the tent, Guest was hit with a one-two punch. He became separated from his Sherpa, and a few seconds later, his oxygen tank ran out. He was stuck in the middle of a vicious wind storm with no oxygen and no partner. He continued down the mountain, scooting along on his backside to avoid the wind. “I’ve been through a lot in my climbing career,” says Guest. “I’ve almost fallen, I’ve run from avalanches, but that was the most serious situation I’ve ever encountered.”

Camp

Guest was stuck, drunk from the lack of oxygen and clueless as to how close he was to his tent and the tanks. Just as things were starting to get grim, another climber happened upon him. The climber, a fellow Canadian, noticed the red and white flag on Guest’s jacket and stopped to make sure he was ok. “I had quite a few patches on my jacket that day, but only the Canadian flag stayed on through the wind,” says Guest. “If it hadn’t, that climber might not have stopped. I don’t think that was a coincidence.” Guest explained to his countryman that he couldn’t find his tent or his Sherpa. The Canadian went down the trail to investigate and found Guest’s tent a mere 40 ft. from where he sat. Inside, his Sherpa was resting. “That’s how bad oxygen deprivation messes you up,” he says. “I was 15 yards from my tent and didn’t even realize it.”

Guest was thrilled to reach the safety of his tent—and his oxygen—but the feeling was short-lived. His sleeping bag and his Sherpa were in the tent, but the oxygen was missing. Another climber had looted the tent of its most valuable resource. It was now near 5:00 p.m. and darkness was falling. There was no time to waste. Guest’s Sherpa knew where some cylinders might be hidden and immediately took off to find them. For the next two hours, Guest lay on the floor of the tent hallucinating from the lack of oxygen. Finally, the tent flap opened and his Sherpa climbed in holding two tanks of oxygen. Their breath restored, the two settled in to wait out the storm.

At around 5:00 a.m., the wind broke. Almost instantly, a crackle came over the radio. It was the base camp telling them to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. The storm that they survived was merely the fore winds. The real storm had yet to come. Immediately, they packed up their belongings and headed to the bottom. After more than 24 hours of descending, the pair reached advanced base camp. The journey was complete.

Reflection
There was no jubilant celebration, no pats on the back were handed out, just a sense of relief. The mountain and all of its trials and tribulations had been overcome and, for Guest, a life-long ambition was realized.

So was it worth it? Staring down death and enduring incredible physical pain in pursuit of the peak? Guest says it was. Perhaps the best explanation as to why is found in the words of Sir Francis Younghusband, the man who inspired Guest all those years ago: “To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties they will not disclose to those who make no effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love the mountains and go back to them again and again. The mountains reserve their choicest gifts to those who stand upon their summits.”

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