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Post Magazine: A Cold Place to Die

Post Magazine Cover Story

Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; 1:00 PM

Nils Antezana became the oldest American to scale Mount Everest. Then he descended into a nightmare.

Post staff writer Michael Leahy, whose story about Antezana, was online Monday, Nov. 29, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

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Leahy is a Magazine staff writer.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: We're sorry for the delay. Michael will be along shortly.

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Michael Leahy: Thanks for joining the chat. We have so many questions, and not nearly enough time to answer all of them, so I will keep my introductory comments brief.
This story would not have been possible without the many mountaineering experts, Antezana family members and Everest climbers who made themselves available for hours of interviews. For starters, I thank, in no particular order the following people: Tom and Tina Sjogren, Everest summiters who co-founded and run a popular adventure Web site, Explorers Web; Damian and Willie Benegas, expert climbers and guides; Pat Falvey; Hector Ponce de Leon, Edurne Pasaban; Manuel Lugli; the Antezana family and Gustavo Lisi's mother...
I had to piece together history, a formidable task given that three of the critical parties -- the two Sherpas and guide Gustavo Lisi were not available for telephone or in-person interviews. The story would not have been possible without the giving interviews supplied by witnesses on the mountain at the time.
Let me note that I would have loved in particular to sit down with Dorjee Sherpa, who was in the Antezana party and who had summited Everest nine times before (more than Pat Falvey and Willie and Damian Benegas combined, as I say in the story). Willie has summited several times and Pat Falvey twice, if memory serves me right. Let me be clear -- lest there be any confusion -- that Damian never has summited Everest, a point he repeatedly has stressed during our interviews.
My thanks to all these able climbers and experts for informing my perspective on Everest and supplying critical information for the story. Let's get to some questions.

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Bethesda, Md.: Congratulations on an extraordinary job of writing and reporting. This is the finest adventure story I've ever read in The Washington Post. It is a masterpiece of deft analysis and a wonderful evoking of time and place. Four questions for you:

Why do you think the Nepal government appears to look the other way at some things that happen on the mountain? Do they ever seem to express regret at these kind of tragedies? Have you ever climbed Everest yourself? And how do you think the tragedy will continue to affect the Antezana family? Thanks again for a wondrous story.

Michael Leahy: Many believe that the Nepal government's approach stems from a basic desire not to meddle in a very lucrative tourism and mountaineering business. But the Nepal official with whom I dealt presented another view: that it's simply difficult "to know what happens so high." There is a stoicism in his attitude that reflects the attitude of many Westerners and non-Westerners alike on Everest. I should mention that he noted that the Nepalese might reconsider their policy of allowing climbers to attempt an Everest summit without their group's official "leader."
And, no, I am not a climber. Nor have I ever been on Everest. Writing this for me was much like, I imagine, the process that the novelist experienced in writing something like "Imagining Argentina." I was working from phone interviews and interview sessions in Washington.

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Cleveland, Ohio: As a long time climber, I was fascinated by your story. Superbly done and authentic. Thank you. Could you give us a personal assessment about Lisi's future?

Michael Leahy: Re Gustavo Lisi's future: It's hard to know. Certainly the Antezana family, and an ally like Damian Benegas, would like to ensure that he never guides anyone again. On the other hand, the world is a big place, with attractive peaks all over. Guides are needed, and Mr. Lisi would argue that his experience makes him a highly desirable leader.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Loved this story, as disturbed as it made me feel. I wish the doctor's daughter (who seems determined about everything) had exercised the same determination and tried more forcefully to order him not to go. I know the doctor was a determined man, but who knows what influence the family may have had if they ganged up on him and said "No, dad, no, you don't go." Do you think it's possible that they could have stopped him? And do you think there should be a mandatory age limit on a mountain like Everest? Sixty-nine sounds old to me, even for a fit man on Everest.

I am reading your book on Michael Jordan and loving it. Thanks for pulling the veils off and giving us the truth about the Jordan experience in D.C. Best wishes for your book's success. And best wishes to the Antezana family.

Michael Leahy: Virtually everyone close to Nils Antezana agrees on one point: No one could have stopped him. It is hard to imagine a man more resolute than the doctor once he committed himself to a task or dream.
An age limit on Everest would never fly, as age limits never do in any sports-related endeavor -- boxing, climbing, etc.

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Herndon, Va.: Shouldn't there be a more efficient way of controlling climbers who want to "do" Everest? The good doctor shouldn't have been allowed past the Camps, and probably not even on the mountain, period.

Michael Leahy: There are many who argue that a system requiring a stringent licensing of guides would effectively address the problem you're wisely noting here.

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Albany, N.Y.: Sensational story. Thanks for brilliantly revealing all that can go wrong in winter wonderland. I much admired your obesity story, and I was at first taken aback here by seeing that you'd written about something so far afield from America and its problems. But this was so gripping I couldn't put it down. You are a born storyteller but I was amazed as well that you got all these climbers to talk for a story that isn't altogether flattering about the work of people on the mountain. How did you go about securing their cooperation and their agreement to sit for interviews? On another matter, how did you persuade Lisi's mother to talk? My hat's off to you for your digging on all this. I can't believe that the local authorities around the mountain, the Nepal government, lets all this go so unregulated. It is a sensational story. And congratulations on your new book about Michael Jordan, too, which I intend on buying today.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your kind comments. Before I answer the questions, let me thank another person -- Rhonda Martin -- who so eloquently spoke about her encounter with Nils Antezana and Gustavo Lisi during the early portion of Antezana's acclimitization.
Most of the interviewees spoke with me for the same reason nearly all subjects do: they itch to see the truth, or their version of the truth, in print.
I have never met a more determined interviewee than the late doctor's daughter, Fabiola Antezana. As my story makes clear, she secretly recorded Lisi in Katmandu. Without her tapes, it is hard to imagine how this story would have been possible. But it's all important to note the earnest cooperation of people like Manuel Lugli -- who, as the man in charge of handling logisitics for the expedition, had some vital conversations with both Antezana and Lisi at a time when tension between climber and guide were on the rise. Lugli was incredibly candid, as was Lisi's mother. I thank them and everyone else who spoke about such a painful subject.

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Annandale, Va.: Mr. Leahy:
Mr. I can understand that the two Sherpas were not available for telephone or in-person interviews, as you said, but why Gustavo Lisi not showing his face as if he were hiding something? Is there any legal mean to force him to tell the true?

Michael Leahy: Short answer: The Nepalese government is not pursuing any inquiry into what happened. Nepalese authorities received, as I said in the story, a brief report (filed by a man not with the Antezana party) that said the doctor died of altitude sickness. That was the end of the Nepalese involvement really.

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Annandale, Va.: After reading the story, I was struck by how utterly irresponsible Mr.Antezana was to his family. Yes, he did not choose his climbing partner/guide wisely. But, a sixty-nine year old human going up to the Death Zone? I just can't imagine abandoning one's spouse of 31 years and one's children in such a foolhardy manner. At the end, this is a story of greed, both on the part of the guide, and the climber himself.

Michael Leahy: I want to give all sides a chance to register an opinion here, so here is a note from Annandale.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Thank you for an excellent piece. I'm fascinated by these people who want to climb Mount Everest and think all you need to do is raise the money for the permit. I think that Nepal should require the guides to have some kind of license or certification before they will give them a permit to basically escort someone to their death. In this case and the events documented by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air the guides and the party were overwhelmed by events -- altitude sickness, a blizzard, running out of oxygen. It does seem to me that there should be more accountability for deaths on Everest (Chomolungma). How do these compare to deaths on K2, which is technically more difficult a climb?

Michael Leahy: Just another note I want to post.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi Mike:
Great story about Everest. Heard you when you were in Chicago ... been reading your new book about Jordan's comeback (When Nothing Else Matters)and I couldn't help but see a parallel -- obsession! Jordan and this poor gentleman ... needing risk to feel alive. What does this say about U.S?
Thanks .... Michael Leahy: I do think that people are lucky if they feel they have already somehow summited at life... The doctor -- a brilliant and caring man who had given his time to the community for three decades -- latched on to this dream and pursued it with a passion that awed his friends and family members. But even those who loved him knew it carried grave risks toward the end. And they, too, believe he may have overreached.

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Cabin John, Md.: Why should there be strict regulation of guides? Why should the Nepalese gov't feel any responsibility for the people who want to try to climb Everest? It is OBVIOUSLY extremely, even foolhardily, dangerous to try. If you want to go and kill yourself, fine, but why should the Nepalese gov't, or anyone else, try to protect you from yourself? It is not as if any reasonably sane person wouldn't know it was dangerous.

Michael Leahy: Simply want to post this counterpoint... Thanks for writing in...

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Bethesda, Mf.: Michael-

Amazing article. Having just returned from nearly a month trekking to Base camp. It is amazing the pull that Mt. Everest has among its followers. The mountain is certainly alluring and it draws you in such a mythical sense that you can hardly help but get "summit fever." As I trekked through the Khumbu (Everest area of Nepal) it is overwhelming the number of memorials dedicated to sherpas and climbers alike. Everest is by no mean to be taken lightly.

Nevertheless, a seasoned climber should know better and seriously investigate who they are hiring. In the U.S. and internationally, there are such organizations as the American Mountain Guide Association or other established organizations that certifiy mountain guides. Although not always a true test of skills, it is a good start.

It is truly a shame that such a tragedy had to occur to any climber. So, in the end what happens to Lisi?

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your story... With regard to your question, I think Lisi's fate will be decided by the climbing community. If his critics' perception becomes widespread that he is unreliable and/or untrustworthy then he will be an out-of-work pariah. But there is some sympathy expressed by a small group who argue that it is hard to know what any guide would do in the kind of peril faced by Lisi. Ultimately, I am not here to offer an opinion on the question, but simply to provide perspective and context.

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London, U.K.: No one is forced into the Himalaya, not least onto Everest. It is an arena for personal responsibility. Whilst the "guide" seems to be a chancer with both his background and his experience, I do not see how he can be solely responsible for what occurs over 8k metres, it is called the "Death Zone" for many reasons, but one is that it is virtually inmpossible to be rescued, nor should you expect others to risk their lives.

Are you suggesting that the anyone at Camp 4, having just summited, could have gone back up to the Balcony (many hours from Camp 4)if the "Guide" had raised the alarm? If so, I am afraid that however sad, the search for a scapegoat is mistaken.

Michael Leahy: Just wanted to post another eloquently argued point... The comments and questions -- from both sides of this seeming debate -- have been uncommonly terrific today

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Greenville, N.C.: It seems clear that, even with the best guides, Dr. Antezana was in no shape to successfully climb Mt. Everest. Are there any physical standards for someone attempting this climb? If so, who enforces them? Do you have to have a documented climbing history? Or can anyone with sufficient money give this a shot?

My sympathies to the Antezana family. But it does sound as if he died doing something he really wanted to do, which may be a small consolation.

Michael Leahy: During the acclimitization process and later during the summit push, it became clear to several Everest observers that the doctor was in no shape to attempt the summit. Remember that he had become ill early into acclimitization. Later, Lisi's critics argued, the guide pushed the doctor too hard during parts of acclimitization. One also needs to consider the effect of climbing without bottled oxygen between camps three and four.
But the doctor's son, David, believed that his father likely had concerns even before leaving for Everest. David wanted his father to wait a year so he could be supplied with performance-enhancing drugs. Characteristically, the doctor wanted to get to the mountain...

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: In your story, you say that subsequent expeditions to the summit couldn't find Antezana's body where it had been left by Lisi and the Sherpas. The fact that he tried to move from the spot seems to show that he wasn't resigned to death as Lisi had said.

Given that he was only a few hundred yards from Camp 4, do you think it was premature for his guides to leave him? What codes, formal or traditional, do guides and Sherpas follow in this situation? Is it basically every man for himself?

Michael Leahy: If we are to believe that the Sherpas left him where they claimed, then he clearly moved....
The Sherpas were still at least a couple of hours from Camp Four when they left him. Most guides and other Sherpas on the mountain sympathized with them...
The greatest mistake, most experts agree, was made in allowing the doctor to climb from Camp Four to the summit. For that mistake to occur, you needed two things: Lisi's permission and the doctor's determination to reach the peak. The real danger here, as I say at the conclusion of the story, was that the two men had found each other. Guides like the Benegas brothers and Pat Falvey insist they would never have allowed Antezana to attempt the summit, having seen how he was laboring beforehand.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Thank you for a very well researched and written article on this tragedy in yesterday's W.P. Magazine.
Having climbed the Mexican Volcanoes with Hector Ponce de Leon last November 2003, I can attest to the professionalism that he and the Mountain Madness guide service represent. It makes me wonder why the doctor, with a supposed greater disposable income than someone like me, would short-change himself when it came to selecting someone like Gustavo Lisi, an independent operator, as his "qualified" Everest guide. Speaking Spanish is not the deciding factor. Many Spanish and Latin guides are available from the major guiding companies. Everest is not the place to economize on your climbing trip expenditures either unless you yourself are an accomplished, veteran climber and are looking for the cheaper alternative than the more expensive "hand-held" guided trips.
Was what the doctor paid Lisi, in total, for his Everest attempt that much lower in price than paying what Mountain Madness or Adventure Consultants, etc., would ask in return for a competent and ethically guided trip? I believe all Everest trips start at the $10,000 fee to climb and quickly go up to a high of around $65,000, with some deals to be had in the $25-$40k range if one checks GB and NZ guide companies.

Michael Leahy: Just wanted to post this...

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Washington, D.C.: Climbing Ethics: I've known some amature mountaineers. I would argue that the "summit or bust" mentality exibited by Mr. Antezana contributed to his ultimate demise. One point that was relayed consistently to me by my climbing friends is that sometimes you have to accept "the will of the mountain," to steal a phrase. Mr. Antezana had a few opportunities to turn back before his assault on the summit, where it was clear that he already had physical challenges before the most difficult part of the climb.

Michael Leahy: Most people close to the doctor would agree with the basic point of this posting.

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Springfield, Va.: OK, I am one of those peope that would NEVER climb Everest ... I don't understand why Antezana would have hired Lisi instead of a more experienced guide (realizing that Antezana thought that Lisi had scaled Everest before)? It appeared from the article that he picked him becuase he spoke Spanish and becuase he was less expensive than the other guides. Why didn't he talk to some of Lisi's other clients?

With a 15 percent likelihood of death, did he do any more research than was indicated in the article? What responsibility do the Sherpas have to the client?

Michael Leahy: One of the things that confounds the Antezana family is why Nils did not more thoroughly research Lisi's credential, and at least consider the alternative of hiring another guide.

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Rockville, Md.: Nils Antezana made the mistake of not using bottled oxygen for a time above 24,000 feet. At his age, this was probably a fatal mistake, but isn't it true that there have been climbers who summitted Everest and returned safely without using bottled oxygen?

Michael Leahy: Yes, a very small percentage of climbers -- generally the elite of the sport -- have done it without bottled oxygen.

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Fairfax, Va.: Thanks, Michael, for an absorbing account of that tragedy. While I empathize with the terrible loss the family must feel, compounded by the seeming malfeasance of the "guide," does it not strike you as totally insane that a near septagenarian endangered his own life, as well as the lives of others, to "conquer" Sagarmatha? My sympathy lies with the noble Sherpa people, who graciously and heroicly host all manner of overly empowered fools.

Michael Leahy: Another posting...

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Ashburn, Va.: It appears, based on your article and by visiting Lisi's Web site, that he had a selfish agenda, which was to conquer Everest. He used Nils to finance this venture and neglected his duty as a guide. I can't believe that he makes no mention in his Web site that he went on a paid venture. He makes it sound that he was there on his own, with Nils as a partner, rather than his employer. He couldn't wait to boast his own accomplishment at the expense of the tragedy that just took place.

Too bad for Nils that he did not hook up with more reliable, professional guides, particularly in view of his advanced age.

The question is, can Lisi by tried for negligence in this or any other country?

Michael Leahy: I wanted to make this posting available to reader as well... No one anticipates Lisi being investigated in any real sense...

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Alexandria, Va.: Your story was positively terrifying. While reading it, I could not recall how utterly alone I felt.

But this morning, I found myself fuming that Antezana would even attempt such a dumb stunt. As a practical matter, I would be willing to bet you that a serious, thorough investigation of the backgrounds of most Everest guides, alligator-wrestlers, and other side-show types would reveal massive puffery and outright fraud. It would also seem that Antezana ignored what he knew to be best-practices in his venture.

So at the end of the day, you have a crooked, lying "guide," the world's only weak, disloyal sherpas, and an idiot who got them together at his own risk.

Michael Leahy: Another posting... We're getting more comments than questions here, which is just fine...

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for your insightful investigation on the death of Nils Antezana on Everest. I was wondering if, when selecting a guide for such a climb, it is possible to verify the experience and claims of a given guide. For every skilled, reputable guide, is there a disreputable one willing to take a climber up the mountain if the price is right? And if so, what safeguards are there to protect climbers (and their families) both before and after a trek?

Michael Leahy: It's often recommended that novice climbers contact an expedition company, rather than approach a particular guide. The advantage in this, argue advocates, is that the expedition company knows a series of great guides, and can distinguish the qualified from the incompetent.
On the subject of guides: the Antezana family believes that the doctor may have sought out other guides before leaving for Everest, only to be turned down. What they are absolutely clear about is their conviction that Nils should have been more open, late in the process, to dismissing Lisi and either hiring another guide or returning home.

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Potomac Falls, Va.: First of all, excellent article. I was wondering if anyone commented on Antezza's state of mind when he reached the summit? Did he even realize he had accomplished his goal? From what I've read in your article and in Into Thin Air, most people are like zombies when they finally reach the summit. As impressive as this accomplishment might be, it seems that the fact that when you finally reach your goal you can't even savor the moment would be a deterrent to a 69-year-old man.

Michael Leahy: The Sherpas later told people that the doctor had briefly acted "excited" around the summit, only to become quickly exhausted as the descent began. Such exhaustion has struck many on Everest, at a similar time and place...

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for a great article.

I am amazed at the handwringing and lamentations of those who "don't get" why this man would want to climb Everest, and those whose first response is to point fingers or assign blame. Old Alpine saying: Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory. Ignore this at your peril. Also, an earlier question asked if there is a "code" of mountaneering in such circumstances. I have seen written elsewhere that such a code would state something very close to "every man for himself" -- if assistance is possible, you are required to help; however, if assisting would possibly cause loss of your own life, no obligation exists. This is the law of the mountain, and should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the subject. PLEASE, PLEASE don't try to apply everyday standards to an extraordinary place. And for those who just want us all to stay home, safe and sound in our suburban cocoons, I say: get a life and don't try to prevent the rest of us from great things.

Michael Leahy: Wow, we have an eloquent series of postings today. I wanted readers to see this one as well...

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Washington, D.C.: It is unfortunate that Antezana died during the Everest descent, but I can't help but ask two questions: (1) what was an elderly man doing there in the first place, that too with Lisi, an ultimately untrustworthy guide he hardly knew? (2) If his friends and family could make such an in-depth investigation after his death, why on earth couldn't they intervene before the trip to convince him not to make the attempt at all (after all, his wife was having surgery during at least a part of it!)?

Michael Leahy: His family did urge Nils to postpone his trip, particularly after he became ill. They made the point that he could come home, recover, get himself in the best shape of his life and return to Everest in 2005.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: In your story, you say that subsequent expeditions to the summit couldn't find Antezana's body where it had been left by Lisi and the Sherpas. The fact that he tried to move from the spot seems to show that he wasn't resigned to death as Lisi had said.

Given that he was only a few hundred yards from camp 4, do you think it was premature for his guides to leave him? What codes, formal or traditional, do guides and Sherpas follow in this situation? Is it basically every man for himself?

Michael Leahy: I think I may have answered this very question earlier, but in case I didn't let me reiterate that there was much sympathy for the two Sherpas, whose own lives by then were in peril.
Most observers believe the greatest mistake came in allowing Antezana to climb from Camp Four to the summit.

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Arlington, Va.: As a Bolivian by birth and an acquaintance of Dr Antezana, your well- written article touched more than one nerve. At the end we should all accept that he died doing what he loved doing, and taking risks so few of us do in life. Would we all be happier if Nils had aged to an older age watching mountain climbing on Wide World of Sports?

In my opinion he was one of a kind, which makes it difficult for some to understand his motives and long for answers that will never come.

Michael Leahy: Another posting...

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Sea-level, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Leahy, I found your article fascinating, but tragic for the Antezana family. For one, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Lisi was not aware of Mr. Antezana's age nor his physical condition. Don't registered guides have some sort of screening process for inexperienced climbers? Also, is there any progress of Lisi being blacklisted as a guide and or/criminal charges filed against him?

Michael Leahy: Everest is largely devoid of regulation. There are no rules there that matter much, aside from paying fees to climb the mountain.

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Clinton, Md.: This was an utterly facinating article to read. I got the impression that Everest is less about mountain climbing and more about endurance, more triathalon than marathon. I question if the good doctor trained correctly for this feat.

Michael Leahy: "More triathalon than marathon...": Yes, that is a nice anology. It's grueling to be sure, but it is also a varied task, and acclimitization is nothing like going from Camp Three to Four, which, in turn, is nothing like the final push toward the summit or the descent.
But I think, having spoken to so many climbers, that no one fully grasps this point until having done Everest. I might THINK I know it, in the abstract, but it takes some of the experts mentioned above to grasp the point fully.

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Washington, D.C.: Not to discount the responsibility of the guide (Lisi), but it sounds like Mr. Antezana went to the mountain with an "Everest or Bust" attitude. Considering the risks involved he has to bear some responsiblity for his own tragedy. I've had friends who've done mountaineering, and one consistent message they've imparted from their experience is that sometimes an ascent is just not going to happen, be it weather, health, or other reason, and a mountaineer must plan for that contingency. Mr. Antezana had ample warning before his assault on the peak that his body was not up to the rigor of the summit. He fell behind on lower climbs; he had a difficult ascent to Camp 4. It seems to me he had ample opportunity and reason BEFORE the impaired judgment of altitude sickness hit him to abandon and try another day (or not).

Michael Leahy: Many observers argue that both the doctor and Lisi exhibited an Everest Or Bust attitude -- that neither man had someone who would say to him, "Enough. Stop."
Lisi's detractors would add that, if nothing else, a guide needs to know how and when to say, "Enough. Stop."

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Oxford, Miss.: Mr.Leahy: You have a gift to write an amazing story. This is a story of passion and of character. Within each piece of writing lies a strand of the author's life. In relation to yourself, what was it within this story that compelled you to make a substantial investment in research and ultimately in writing it? Where's your strand?

Michael Leahy: I think I was simply intrigued by a story about two dreamers, two men who overreached. And I was struck by the passion of a driven, articulate daughter who, against all odds, was determined to see that her father's life and death be revealed to a large readership. Fabiola Antezana's resolve, culminating in her secret recording of Gustavo Lisi, was something I'd never encountered, and my curiosity about her as a character had something to do with my interest as well, I suppose. The implacable fascinate most of us, I think -- whether we're talking about a dreaming doctor or his dogged daughter.

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Michael Leahy: Well, I'm afraid our time is coming to an end. I want to thank all of you for such eloquent questions and postings. I regret that we couldn't get to all the questions today, but please feel free to drop me an e-mail or letter at the Post, and I'll attempt to answer as many questions as possible. Many thanks for joining me today. I look forward to chatting with everyone again soon.

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