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The Dark Side of the Mountain

When a doctor reached the peak of Everest, he celebrated with his guide and crew. So why was he left to die?

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page W12

Nils would realize how nervous she'd be, she thought. He'd call, he'd call soon.

Gladys Antezana lay in a Baltimore hospital bed, resting after minor surgery. Her husband was halfway around the world at that moment, and her questions about his safety and precise whereabouts had her on edge. At 69, Nils Antezana was attempting that day, May 18, to become the oldest American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet. It was a trek accompanied by considerable risks, Gladys knew. But Nils had climbed many mountains before, and, at the end of such expeditions, he had nearly always called Gladys as soon as possible, to tell her he was safe. Aware that she would be awaiting his call in the hospital, he had promised to be in touch quickly after his triumph. She expected his call to come at any minute. But it didn't.

Nils Antezana wears an oxygen mask during one of the last phases of his summit. (Photograph Courtesy Antezana Family)

Her anxiety grew. That day passed, and then the next, and still no phone call came from either her husband or his mountain guide, an Argentine named Gustavo Lisi.

Finally, she says, on May 20, at about 11:30 a.m., Washington time, her cell phone rang.

"It's Gustavo," said the voice.

She sensed immediately that there had been an accident. Before Gladys could speak, Gustavo Lisi plunged ahead. "Nils and I summited," she remembers Lisi saying.

"Where is my husband?" Gladys demanded.

He had a terrible accident, a catastrophe, Lisi said.

Gladys couldn't speak.

He stayed there on the mountain, she remembers Lisi saying. He couldn't come down, Gladys. But he was extremely happy, elated. It was so beautiful.

"Did you send someone up for a rescue?" Gladys says she finally managed to ask.

No, she recalls Lisi telling her. Nils couldn't have survived up there.

Why didn't you send someone up? she snapped.

Because I was sick myself, Lisi answered.

Lisi then shared, Gladys recalls, what he said were some of her husband's last words. "Nils said, 'I want to stay here. The mountain is my home.' "

For a moment, she could not think.

She recalls Lisi emphasizing that he had pleaded with Nils to continue moving. She recounts that he told her: "I said to him, 'Nils, you have a family. Let's go. Come on.' "

But Nils couldn't move or even respond, Lisi said. He added that Nils had been a wonderful friend, concluding, "He was happy at the end."

Before saying goodbye, the guide asked Gladys where he should send her husband's personal effects.

Lisi wouldn't need to send Nils Antezana's effects anywhere. He wouldn't need to do a thing because Antezana's daughter, Fabiola, would be flying to Katmandu, Nepal, within four days to get both the effects and a meeting with Lisi, during which she would demand an explanation for what had happened. What she had heard in telephone calls made to other climbers led her to believe that Lisi had made mistakes no guide should make, and therefore was responsible at least in part for her father's death. Fabiola knew she wouldn't be bringing her father back, but she wanted to leave Katmandu with the truth about how his dream went awry.

HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS HAD ALWAYS CONSIDERED NILS ANTEZANA TO BE FULL OF SECRETS AND SURPRISES. He had a pilot's license and a plane, but his close friend Nick Ellyn never knew about either. For a long while, his flying buddies, with whom he co-owned the single-engine Cessna, knew little about Antezana's mountain climbing. Until after Antezana left for Everest, his wife had no idea that he had climbed a peak in Bolivia during a visit there a month earlier. "He was missing for four days, and I was asking people where he was," Gladys Antezana remembers. "[A relative], who heard it from somebody else, finally told me . . . I don't know why he didn't want me and others to know, but sometimes he was that way."

David Antezana, the couple's oldest child, saw the secrecy as a reflection of his father's desire for control over a few parts of his life. "He did a great deal for our family and other people," David says, "and I think he wanted something that belonged just to him. Many proud men are that way. They have things that are their own secrets."

For more than two decades, Nils Antezana had been the chief of pathology at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, but when the hospital closed in 1994, Antezana did not rush out to reacquire an executive title, contenting himself instead with doing pathology work for a variety of medical offices and offering consultations at a local hospital. He was an immigrant who had received his medical training in Bolivia and then, although he spoke limited English, passed a U.S. exam to win his medical license in his new country in 1963. During his off hours, Antezana provided free treatment to patients in many of Washington's impoverished neighborhoods. Eventually, he brought his volunteer work into his home, where he set up an auxiliary office to treat the sore throats and flus of the poor, and examine economically squeezed cancer patients looking for a free second opinion, sometimes spending 30 hours a week treating the needy, apart from his normal job. He was indefatigable. Then came the closure of Jefferson Hospital, and for the first time in his life, Antezana had time on his hands. While continuing his charity work, he learned to scuba dive. He windsurfed and did some hang gliding. He got in a harness once with a sky diving instructor and jumped out of a plane at 14,000 feet. But nothing absorbed him as much as his new passion for scaling mountains, a pursuit that began with modest treks in the United States but soon took him out of the country. He climbed mostly in South America -- renowned peaks that, while not nearly as high as Everest, were the tallest on the continent.

He threw himself into his workout and climbing regimens, confident that he could slow down his aging process as he moved through his sixties. He did not like talk of his age. His daughter did not even know Antezana's real age before he left for Everest, believing up to the time the expedition ended that he was not 69, but 62. "He took pride that his body never had had real problems," Fabiola remembered. "He said his body was like a virgin's, untouched."

Still, life was not perfect. One morning, a few years ago, his wife remembers, he asked to speak to her. With a little bow of his head, he murmured: "With you, I am very happy. But I seem to be missing something." He told her that he needed the mountains.

She would not, could not, stop him, she knew. During their 38-year marriage, each would always grant independence to the other. She had a construction and property development business that consumed her hours, and he now had his climbing.

Late last year, he came out of the shower one day and sat down on the brown marble of the bathroom's Jacuzzi, another accouterment in the wonderful life they'd built, which included a nearly finished vacation house in Annapolis and a large network of friends and admirers. They'd achieved everything Gladys could want, only now it wasn't enough for him, and she had come to know it.

He had a towel around himself. He crossed his hands, in a prayerful position, and said to her, "Gladys, I want to go to Everest."

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