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The Dark Side of the Mountain

THIRTY DAYS INTO THEIR EXPEDITION, DURING THEIR FINAL PUSH TOWARD THE SUMMIT, Antezana climbed without bottled oxygen from Camp Three to Camp Four, which lies at 26,000 feet. The vast majority of climbers -- experienced guides and novices alike -- use bottled oxygen between camps Three and Four. Because the so-called Death Zone on Everest begins at 25,000 feet, and the air's oxygen level drops there to about one-third of what it is at sea level, those who trek without supplemental oxygen risk arriving at Camp Four exhausted before making their last and hardest climb up the mountain. Worse, any oxygen-famished body will be that much more susceptible in the Death Zone to such conditions as hypothermia and cerebral edema, the latter a condition where fluid leaks from blood vessels and swells the brain, bringing a coma and swift death if untreated.

Lisi would later say that Antezana had insisted on climbing without bottled oxygen between Camps Three and Four, that he wanted nothing that others in the party wouldn't be using. "When I asked Nils [about using supplemental oxygen], he said, 'No. Don't even think about it,' " Lisi recounted in a taped discussion with Damian Benegas, the prominent climber and guide later hired by the Antezana family to find out what happened during the expedition.

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

Benegas expressed his disapproval with Lisi's acquiescence. "As the guide, I would [have said to Antezana]: 'You're going to use the oxygen. If you don't use [oxygen], you're going back down the mountain.' "

Lisi insists that Antezana experienced no problem from Camp Three to Four. "He went perfectly without [bottled] oxygen," he says.

But Benegas said Lisi's two Sherpas told him a different story: that a tiring, slowing Antezana had been forced to use oxygen during the final hour and a half of what turned into another protracted climb. "Nils was totally drained by the lack of oxygen," said Benegas, recounting what he says Lisi's Sherpas later reported to him -- that the Antezana/Lisi party had arrived several hours late to Camp Four because Antezana was spent.

While denying that Antezana's condition portended problems, Lisi later acknowledged that the expedition called for a rest day at Camp Four, insisting that the extra day at the highest camp on the mountain had no negative effect on the climbers. "A terrible decision," Damian Benegas says. "The air has so little oxygen up there that every moment you spend there takes something more out of you. It is no place to rest that long. Everybody knows that."

On May 17, Antezana used a satellite phone to call his wife, who by then was in a hospital bed, already recovering from her surgery. She says she had felt increasingly tense as her husband drew closer to the summit, and now it was becoming too much for her.

He told her that he would be going to the summit that night. That he was leaving in darkness only made her more afraid. She didn't want to know any more about this climb. No more, she said.

He was trying to talk to her.

"No, I don't want to hear any more," she recalls protesting. "It makes me nervous. It makes me sick."

"Keep talking to me," he said.

"I don't want to hear any more."

"I love you," he said.

"Don't tell me any more. I don't want to hear any more." And she handed the phone to her daughter, who would say goodbye for both of them.

TO THE ALPINE COMMUNITY'S CHAGRIN, EVEREST MAKES FOR POPULAR DISASTER LITERATURE. But that obscures, notable climbers say, how manageable the mountain has become. An estimated record 250 people, including Antezana, made it to the top during the 2004 climbing season, and about half of them were first-timers, according to Tom Sjogren, an Everest summiter himself who co-founded a popular adventure Web site, Explorers Web. About 70 percent of Everest climbers made it to the summit of Everest this year, says Sjogren, whose estimates placed the success rates of the first-time climbers at 30 percent. That latter percentage has steadily risen in recent years.

Still, death is always present -- seven climbers died on the mountain during the 2004 season alone, about the average over the last 10 years, according to Sjogren. The risks remain. "If you don't push yourself harder than you have ever pushed yourself before, you'll fail," Sjogren says. "And that presents the challenge and the worry: How do you know when you've pushed yourself too hard? Or not enough? There are no guarantees, I'm saying. You need to reconcile yourself to the possibility that you might not come back."

No matter the number of fatalities, he notes, the climbers keep coming -- the rich, the middle-income, the CEOs, the postal workers, the climbing veterans, the novices, the type-A personalities, the thrill-seekers and the spiritual. Sjogren also sees an ever-growing contingent he calls "the trophy climbers" -- those looking to acquire an Everest summit for the same reason others want Mercedes hood ornaments: because the name has cachet and might give those associated with it a little extra stature. The mountain's allure for Americans in particular is undeniable. Sjogren estimates that Americans make up 30 to 40 percent of foreigners' summit attempts on Everest each climbing season. Some will arrive on Everest with large support teams befitting their wealth and prominence; others deplete bank accounts and take out second mortgages to pay expedition companies for the chance to climb with complete strangers.

Antezana fell somewhere in between, an affluent physician who would hire as his guide not a renowned climber who would have commanded from $25,000 to $65,000 -- but an unproven Everest climber, to whom he'd pay a lesser salary and a possible bonus. In Lisi, he had found a guide whose climbing ambition matched his own. For Antezana, that was enough.

ON THE EVENING OF MAY 17, ANTEZANA BEGAN HIS FINAL TREK TOWARD THE SUMMIT, wearing a mask and breathing bottled oxygen. The plan was to summit in the morning, in plenty of time to get off the highest, most dangerous part of the mountain before darkness fell and made it more difficult to see the terrain and locate camp. Climbers estimated the temperature around Camp Four to be minus 7 degrees, which is about normal for that area of the mountain. Early into his climb, Antezana began laboring, leaning hard on his ice ax for support, according to nearby climbers. At about 10 p.m., an Irish team led by Pat Falvey, which had left Camp Four about a half-hour after Antezana and Lisi, was already prepared to pass the Antezana party on a steep icy patch. Falvey was climbing with a doctor named Clare O'Leary, who was on her way, at 33, to becoming the first Irish woman to reach the summit. O'Leary came alongside Antezana and looked over. "I couldn't really see his face, but he was stooped over, and you could see he was struggling," she remembers. "I just assumed that he'd soon be turning [around] and going back [to Camp Four]. There was just no way that it seemed possible he was going to make it."

Falvey was slightly concerned. "I thought it could be dangerous for their whole [group] at the rate they were moving," he recalls.

According to Falvey, O'Leary, and Damian Benegas, the two Sherpas with Lisi and Antezana would later claim that, at roughly this point on the mountain, they first urged both the guide and their client to halt their climb and return to Camp Four. Until that moment, the Sherpas had been reticent, in a manner characteristic of climbing Sherpas, who typically receive $1,500 to $2,500 for two months of work, a considerable sum in a land where average annual per-capita incomes are a fraction of that. They are particularly deferential in the face of high-paying Westerners, who often bestow bonuses of several thousand dollars upon them for a successful summit and return. Antezana offered his Sherpas such bonuses. As Falvey recounts, the Sherpas said they had done nothing to that point to exert influence, despite the fact that their credentials were arguably superior to those of their guide. The senior among them, listed in Everest registries as "Mr. Dorjee Sherpa," was known to have summited Everest nine times already (more than Pat Falvey and Willie and Damian Benegas combined). Dorjee was thought to be in his early forties and living in a nearby Nepalese village. The other Sherpa was 35-year-old "Mr. Mingmar Sherpa," addressed simply as Mingmar and known by accomplished climbers as an amiable and strong companion.

After their Everest expedition ended, the two Sherpas would head back on a long trek to their remote villages in the Himalayas, unreachable for comment. But, before leaving, claim Falvey and Damian Benegas, the Sherpas would talk about their experience on Everest with Antezana and Lisi. According to these second-hand accounts, the two Sherpas suggested to Antezana that he should not continue to the summit that night. But Antezana indicated he did not want to quit, and neither did Lisi.

Dorjee and Mingmar's disdain for Lisi had grown during the expedition, others say. "I'd seen Dorjee at the beginning of Base Camp," says Lhawang Dhondup, a Sherpa who says he has twice summited Everest while guiding Westerners and lives in Berkeley, Calif. "He already wasn't feeling confident [about the expedition] because, he said, Lisi wasn't listening to anybody. Dorjee thought Lisi was too cocky. He was worried it could get all messed up when they got high."

Lisi led the group on the slow push toward the summit. Pat Falvey and Clare O'Leary crossed paths again with Antezana several hours later. Falvey and O'Leary had reached the summit early in the morning and had begun their descent after a mere 20 minutes on the peak. Now, a little more than 300 feet down, they saw Antezana moving laboriously along the narrow ridge of what is called the South Summit. O'Leary passed within a few inches of him. Focused on the trek, neither said a word to the other. "God, he's still here," O'Leary says she thought to herself in alarm.

As Antezana and Lisi passed, Falvey said to O'Leary that, given the older man's halting pace, it would take him and the other climbers in his party another three hours or so to arrive at the summit, over a stretch of terrain that generally demanded no more than an hour. Falvey kept moving, intent on getting O'Leary down the mountain before it became dark.

In those last hours, Antezana would have heard little else but the sound of his own breathing through a mask. His trek had become alarmingly slow, but finally, after roughly 14 hours of climbing from Camp Four, he summited at about 10 a.m., the dream realized. Already, however, the cost of the dream hovered. Here he was, the oldest American and second-oldest man in the world to accomplish the feat, and now he looked out over Nepal on one side and Tibet on the other. He was at 29,028 feet, an altitude at which planes cruise and the air has only about 30 percent as much oxygen as at sea levels. Even with his bottled oxygen, his brain would have been slogging by then, his reactions slowed, his thoughts suddenly primitive, as they are for nearly every climber, according to experts. The wind howled. Antezana's group lingered, standing for 40 minutes on the summit. "Too long," Damian Benegas says. "Most people go down a lot quicker than that. You don't stay that long up in air [so thin], especially when you were so slow getting to the summit, and you still need to get down."

They started their descent, and almost immediately Antezana ran into trouble -- not with any rocks or the snow but with his own limits, and that thin air. Antezana was discovering what other climbers had learned before him: that, with an adrenaline rush gone and a climber's energies spent on the ascent, it is often harder to go down Everest than up.

Within the next couple of hours, Antezana collapsed for the first time, according to accounts that Damian Benegas and Pat Falvey's team say they later received from Dorjee and Mingmar. Antezana was exhibiting the classic signs of cerebral edema: He was disoriented, unstable, his sight impaired, his movements reduced to stumbles. His group was at the Hillary Step, a 40-foot ridge down which climbers typically rappel on ropes to the bottom. Dorjee and Mingmar had to harness Antezana to a rope, then slowly lower him.

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