Thursday, July 12, 2012
On the way up Mount Everest, 29,029 feet into the remote reaches of human survivability, s*** happens.
Life-and-death dramas ranging from avalanche to embolism become companions – and famously so in a year like 2012, when conditions and crowds conspired to create a season surpassed in deadliness only by a disastrous 1996 immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
But more s*** comes with it: As climbers aim to acclimate, yak dung takes up an intimacy in their existence. One poorly timed bout with diarrhea can forfeit months of training and sacrifice – and an average investment of $50,000.
Those were two of the many revelations Carmel’s Jef Field, 39, an anesthesiologist at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, found in the cold, dry air of the highest Himalayas. His attempt, meanwhile, represented a revelation for me, too: I thought Field, who I’ve known for a few years, had enough adventure going on already. He mountain bikes and road cycles, trail runs and rock climbs, surfs and kayaks. Relentlessly.
“ARE YOU WORRIED YOUR HUSBAND IS GOING TO DIE?”
His wife of a year and a half, Jenny, cited that adventurous appetite when asked repeatedly, “Are you worried your husband is going to die?”
“I’d say, ‘You don’t know Jef,’” she remembers.
Calls from base camp – which came between increasingly soaring climbs up the sequence of five camps – helped any worries. “I got better cell coverage in base camp than in Carmel,” Field says.
Another irony: From 7,600 miles away, Jenny could provide an avalanche of info Jef couldn’t find nearby: “She could give me updates I hadn’t heard.”
Field had expected to deploy his medical training – though maybe not with a professional altitude climber like National Geographic’s Corey Richards, who he recommended head down the mountain with what looked like pulmonary embolism. But he hadn’t expected to face mortality so much.
All told 11 passed – and it just wasn’t how many, but who. Before summiting efforts began, three Sherpas died over several days. “The Sherpa community felt something was amiss,” wrote Everest blogger Alan Arnette. High-altitude legend Russell Brice lost one, and shocked the community when he pulled his 100-person expedition off the mountain.
Field saw frozen corpses left behind – from 2012 and earlier – because extraction was too tricky. “We were seeing dead people,” he says.
A day after he treated Richards, an avalanche thundered between Camp One and Camp Two, miraculously smacking only one trekker – a Sherpa – with its bowling ball ice boulders. (He was rescued from a crevasse.)
“I wasn’t there when it happened,” Field says, “but it’s kind of an accepted risk.” Still, it was enough for a surgeon friend – who had helped treat Richards – to rejoin his young family in San Francisco.
More intrigue awaited. At times bottlenecks on the upper trail – thanks to fierce weather that shortened the summiting season to a fraction of its normal length – meant Field had to reach around slower climbers (around 500 made it). The effort included unclipping from a line that helped keep him from tumbling 5,000 feet a step away. “Traffic jams,” he says. “There’s not room for two routes. And there’s not a protocol.”
The Khumbu Ice Fall past Base Camp is such a swarm of ladders, chasms and exposure there’s no added intrigue needed. “It’s insane,” Field says. “You come off the summit, but you’re not finished. So many things can happen to you that there’s nothing you can do about it. You almost have to surrender yourself.”
Then there’s the yak crap. In the absence of trees, there’s not much locals have to burn for warmth. Field thinks that the smoke and dust – plus air so dry he would wake up with his tongue aching – contributed to a “Khumbu cough” that for a spell had him sputtering at every fourth word.
The diahrrea hit one of his strongest climbing companions during their push to the summit. That something as pedestrian as the runs could ruin the massive mission speaks to the greatest challenge: The dangerous thing isn’t the paucity of oxygen, the paralyzing cold, the dry air or the maddening waits. It’s the cumulative pressure of all of them at once.
“People never would’ve thought a simple GI illness would end a summit bid,” Field says. “But up there, the clock’s always ticking, with not much margin for making up lost time.”
Field pressed on, reaching the top at 3am May 25, strapped to oxygen tanks and bundled to ward off 42-under chills. His wife pressed her mouse.
“The day he summited,” she says, “I hit refresh over and over waiting for the blog to post his name as a summiter.”
Now back after a 60-day epic, with his ruby-red ice boots at rest, his wife by his side, Field appears at peace: “It gave me a feeling like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,” he says. “‘No place like home.’”