In the death zone, every step feels like lifting lead. Your heart rate is slower, your brain is sluggish. You are essentially slowly dying due to a lack of oxygen. The wind is picking up, the air whipping your face is -40 C or colder, and even though some climbers never return, you keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Victoria man Chris Dare stood on top of Mount Everest Thursday morning, completing his mission of climbing the seven summits, a task he started in 2009 after climbing Kilimanjaro while on break from active military duty in Afghanistan.
As he stood on top of the tallest peak in the world with his personal Sherpa guide, Nuru, the wind too strong to place the flags he had brought for photos, Dare teared up beneath his goggles.
“I didn’t tell anybody at the time, but I cried under my mask,” he told Black Press Media in a phone call from Everest base camp. “I had been working towards the seven summits for the last nine years and it finally dawned on me that I had made it. All the hard work had paid off … all the pain and suffering.”
And the pain and suffering were severe.
Many climbers in his five-person crew were injured, and one, who Dare identifies as Kevin in a Facebook post, died after returning to Camp 3, the final camp before the summit.
“I’m happy about the accomplishment but obviously it comes with a lot of tragedy and a lot of heartache,” Dare said. “A lot of teams had injuries, frostbite, death … We lost one, but we could have easily lost more.”
|A snapshot on the way to the top. One man from Chris Dare’s five-person crew will not be returning home, but Dare said there could have been more deaths – including his own – if not for the heroics of other climbers. (Facebook/Chris Dare)|
And Dare’s own summit placed his own life perilously close to death.
He described the ascent from Camp 3 to the summit as “the most dangerous and terrifying movement” he had ever experienced and said on the day he went up, two other climbers died attempting to cross a terrifying 20-centimetre wide ledge on the route to the top.
One of the biggest battles in summiting Everest is the almost total lack of oxygen – the ‘death zone’ is generally tagged at 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) and essentially means the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period of time.
In total, it would take 11.5 hours for Dare and Nuru to summit – a journey that typically takes six to nine hours – the extra hours depleting their oxygen supply.
And after months of training and preparing, Dare could only stand on the summit for 10 minutes.
“I forfeited a good summit photo and said ‘lets get out of here,’” he said. “As I was going down, I was getting more and more exhausted and going slower and slower.
It’s so bad that just putting one foot in front of the other and trying to concentrate on not falling is so mentally draining.”
The plan was to make it down as far as possible, but Dare was too exhausted to get past Camp 3 – which, at 8,300 metres, is still in the death zone – where supplemental oxygen is a necessity. But Dare and his Sherpa had given away their two extra oxygen cylinders. The pair, along with a third climber, spent the night sharing one oxygen tank, slowly freezing with frostbite taking over.
“At 8,300 metres, without bottled oxygen, it’s like breathing effectively seven per cent oxygen at sea level,” Dare said in a Facebook post after the summit. “Without oxygen not only are you gasping for breath constantly from the hypoxia, you can’t sleep and you start to develop frostbite extremely quickly.”
But the three made it through the night, mostly thanks to Nuru giving up his oxygen supply for the other two climbers. Eventually, days later, most of the crew had made it back to base camp.
|Along the north route, all climbing above camp 3 is in the ‘death zone,’ an altitude lacking sufficient oxygen to sustain human life for a long period of time. Despite using oxygen cylinders, climbers have a small window to make it to the top and down before they become sick from oxygen loss. (Facebook/Chris Dare)|
What really sticks out to Dare is the heroics he witnessed during the climb.
One woman named Kam, ran out of oxygen in her descent, and her Sherpa had to make the difficult decision to leave her behind in order to save his own life.
Upon hearing of Kam’s location, another climber, Rolfe, mounted a one-man rescue from Camp 3. With depleting oxygen, in a race against time, he located Kam, whose hands and fingers were “completely frozen in curled positions,” attached her to himself, and rappelled three pitches, dragging her to Camp 3.
“Kam would have surely died if Rolfe didn’t find and rescue her. Rolfe is a true hero,” Dare said.
When asked why he chose to climb seven death-defying peaks, Dare said he simply had to once he had made it his personal goal.
“I wrote a Facebook post in 2010 and I said, ‘I’m going to climb the seven summits before the end of my life and nothing is going to stop me,” he recalled. “I’ve never thought that failure could be an option.”
And Dare’s Everest summit wasn’t just about making it to the top. He has been fundraising for the B.C. Children’s Hospital through Summits of Hope and has so far raised more than $10,000.
All donations go directly to the hospital and are accepted online at summitsofhope.com.