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Rojas makes final push for Everest

From the print edition

An accident Thursday morning could derail Warner Rojas’ plan to become the first Costa Rican to stand at the top of the world. 

A Wednesday update on Rojas’ Facebook page indicated the Tico mountaineer, climbing with a team of seven and a guide outfitted by Jagged Globe, an expedition company, are camped at 6,400 meters on Mount Everest’s south face, waiting for a window of good weather to make a summit attempt on Saturday.

But in a Thursday morning Facebook update, trip leader Dave Hamilton reported that one of the team’s porters had been injured by falling ice and was evacuated. 

The accident set the team back about 24 hours, and they may miss their window of good weather over the weekend. 

Rojas, 39, arrived in Nepal in late March and spent April acclimatizing to the extreme cold and high altitude of the Himalaya’s biggest rock. Acclimatizing included climbing as high as Camp 3, which sits at 7,200 meters above sea level. Rojas spent a night at Camp 3 in early May to let his body adjust to the low atmospheric pressure, which makes getting enough oxygen into the bloodstream difficult.

The night at Camp 3 marked a personal altitude record for Rojas. Afterwards, he returned to Base Camp, at 5,350 meters, to rest and wait for an opportunity to make a bid for the highest point on Earth: the 8,848-meter summit of Mount Everest. 

Jeff Jackson, editor of Rock and Ice Magazine, said Rojas is on Everest in the middle of a climbing season defined by abnormal and dangerous conditions.

“The biggest stumbling blocks have been the winds and the constant rockfall that’s been coming down, due to the very dry season that they’ve been having,” Jackson said. “There’s not a lot of snow holding the rocks in place … and there was a big avalanche that swept across the trail from Camp 1 to Camp 2.”

In that avalanche, a sherpa – local guides who work as porters and rope-setters for climbers on Everest – was swept into a crevasse but survived, Jackson said. 

The dangerous conditions prompted Russell Brice, a seasoned Everest guide with the Himalayan Experience outfitting company, to cancel his expedition for the year, meaning about 100 clients who paid some $55,000 each for a shot at the world’s tallest peak will not get their chance.

“There’s a lot of really good reasons for him to have pulled these people out,” Jackson said. “Because of the danger of avalanche and icefall, … Warner’s there at a dangerous time.”

Rojas is already past the Khumbu Icefall, the moving head of Khumbu Glacier that sits between Base Camp and Camp 1. This is considered one of the most dangerous parts of an attempt on Everest’s south face due to falling rocks, crumbling ice and crevasses that can open without warning as the glacier moves.

 The upper stretches of the route – from Camp 2 to Camp 4 and on to the summit – present a different set of risks including high winds and complications due to high numbers of climbers on the route.

Mount Everest blogger Alan Arnette reported there are currently 32 teams, 337 climbers and more than 400 sherpas on the route. 

Rojas and his team are betting on a window of good weather, such as a lull in the high winds that have buffeted the mountain all season, to make their attempt. The window was predicted to start on Thursday and last through the weekend. According to Rojas’ Facebook updates and Arnette’s Everest blog, this window will allow teams of sherpas to head to the summit on Friday while fixing ropes to the top that climbers will use for protection on their summit bids, which are planned for Saturday. 

Fixed ropes are crucial for ascending past the Hillary Step, a 12-meter slab of vertical rock just before the summit considered the last major technical challenge of the route. Hillary Step is named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Mt. Everest, with his sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. 

The number of climbers vying for the top can make things dicey at Hillary Step, Jackson explained.

“With a season like this, where there’s going to be limited weather windows for summiting, there could be a logjam,” he said. “And there often is, especially at places like the Hillary Step, where climbing is more technical, [and] where it steepens out and people slow down.”

A bottleneck at the Hillary Step in 1996 led to climbers arriving at the summit later in the day than is normally advisable, as chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air.” Upon their descent, groups of climbers were caught by a storm that ultimately resulted in eight deaths.

“There are yearly problems with bottlenecks forming so that slower climbers hold up everybody else, and it just takes a long time to negotiate the fixed ropes,” Jackson said. “When you have just one line to the summit, everybody has to use those ropes.”

At this point in the expedition, factors that could derail Rojas’ aspirations are numerous. 

Arnette described on his blog the mental game Rojas is likely experiencing while waiting for the weather to break: “For those now sitting at one of the high camps, every time they hear a tent wall move or a puff of strong wind, their ears perk, they glance around and wonder if the wind is picking up or dying down. Their entire lives are in the hands of Mother Nature, and they are helpless.”

Altitude sickness is a constant threat. Low atmospheric pressure at extreme altitudes means the concentration of oxygen in the air is much lower, making every breath less efficient.

That low pressure also causes fluid to leak out of a body’s capillaries and tissues, resulting in congested lugs and brain swelling, both of which can turn fatal.

In 2008, Gineth Soto, who attempted to become the first Costa Rican to stand on the summit, reached Camp 3, but was forced to turn back when temperatures plummeted and she developed a troubling cough. Soto attempted the feat a second time in 2011, but again turned back.

“You will never acclimatize,” said Jackson, who has climbed peaks up to 6,000 meters. “No matter how long you stay at that altitude, you’re just feeling like you’re totally beat down, like the worst flu you’ve ever experienced.” 

Altitudes above 8,000 meters are referred to the as the “death zone,” where oxygen concentration is too low for human beings to survive for extended periods of time.

Rojas is likely experiencing daily headaches, lethargy and a hacking cough that are de rigueur at high altitudes.

“This current plan is dependent on the ropes being fixed to the summit, which is due to happen on Friday, 18 May,” Rojas posted Wednesday. “The plan is subject to change, depending on the weather forecast, but the team will be poised in Camp 2 later today and ready to go when it looks like there is a good enough window of opportunity.”

Thursday’s accident highlights the uncertainty of Himalayan expeditions. 

A second window of good weather is predicted to open up again on May 25, meaning that even if Saturday’s summit bid is derailed, Rojas could have another shot at reaching the top.

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