At the top of the world
From the print edition
At 8:20 p.m. on May 24, Warner Rojas set out from Camp 4 on the southern face of Mt. Everest to become the first Costa Rican to stand atop the world’s highest summit.
He and his team of Nepali sherpas and foreign climbers led by David Hamilton of Jagged Globe Expeditions started climbing that morning at 6 a.m. and spent the afternoon resting at Camp 4, 7,950 meters (26,000 feet) above sea level.
“We tried to sleep but it was impossible,” Rojas, 40, told The Tico Times in an interview in San José this week. “The whole team was anxious to leave.”
Rojas ate two small cans of tuna and a granola bar and tried to drink as much water as he could.
At 7:30 a.m., the team started preparing to climb again. When they left at 8:20, they had 898 meters (2,900 feet) left to climb.
“After about two and half hours of climbing, we encountered the first bodies,” Rojas said.
The bodies were those of Chinese and Canadian climbers who died a week before at nearly 8,200 meters (26,900 feet) – two of 10 fatalities on Everest this year.
“After that, beside the trail there were two more bodies of two people who had been dead a few years,” Rojas said.
Above 8,000 meters, the human body is essentially dying with every step. Low atmospheric pressure means oxygen molecules are more widely dispersed in the air and each breath is a struggle to collect enough of those molecules for lungs to push into the bloodstream. Swelling of the brain and fluid buildup in the lungs are common at these altitudes and can quickly become fatal, as can cold and exhaustion.
When someone dies on Mt. Everest, it becomes costly and dangerous to retrieve the body. Many remain where they fall, mummified by the dry air and sub-zero temperatures. Of the second pair of bodies Rojas’ team encountered, one had been reduced by stinging winds and time to little more than half a corpse.
Another 100 meters above, the team encountered the body of a South Korean climber still clipped to fixed ropes teams use for safety when heading for the summit.
“You could see his face, how he died there, and you had to unclip yourself from the rope and step around him and clip back in,” Rojas said.
“On the morning of May 19, I told David [Hamilton] that I would accept whatever decision he made,” Rojas recalled.
An accident in which a sherpa from the Jagged Globe team was injured a few days earlier had set the team back some 24 hours. When team leader Hamilton was making the decision whether to make a push from Camp 3 for the summit in a window of good weather projected for May 20, team members knew they might not get another chance.
Stacks of other climbers were staged at Camps 2 and 4, waiting to make for the top of the world. Hamilton decided to turn back.
“It hurt,” Rojas said. “Honestly, it hurt to the point of tears, tears of anger and frustration, to know that I couldn’t go up that mountain, and that so many other people were going to try. That was the emotional part of me.”
At the moment Hamilton made the decision to head down, there were more than 700 climbers and sherpas on the route, according to Everest blogger Alan Arnette. Bottlenecks of climbers at critical points on the South Col Route, which the Jagged Globe team was on, can cause long delays at places where the climbing becomes more technical and slow.
Time is a critical element in a summit bid on Everest. Arriving at the peak early in the morning is considered the safest strategy, as afternoon storms on the mountain can turn deadly for exhausted climbers trying to make their way back down.
“The rational part of me said, ‘You can’t go up because, one, the weather, and two, there are too many people, which can cause death for sure,’” Rojas said.
Balancing emotion and a clear head is important in the big mountains, and Rojas said he knows how to make appropriate decisions for himself. His wife, he said, told him she feels more worried when he leaves their home in Escazú to go into San José than when he was on Everest.
“I had promised her,” he remembered, “that I wouldn’t put my life in danger, that in whatever moment I encountered any type of danger, I would turn around.”
The day after the team returned to base camp, Hamilton called them together and gave the news of what had happened on the route to the summit: As many as 11 people were either missing, injured or confirmed dead on the mountain.
Later, that number would drop to 10 when a climber feared dead after spending the night stranded on the mountain was discovered alive.
Light on the Horizon
At about 1:30 a.m. on May 25, Warner and the sherpa climbing with him stopped between points on the route known as the Balcony and the South Summit, which is not quite the true summit. They rested and replaced their empty bottles of supplemental oxygen with new ones.
Around 4:30 a.m., the sun began to brighten the horizon beyond the Himalayas.
“It was an important psychological relief,” Rojas said. “To be climbing and to see the sun.”
An hour later, they reached the South Summit, and Rojas couldn’t feel his feet.
Beyond the South Summit climbers face a knife-edge ridge with a 50-degree slope to one side and a 2,400-meter (7,900 feet) sheer drop on the other.
Rojas now faced his own decision. His biggest fear, he said, had always been that his feet would freeze, leaving him incapacitated.
“When I arrived at the South Summit, I couldn’t feel my feet, but I also knew that I had to go on. From that point, nobody can bring me down if I my feet are frozen and I can’t walk.”
Rojas and his sherpa had made good time and were ahead of the other members of the Jagged Globe team. They had oxygen and they had enough time, barring any accidents, to reach the summit and then start the descent.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to turn around from the South Summit,” Rojas said. “I would go down from the true summit.”
At 5:56 a.m. on Saturday, May 25, Warner Rojas became the first Costa Rican to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
“We took about 10 minutes on the summit,” Rojas said. “My camera didn’t work, but my sherpa had one. There was a lot of wind and it was very cold. I couldn’t feel my toes. They were frozen.”
They headed down the mountain, stopping at Camp 4 to rest and for Rojas to use a satellite phone to call his wife and give her the news that he reached the summit and was in good health for the descent.
Also, thankfully, his toes thawed.
“Uncomfortable,” is how Rojas responds when asked how he feels to be recognized by Ticos who consider him a hero.
Some 200 people gave him a full hero’s welcome in his hometown of San Antonio de Escazú, southwest of San José, on Friday, June 8.
A band played and gigantes danced when he arrived at the San Antonio park from Juan Santamaría International Airport.
Rojas doesn’t drive. He rides the bus, and now the world recognizes him, even on public transportation.
“I appreciate it,” he said, blushing. “But I’m generally very shy.”
He is enjoying spending time with his wife and two sons. His youngest son turned 1 on May 6, a day Rojas spent acclimatizing at Camp 3 at 7,200 meters (23,600 feet). At that point, it was the highest he’d ever been. He sang “Happy Birthday” to his son over a satellite phone.
Rojas is getting back to work, too, planning hikes with his company, Pico Tours. But he’s also thinking about the next challenge.
It’s a toss-up between trying to focus on climbing the tallest peak on each of the world’s continents – he’s already climbed two, Everest and Aconcagua in South America – or trying to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, of which he’s already climbed one – Everest.
“You have to look for ways to make things happen,” the Tico mountaineer said, when asked what advice he would give other aspiring Costa Rican climbers. “You have to have discipline and be constant, and you have to train. And you have to love what you do.”
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