The Story Behind Another Deadly Year on Everest


Some outfitters only accept clients for Everest expeditions who have already climbed a 6,000-meter peak. "But some people lie to us and don't admit that they have little experience in high mountains. There isn't anything we can do about that. In the end, we simply have to trust them," says Dawa Steven Sherpa, the head of Asian Trekking, one of the biggest agencies in Kathmandu.

Dawa Steven had no concerns about the two German climbers who had contacted Asian Trekking and arrived in Kathmandu in early April. Eberhard Schaaf, 61, a sports doctor from the western city of Aachen, and Paul Thelen, 68, a management consultant from nearby Wüselen, made a good impression. They were sophisticated men, in good shape and looking for adventure. Schaaf, a wiry man with a full beard, used to run marathons and even did 200-kilometer ultra-marathons. They were experienced mountain climbers. Thelen and Schaaf wanted to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. They had already been to the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Aconcagua in Argentina. Now, they wanted to take on Mt. Everest.

Thelen and Schaaf were sponsored by a German brand of food supplements called Doppelherz and had prepared well for Everest. They ran stairs at an abandoned factory -- 500 steps, ascending 80 meters -- carrying backpacks filled with soft-drink bottles and canned goods. On the deck in Thelen's yard, they arranged aluminum ladders to span between tables and climbed across them with climbing boots and crampons. This was to prepare for the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, where climbers have to cross giant crevices on ladders.

To test their thermal underwear, they had themselves locked into an indoor ski slope in the Netherlands, where they spent the night in a tent at minus 5 degrees Celsius. They performed regular lactate tests and stress EKGs, and for an entire year they took fresh water algae supplements, which are supposed to strengthen the immune system.

A Prosthetic Arm with a Built-In Ice Axe

For both men, Everest was the ultimate challenge. On April 7, they left for base camp, located in a national park 320 kilometers from Kathmandu, at an altitude of 5,365 meters. At the camp, there are hundreds of tents set up in an area of about one square kilometer. There is a medical station in the middle, there is cell phone reception, and in some of the food tents, guests are handed moist napkins after their meal.

There were about 900 people staying at the camp in late April. They included professional athletes like Swiss high-mountain climber Ueli Steck, as well as alpinist Simone Moro. For the last three years, Moro has had a second job as a helicopter pilot, and he has built himself a landing pad near the base camp. He picks up climbers from Everest who have had accidents. For the business, he obtained a Nepalese pilot's license and uses a Eurocopter AS-350 B3, with an 850-horsepower engine. Business is good.

Some 90 percent of the mountain climbers at the base camp were amateur alpinists. And, as usual, there were several would-be record-breakers in the group. They included a 16-year-old Nepalese girl who hoped to be the youngest woman to climb Everest, as well as a 73-year-old Japanese woman who wanted to go down in history as the oldest woman to climb the mountain. There was also a former soldier in the British army who had lost his left arm in Afghanistan. He had had a specialized, carbon-fiber prosthetic arm with a built-in ice axe.

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