The Wrath of Everest

The saying may not hold much meaning for lowlanders, but anyone who has faced the physical and mental challenges of climbing a mountain understands the adage: “You have a thousand reasons to turn back and only one to keep going.”

That single motivation may not be the same for every climber, but for many who attempt to scale the world’s most formidable peaks, a driving need to get to the top overpowers all else.

New Orleanian Chris Cannizzaro first felt the lure of the peaks in 2008 during his senior year at the University of Alabama. It came as an out-of-the-blue moment for a young man whose sports interests had mostly run toward swimming, baseball, soccer and the like. But when his college buddies began kicking around the idea of mountain climbing, something snapped in Cannizzaro’s mind.

“I was thinking that I’d like to do something big with my life, and just like that, I knew what it was going to be,” he says.

A legal career might seem the natural path for the son of New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr., and in fact, Chris Cannizzaro intended to follow that route. But as he neared completion of his undergraduate degree he began thinking that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to delay law school. Pursuing his new interest would require substantial training – and money – and he was pretty sure he couldn’t manage both while studying law.

The thing was, Cannizzaro hadn’t merely decided to climb a mountain. He had his eye on the tallest peak on earth: “I wanted to climb Mount Everest,” he says.

Clearly, the marshes and bayous of southern Louisiana present a less-than-ideal training ground for mountain climbing, so Cannizzaro began exploring his options. His longtime friend Andrew Hillery, also bitten by the climbing bug, had recently moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and he suggested Cannizzaro join him.

Cannizzaro didn’t have to think twice. “I graduated in December, and by January I was in L.A.,” he says.

The next two years became a frenzy of training and work. Cannizzaro spent a few months as a truck driver before landing a job selling dental supplies. His spunky personality and quick wit suited him for the work, and he began racking up bonuses that bolstered his climbing fund.

Swimming and running became part of his daily routine, and he used vacation time to enroll in a mountaineering school in Washington state, where he spent a few weeks climbing in the Cascade Range. Early in 2010, he and Hillery tackled their first big climb.

Aconcagua mountain in western Argentina ranks in the elite club known as the “seven summits,” the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. At just under 23,000 feet, the mountain isn’t a technically difficult climb, but the challenges posed by extreme cold and stormy winds on its peak are significant. Cannizzaro and Hillery saw it as a good test.

A morning in February found them hunkered down in base camp where the temperature was well below freezing. They had already hiked halfway up the mountain to drop off supplies. Now their guide informed them that a big storm was headed their way.

“Our options were to go up to the high camp and try for the summit, or go home,” Cannizzaro recalls. “We weren’t about to go home.”

They left camp the next morning and climbed for 12 hours before stopping to rest. The storm was closing in, but the team decided to continue. The climbers struggled as a fierce wind threw them off-balance and pelted their faces with ice.

They were bitterly cold and miserable, Cannizzaro recalls, but they pushed on and reached the summit. It was not a postcard moment. “People think you’re going to get up there and enjoy the view,” he says. “But once we got there, we couldn’t wait to leave.”

But the two friends had gotten what they came for: proof that they could do it. As they picked their way down the mountain, Cannizzaro was already looking ahead. “If I can do Aconcagua in those conditions, I can do Everest,” he thought. A day later he began arranging his trip.

Thin air
Like most climbers who approach Mount Everest, Cannizzaro had heard numerous accounts of harrowing events on the mountain. He knew that along with such threats as avalanches and the risk of falling into a crevasse, the sheer height of Everest makes it fraught with danger.

At elevations above 25,000 feet, the air holds about a third of the oxygen that people breathe at sea level and is extremely dry. Hypothermia and frostbite are constant worries, and many climbers go temporarily blind as the corneas of their eyes dry out in the frigid air.

Breathing this ultra-thin air reduces blood oxygen and can result in a condition called hypoxia. Dizziness, palpitations and nausea are common symptoms, but extreme cases can lead to pulmonary or cerebral edema, meaning capillaries in the lungs or brain are damaged and leak fluid into surrounding tissues.

“High-altitude climbing is dangerous, which is why you shouldn’t try it without [supplemental] oxygen,” says Peter Hackett, a physician and experienced climber who directs the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colo.

Hackett says nearly every climber experiences impaired brain functioning at extreme altitudes. “You’re slower to react, you may have trouble even completing a sentence because your oxygen level is so low,” he says.

Edema is the most common clinical cause of death among climbers, but sometimes the culprit is simple exhaustion, he says. “If you’ve spent every last ounce of energy to get to the top, you may not have anything left to get down.”

Even experienced climbers can sink into the “extreme lethargy” of altitude sickness, Fort Collins, Colo. mountaineer and writer Alan Arnette says.

“You’ll see people just lose the will to go on,” he says. “They’ll sit down on a rock and they’ll get that thousand-yard stare – that’s when you know they’re in trouble.”

Guides on Everest are brutally clear with climbers about what they’re up against. Climbers are told that if they should become incapacitated near the summit, there’s a strong chance they won’t come back down the mountain because the difficulty of a rescue and the risks it presents to others are too great.

Those who climb high enough get a grim view of the mountain’s legacy: The frozen bodies of more than 200 climbers who have died on Everest during the last half-century are scattered on the slopes, embedded in ice on the spots where they succumbed.

Despite the risks, throngs of hopeful climbers journey to Everest every year. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation reports that 3,448 climbers have stood atop Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first to reach the summit in 1953.

Alluring beauty
Today, the Himalayan range is likely as beautiful as it was all those decades ago. The towering mountains, which sprawl along the border between India and Asia, are blanketed in snow year-round. Mount Everest, which stands near the eastern end of the range, straddles the line between Nepal and Tibet, jutting through the clouds to a breathtaking 29,029 feet.

Because climbers need substantial time to adjust to Everest’s extreme elevation, a summit attempt can take two months or more. Unlike in Hillary’s time, a series of camps now line the mountain’s climbing route at 2,000-foot intervals, and climbers adjust gradually to the altitude by making a series of treks from base camp to a higher camp, staying overnight and then returning to base. A day or so later they retrace their steps, this time climbing to the next higher camp, resting, returning and so on, until they finally position at the highest camp on the mountain to tackle the summit.

Cannizzaro chose to make his climb from the north side of Everest, which is slightly more difficult than the southern route but has the advantage of road access to base camp.

His journey to Everest began on April 11, 2011, with a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. There he met up with the other seven members of his climbing team, which included six Russians and Irishman John Delaney. Veteran climber Noel Hanna, also from Ireland, joined the team to provide Delaney and Cannizzaro with an English-speaking guide, since the other climbers spoke only Russian.

The group spent a few days in Kathmandu before flying to Lhasa, Tibet, to begin an 18-hour drive across the Tibetan Plateau.

When they finally pulled into base camp, they met the rest of their team: a physician and eight Sherpas – strong, experienced mountaineers, who would accompany each of the climbers to the summit and help carry their gear and supplies.

Sherpas, an ethnic group native to eastern Nepal, have long played such a crucial role in climbing the Himalayas that they have become synonymous with high-altitude mountaineering. They are revered in some circles for their climbing skills and resiliency, and without them few climbers would set foot atop Everest.

Yet, as Cannizzaro would come to learn, despite their courage and stamina, Sherpas aren’t uniformly reliable.

Down time
Cannizzaro was almost two weeks into his Everest adventure when his team finally began its trek out of the 17,000-foot elevation of base camp. Climbing on this lower part of the mountain is mostly a matter of hiking over rocky terrain, the main challenge being altitude.

Eventually, the team positioned at 21,000 feet, but then, bad weather higher up forced them to cool their heels for several days. Four miles high, with nothing to do, Cannizzaro at least had more time to get to know his climbing partner.
He immediately liked Delaney, a sharp-minded businessman who had founded an online enterprise in Ireland that was gaining an international reputation. Delaney, 42, talked a little about his business, but he talked much more about his wife and two children, and the third child they were expecting.

Cannizzaro saw Delaney as the strongest climber on their team, and he liked following behind the lanky Irishman as they climbed, challenging himself to keep up. The two, along with their guide, Hanna, formed bonds that can be crucial during a climb. “We were joined at the hip,” Cannizzaro says.

When the team finally got the OK to push on, their crampons – clawlike metal devices that attach to boots – got a workout as they crossed a massive expanse of ice. As they reached 25,000 feet, it was time to strap on oxygen tanks and masks.

Cannizzaro now was climbing in the thinnest air he had ever experienced. He tried to use his supplemental oxygen conservatively, conscious that breathing would only get more difficult. The team bedded down for a bit at the next camp in an attempt to get a few hours of rest. Reclining in their tiny tent, surrounded by all their gear, Cannizzaro and Delaney needed their oxygen even for sleeping.

Figure in darkness
The trek toward the final camp before the summit consists mainly of “rock scrambles,” which means climbers use their hands for balance as they push across the rock. As they scrambled toward the final camp the next day, Cannizzaro was feeling pretty well, but he was surprised when he found himself passing Delaney on the trail.

“Chris, you’re climbing really well,” Delaney called through his oxygen mask.

“I told him thanks, but I didn’t mention that it seemed to me he was slowing down,” Cannizzaro recalls.

The team arrived at their highest camp at around 2 p.m. on May 20. Hanna was getting nervous about the summit-bound traffic accumulating behind them and said he wanted to be the first team out on the final leg.

“We’re going to summit at night,” he announced. “We’ll leave at 7 p.m. Everyone’s got five hours to rest.”

The Sherpas started a gas burner to boil water and cook some noodles. Everyone ate, drank water and tried to sleep. The sun still glowed in the sky as they prepared to leave camp at 7 p.m.

Cannizzaro was already ahead of the pack but irritated that he had to waste a half-hour of oxygen waiting for his Sherpa, who was late. The guide finally told Cannizzaro to go ahead and the Sherpa would catch up. “He had my extra tank of oxygen, so if he didn’t catch up, I was pretty much a sitting duck,” Cannizzaro says.

The Sherpa did arrive, and the team now was picking its way across a snow-covered ridge of ice. Hanna led the way, kicking footsteps into the ridge for the others to follow. His path was important. A misstep to either side could mean a thousand-foot fall.

As sunlight faded from the sky, Cannizzaro paused to swap his sunglasses for clear goggles, but for some reason, the goggles that were supposed to fit snugly were too loose. The goggles immediately fogged up, and he couldn’t keep them clear. He knew it was dangerous to go without eye protection, but he had to see.

“I had roughly six more hours to the summit, and I thought, ‘I can do it,’” he says.

Soon, the only light the climbers had came from the battery-powered headlamps strapped on their heads. As they sank into deep darkness, snow began to fall, and stiff winds whipped snow and ice in every direction. At a key juncture, the trail ended at a 30-foot vertical ice ladder, and everyone lined up to do a slow, careful climb, made difficult by the crampons.

Not far beyond the ladder, Cannizzaro recalls arriving at a foot-wide ledge where the only way to proceed was to lean close to the rock and inch along. Imagining what lay in the darkness off the ledge, he pushed his feet across the rock until he felt the surface widen out and he could stand straight. That was when he noticed a figure, standing immobile about 10 feet away.

He couldn’t tell who it was as he tried to shield his eyes from what seemed a blazing light from the person’s headlamp.

Then he heard one of the Sherpas shout that the summit was only minutes away. As he began scrambling in the direction of the Sherpa’s voice, Cannizzaro suddenly realized two things: He was losing his eyesight, and the statue-like figure he’d seen in the darkness was Delaney.

Night of terror
He bent low as he continued pushing over the snow, afraid that if he stood up he’d be blown into the abyss. In a few minutes he glimpsed flashes of light ahead, and he knew they came from cameras at the summit. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, there it is,” he says.

As Cannizzaro stepped to the top of Everest, Hanna reached for his hand and shouted congratulations. Then Hanna said: “I’m going to go check on John. I heard he’s not doing well.”

Cannizzaro lingered at the top for a few more minutes. It was pitch dark, his headlamp was fading and he was freezing. He had taken a New Orleans Saints flag and a few other items to photograph at the top of Everest, but now he couldn’t make his frostbitten fingers work even to open his bag. “Screw it,” he said to himself. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Still attached to the climbing ropes, he felt his way down from the summit. He was almost back to the ice ladder when he came upon Hanna and Delaney. “I could see Noel kind of struggling with John, and John was barely moving,” he says.

Hanna shouted at Delaney, trying to snap him to attention, and Cannizzaro chimed in. “John, you have a family; we’ve gotta go,” he screamed.

But Delaney didn’t respond. He just hunched over in the snow and stared ahead.

Finally, seeing that Cannizzaro was having problems too, Hanna ordered him to head down the mountain. “You’re running out of oxygen and there’s nothing you can do here,” he said.

Cannizzaro felt his way toward the ladder, and just as he got there, his Sherpa appeared. The Sherpa jumped past him to the ladder and scrambled down. “He ran off with my last tank of oxygen,” Cannizzaro says. “He thought I was going to die.”
The next 24 hours became a blur for the young climber. At some point, Hanna caught up with him and told him that Delaney had died about 150 feet from the summit. Cannizzaro, who now was virtually blind, could hardly believe it, and thought that he, too, might collapse.

But by following Hanna’s voice commands and staying close to the guide, he made it down to the highest camp, where a Sherpa gave him sips of tea before they continued on. At about 24,000 feet, Hanna went ahead to help others, leaving Cannizzaro in the hands of the Russian expedition leader and Sherpas.

Exhausted, Cannizzaro begged them to let him stay in camp and sleep, but the leader, who had once seen a man die in similar circumstances, refused. He attached a harness to the climber and forced him to continue down the mountain, stumbling, sliding and gripping ropes through the next 3,000 feet.

Cannizzaro reached the relative safety of advanced base camp at 1 a.m., 23 hours after making the summit. “It was 23 hours of blind struggle,” he says. It was the most frightening experience of his life.

By the time Cannizzaro left Everest’s north base camp four days later, his sight had returned and antibiotic injections were bringing his fingers back from frostbite. Like many who have spent treacherous weeks on Everest, he was experiencing a new appreciation of moist, oxygen-rich air. But he was still stunned that Delaney hadn’t made it and that he remained on the mountain, thousands of feet above.

Back to the bayou
During the ride back to Kathmandu and the flight to Los Angeles, Cannizzaro had time to reflect on the journey. He was glad to have reached the summit of Everest, but it didn’t matter as much as he had expected. “Mostly, I was happy to be alive,” he says.

Once back in the United States, he says he couldn’t wait to return to New Orleans. And finally, he was ready to start law school. These days, Cannizzaro – who may be the only native New Orleanian to touch the summit of Mount Everest – spends most of his time studying and attending classes at Loyola University, but his interest in climbing remains alive.
He isn’t sure whether he’ll ever attempt Everest again, but he’s ready to tackle tamer peaks. He has arranged to meet up with Hanna in Russia this summer, and they plan to climb the 18,000-foot Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

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