Everyone has an Everest, real or imaginary

Fort Lewis College camp coach talks about triumph, tragedy on planet’s highest peak

Some of the kids didn’t believe it, and can you blame them?

At the Skyhawk Basketball Camp last week at Fort Lewis College, grade-schoolers were told that one of their camp coaches had just climbed Mount Everest.

Yeah, right.

But it was true. In fact, Jon Kedrowski and others navigating the Earth’s highest spot had made worldwide news for the tragedy and heroics that occurred May 18-20. Four people died on the crowded South Col route as 200 climbers jammed the summit trail during the season’s first window of decent weather.

During a lunch break Tuesday, just 10 days after he’d reached the top of the world, the former all-Colorado basketball player sat in the office of FLC men’s assistant coach Bob Pietrack – his high school teammate and best friend. Kedrowski talked about his Everest expedition and his new book, and he explained why Pietrack now owes him a Fourteener.

As you must know by now, the Khumbu Valley gets a lot of action in May. A huge problem – chronicled most famously in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a day in 1996 when eight climbers died – is overcrowding on the Everest summit route.

On the evening of May 18, about 200 took off from Camp IV toward the summit, a number many Everest observers believe was unprecedented.

Kedrowski was not among them. He and his team members left the next evening at 8:30 p.m. While snapping photos a couple hours before their departure, he spotted climbers up above.

“It’s too early. Why are people up there?” he wondered. Then he realized they were people who’d left camp a day ago. “They were all descending.”

Several factors had combined to create a dangerous situation. Among them: a relatively low experience level, higher-than-expected winds and crowding that reportedly caused bottlenecks of 2 hours high on the mountain.

Climbers sat in lines near the Hillary Step, at two places where single-file is the only reasonable method of travel. While waiting, they grew cold and some exhausted their precious supply of oxygen.

“When they do run out (of oxygen), then it’s like a drug,” Kedrowski says. “The drug runs out and they just completely crash.”

As Kedrowski and team climbed, they began to see descending stragglers in dire straits. They encountered a Canadian woman, a native of Nepal, who was struggling along with the aid of two sherpas. (They learned later she died.) It was windy and conditions deteriorated. They got to about 28,100 feet, less than 1,000 feet from the 29,035-foot summit, and aborted at about 3 a.m.

“When I turned around to come down, that’s when the carnage kind of began of finding these bodies, people who’d collapsed.”

On a ramp that leads down to what’s called The Balcony (27,300 feet), Kedrowski helped a man whose hypothermia had caused him to toss off his hat and gloves. Kedrowski found one glove and tried to put it on the man’s hand.

“As soon as he touched it he kind of looked at it and just threw it away. Then he kind of looked at me. But his face was real grotesque and frozen. And that’s when I realized, ‘I can’t help him.’”

His order of priorities: 1) Make sure he was safe. 2) Help his teammates. 3) Help anyone else.

He continued down and helped Summit climb teammate Sandra, who had run out of oxygen and was nearly passed out. He made sure she got back down the mountain to her tent at the South Col with a fresh bottle of oxygen.

He aided two other teammates, one who’d suffered frostbite of his cornea and was disoriented and one who’d lost a crampon, fallen on the ice and broken a rib.

Kedrowski also helped teammate David O’Brien tend to a Polish man who was conscious, but unable to stand. With a sherpa, they dragged and carried the man back to the South Col.

As helicopters came to clear off the badly injured, Kedrowski descended to reacclimate.

“I’m pretty tired,” he told Pietrack two days later by satellite phone from Base Camp.

Pietrack had vowed that if Kedrowski scaled Everest, he’d climb a Colorado Fourteener with him. Pietrack had been following his Eagle Valley High School classmate by blog and the rare personal phone call. After hearing reports of death and mayhem on the mountain, Pietrack assumed he was off the hook for the Fourteener. Also, it was the first time Pietrack had ever heard his friend say he was tired. Did that mean his Everest attempt was done?

“I’m 90 percent sure I’m going (back up),” Kedrowski told him.

Kedrowski tried again May 25 with the next good weather window. On summit day, he and Jangbu Sherpa raced ahead of 75 or so others. With a clear path and modest wind, they made the top by 3:30 a.m. By 4 a.m. it was light enough to get some decent photos, then the two headed down.

“It was uneventful. That’s the kind of day you want,” Kedrowski says. “And if that happens nobody cares. When a bunch of people die, then people start calling you.”

In all, on the north and south routes, 10 climbers or sherpas died this May from a variety of accidents and medical problems exacerbated by the high altitude and accompanying scarcity of oxygen. An estimated 548 reached the summit (from expedition tracker Alan Arnette’s blog), mostly from commercially guided trips.

Kedrowski is a veteran of 14 ascents of Washington’s Mount Rainier (14,411 feet). Last summer, in a three-month span, he spent the night atop all 55 Colorado Fourteeners – that’s the subject of his about-to-be-released book, Sleeping on the Summits: Colorado Fourteener High Bivys. But even experienced climbers such as Kedrowski aren’t quite sure what the answer is to preventing future disasters on Everest. He leans toward a limit, but wonders if better coordination of those headed to the summit might be enough.

What the 33-year-old with the doctorate in environmental geography from Texas State University does know, after taking samples in two villages and two climbers camps, is that water quality in the Khumbu Valley is suffering. Most sources he tested had E. coli and fecal coliform 5 to 20 times the acceptable Environmental Protection Agency levels.

Kedrowski has a busy summer ahead – publicizing his book, consulting, guest speaking, coaching basketball camps. Next year, he’s scheduled to join expeditions to Gasherbrum I and II in the Himalayas of Pakistan.

Pietrack and men’s head basketball coach Bob Hofman use Kedrowski’s achievements to motivate themselves and the young basketball campers, who finally swallowed Kedrowski’s story when he revealed Nepalese rupees.

“It’s amazing how people can inspire you to meet your goals,” Pietrack says. It prompts you to believe, “Maybe I can conquer my Mount Everest.”

johnp@durangoherald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

A long line of climbers ascends the Hillary Step, at 28,840 feet on Mount Everest. Jon Kedrowski took this after ascending from the summit on the early morning of May 26. Enlarge photo

Photo courtesy of Jon Kedrowski

A long line of climbers ascends the Hillary Step, at 28,840 feet on Mount Everest. Jon Kedrowski took this after ascending from the summit on the early morning of May 26.