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Triangle Filmmaker Survives “Summer Of Death” On Mt. Everest

Photo: Triangle filmmaker Allan Smith (left) and climber Bill Burke. Courtesy of Allan Smith.

By The Raleigh Telegram

CARY – Local filmmaker and adventurer Allan Smith survived a terrifying but unique experience this past summer as he filmed an expedition trying to make a record climb to the top of Mt. Everest.  By the end of the summer, 10 people had died on the world’s tallest mountain, including one of the members of Smith’s group, a German doctor who perished on the mountain and is still there.

Smith, age 51, is a former child actor, US Marine veteran, and is currently a professional filmmaker who now operates out of California but still has property and family here in the Triangle after living here for many years.

His two sons call the Triangle home and Smith met with The Raleigh Telegram during his holiday to share some photos and stories from his Mt. Everest experiences.

Smith’s DreamQuest Productions was hired to film the exploits of veteran mountain climber and attorney Bill Burke of California.  Burke was the oldest American to climb the mountain three years ago at age 67 and he has climbed the highest peak on all seven continents across the globe.  For this documentary, Burke was attempting to summit the mountain again at age 70 from both the north and south faces of the mountain to set a record.  The film which will be released this coming April is called “Eight Summits: The Bill Burke Story.”

However, as Smith told us, the trip turned out to be a deadly one and this year saw the third highest body count of climbers for any year at Mt. Everest.  Ten people died from falls, medical conditions, or other calamities on the mountain.

KATHMANDU

After working with a personal trainer for six months before the expedition, and flying halfway around the world, Smith and his group arrived in the legendary city of Kathmandu, Nepal.

They then flew from there to the short runway higher up in the mountains known as Lukla Airport, which has been rated the most dangerous airport in the world due to a 6,000 foot drop at the end of the runway.

Landing in Lukla got them closer to Mt. Everest, but they still had a ways to go before they could begin their climb.

“You grab all your gear and walk up 35 miles,” said Smith.  ”It’s a brutal seven day trek.”

However, Smith said that the hike through the valley to Everest was certainly worth the trip.

“It’s one of the most beautiful valleys, the Kumbu,” he said.  ”You see yak herders and other local people there.”

At the end of the week long hike, Smith said that they saw Everest towering above them and the experience was surreal.

“The first time you see Everest, it takes your breath away,” said Smith.  ”The most surprising thing is that you are actually there.”

REACHING BASE CAMP

The Himalayas are often called the rooftops of the world and even being at the base camp involves high altitudes.  The base camp at Mount Everest is at an altitude of 17,500 feet.  Compare that altitude to Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina which stands at only 6,683 feet even though it is the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains.

Just like Mt. Mitchell where wind gusts have been recorded as high as 178 miles per hour, wind is a concern on Mt. Everest as well.  Storms can often blow in and although weather prediction has improved greatly over the past few years, the extreme nature of the weather there is a factor.

Smith says that shortly after arriving at the base camp, one of the sherpas in the camp died of pulmonary edema, which is caused by the high altitude.

“That was kind of a wake up call,” said Smith.

Smith said that getting used to the high altitude is the hardest thing to do and that it’s not an easy transition, even if you’ve been on the mountain for a while.

“You wake up in a tent and you start hyperventilating because of a lack of oxygen,” said Smith.  ”It scares the sh** out of you.”

At Camp One, further up the mountain, many people came perilously close to getting killed in an avalanche, but Smith said that luckily no one was hurt.

“The tents and everything got blown away,” he said.  ”No one died in that avalanche surprisingly.”

PROBLEMS ON THE MOUNTAIN

According to Smith, there were several problems on the mountain this year that contributed to the unusual number of deaths and made it harder to summit.

The weather was warmer than usual, making some areas more dangerous to climb and the melting surfaces meant it was harder to anchor ropes in some areas.  Smith said that it made the installation of rope lines in certain areas of the mountain take longer than usual.

As a result, when the lines were finally put in and the weather cleared, there was a mass rush of people trying to complete the climb from base camp.

It’s hard to believe that there could be a traffic jam on Mt. Everest, but Smith said that is exactly what happened.

“After that point, it was a traffic jam,” said Smith.  ”Once they opened the lines, everybody went for it.”

Smith said at certain points, there were around 150 people at one time waiting in line on the side of the mountain, not counting the sherpas.  He has photos of large lines of people on Everest, despite a perception back home that a climb typically is a lonely affair with few people around.

One big bottleneck was the Hillary Step, where only one climber can pass through at a time.  Smith says he feels that climbers having to wait there for hours at a time exposing them to harsh conditions and altitude longer than necessary could have contributed to the large number of deaths by climbers this year.

“You’re standing there not moving, getting cold and frost bit,” said Smith.  ”They’re so close, they don’t want to turn back.”

DEATH ON THE MOUNTAIN

Many of the climbers who died this year had already reached the summit and were on their way back down when they died.  One of those who died was in Smith’s expedition group.

Dr. Eberhard Schaaf of Germany was found dead after he had reached the top of the mountain and was on his way back down.  According to Smith, his co-climbers said that Dr. Schaaf was exhibiting signs of cerebral edema or swelling of the brain caused by altitude sickness.   

“He came down [from the summit] and died,” said Smith.  ”They had to leave him on the mountain.”

According to an article in Outside Magazine, his body was found by climbers on the way up who had to cut him from a rope where he was found dangling, as he was blocking the path.  His body is still there.

Smith said seeing bodies on Mt. Everest is not uncommon and in fact, some of the frozen bodies of past climbers are used as landmarks on the way up.

“I don’t know the exact count but it’s quite a few,” he said.  ”You can still seem them there, they are part of the map.”

According to a climber’s blog, there are probably over 200 people who have climbed Mount Everest whose bodies still remain frozen in place at the top of the world.

“Around 225 climbers have died on Everest since 1953 with about 3,700 individuals standing on the summit,” says climber Alan Arnette in a researched article on the topic on his blog.  ”The vast majority of the dead are still there.”

The bodies are not left there as a matter of disrespect, but as a matter of logistics.  Conditions on the mountain make the removal of bodies a daunting task. Weather is always a factor and often climbers are frozen into place.  Those who fall can be located in hard to reach locations such as at the bottom of a cravasse, making recovery dangerous if not impossible.

Often fellow climbers are in no condition to remove the bodies themselves as they are often oxygen deprived and exhausted after being at the top. According to various reports, climbers most often die after they have reached the top and are on their way down.  At that point, the climbers have been exposed to the altitude and cold for long periods of time or are out of oxygen.

Leaving the dead on the mountain is part of the mountain’s culture and although it may be morbid, it is the reality.  However, taking photos of bodies is discouraged and sherpas and others often will try to cover the bodies as best they can when weather conditions permit it.

SOCIAL CLIMBERS

Although not talking about any one individual in particular, Smith said that the large number of deaths this year may also be due to the fact that anyone — regardless of training, experience, or fitness level can climb Mount Everest.

“One of the things I learned about Everest is that people climb Everest to put a notch on their belt,” said Smith.  ”Many are inexperienced and pay to play which I find unfortunate.”

People pay big money to climb the mountain — anywhere from $50,000 on the low end to around $100,000 for the high end guides.  As a result, a lot of professionals are on the mountain who have lots of money but no real climbing experience or knowledge of the adverse conditions.

And Nepal’s government doesn’t seem ready to start deciding who can go and who can’t go up the mountain in terms of issuing climb permits or requiring guide companies to have standards for their clients.  The country badly needs the tourism revenue and is not likely to start turning down lots of cash by foreign tourists.

“”There are no real checks and balances on Everest,” said Smith.   “If you have the money, you can go.”

Smith says that despite being in good shape, there’s not much you can do if you succumb to problems with altitude.  At the peak, you’re over 29,029 feet up or almost six miles above sea level.  Those oxygen-depriving altitudes do strange things to your body.

“It’s a combination of exhaustion with a difficulty in breathing,” said Smith.  ”It’s not a mountain you play with. But you could be the fittest guy on the planet and still get altitude sickness.”

BILL’S CLIMB

As Smith explained, climbing Everest this year was a definitely a challenge.  So what happened to Bill Burke’s expedition?

After trying to climb the easier Southern route and experiencing the dangerous conditions, many guides and climbers decided to forgo their treks to the top.  Even world renowned mountain climbers were saying that the conditions were too dangerous.

At that point, Smith said his month-long Everest trip was over and he had stayed as long as possible to support his team but that he decided not to try and summit the mountain last year.  He said the risks were too great when expert Everest climbers were calling it a day after the ten deaths on the mountain.

Bill Burke, the subject of his documentary, did try to go to the colder and more dangerous northern side of the mountain to attempt a summit climb.

“It’s colder, with harsher weather conditions,” said Smith.  ”It’s a more risky route, but it was still an opportunity.”

Burke was not able to reach the top although he was certainly in sight of it.

“He made it up to about 26,000 feet and then turned around due to weather and exhaustion,” said Smith.

According to Smith, Burke hopes to return to the mountain and finish his quest.  He’s already the oldest American to climb to the top of the world and he hopes to set another record soon.

As for filmmaker Allan Smith, he also hopes to return to Mt. Everest someday.  Although his experiences this past summer included seeing tragedy on the mountain, he said the fact that the challenge can be so deadly is why people from around the world come to meet it.

“My overall experience was one that I enjoyed as a filmmaker, but the number of deaths was unexpected,” said Smith.  ”To ultimately be losing one of our group members was a tragic loss of life.”

The mountain has always called adventurers to see its vast beauty in person and overcome the peak’s unique obstacles.  Conquering Everest can produce a euphoria and a claim to fame like no other.  However, to some it can also offer a one way ticket and a cold, lonely death on the top of a mountain far from home.  The potential for tragedy is part of every climb.

“People will always die on Everest,” said Smith.  ::

ON THE WEB: http://www.eightsummitsfilm.com

Article Posted: Thursday, January 10th, 2013.

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Allan Smith