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Elia Saikaly Headshot

Giving Up on a Dream to Save a Life

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"It's over," I though to myself, and it hasn't even begun. The dream: The ascent of Mount Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world is crushed. I have watched my friend and climbing partner Kheiry suffer for far too long and today we made the decision to call it quits. You know it's time to retreat when your closest friend is breathing supplementary oxygen from a cylinder and you're administering powerful drugs to ensure his safety and survival.

The last 72 hours have been filled with multiple emails to friends and doctors back home in Canada and in London. It was unanimously agreed upon that Kheiry had developed signs of pulmonary edema. Loss of balance when on flat ground, inability to sleep, headaches, sleep apnea and the final deciding factor, fluid in the lungs. For those that are uneducated in the field of high altitude mountaineering and medicine, there is a condition called AMS, acute mountain sickness, that wreaks havoc on most climbers. This is a normal physiological response at high altitudes. It begins as a mild headache, followed but a variety of symptoms such as nausea, vomiting etc... If left untreated (often descent to a lower altitude is the only remedy) it can evolve into cerebral or pulmonary edema -- two of the greatest killers in the high mountains. When Kheiry began showing signs of potential edema, (backed up by three doctors' opinions) we immediately decided to quit. No mountain is worth anyone's life. Period.

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I can't begin to tell you how difficult this moment was. This was K's dream. I came here to support him. I committed and invested my time to help see my friend's dream come true. For 18 months we planned this expedition, from logistics, to technology, to sponsors and beyond. Kheiry trained hard for this, he prepared mentally and emotionally for this, he put his entire life on hold in order to succeed at the highest level. He shared the dream publicly with his peers and work-mates and yet there we were staring face to face, eye to eye, man to man and I couldn't help but feel the tears swell up in my eyes. I thought to myself, "What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?" I put the best team in place, the strongest sherpas, the best food, a scientific acclimatization schedule and yet still here we were, descending to save his life.

I listened to him pant and groan with each step he took. I feared for his life. Think about how you'd feel in this moment? I feared he would not be able to carry on. Dawa Tenzing, our head sherpa and I would not be able to carry him if he were to fall. I remained behind him the entire way, giving him water when he needed it, talking him though it when his spirits sunk to a low. The snow was never-ending. I was freezing, my hands were wet and all I prayed for was for the Jeep to arrive and for Kheiry to continue placing one foot in front of the other.

"Are we there yet?"

"Two more hours K..."

The Chinese Liaison officer in charge of our expedition was to meet us at intermediate camp at 5400M with our assistant Jeremie who remained behind to recover from his own acclimatization issues. I wondered whether the officer would show up given the current weather conditions? If not, I knew we were in serious trouble.

Finally after five hours of trekking we reached the camp and in front of the Tibetan tent was a black Jeep, K's ride to safety.

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It was extremely dramatic watching my close friend fall to his knees in the snow as though to thank God for having arrived safely and with an exit strategy. I raised him up and brought him inside where we drank some warm tea, warmed him up and prepared him for the descent to Nyalam, a Chinese/Tibetan village near the Nepalese border. The driver would descend nearly 3500M in a matter of a few hours at which point K, Jeremie and two of our climbing sherpas would cross the border and return to Kathmandu.

What happened next is a moment I will never forget. K and I held each other, hugged tightly then rubbed heads together. All was understood in that moment. It was accepted. It was understood. Our Cho Oyu challenge had taken on a whole new meaning and at this point it was all about safety. I'll never forget the image of him in the jeep with the mask on his face, defeated, but safe. We did the right thing and we made all of the right decisions.

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I watched the Jeep drive away with half the team and my climbing partner and for the first time in days felt the exhaustion in my own body. All this time I had neglected to look after myself because in mind all that mattered was K. I had no idea that the hardship I felt that day had only just begun...

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