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Tragedy High Above the Clouds

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It's been nearly 30 days since I left the comfort of my home in Ottawa. The plan was to trek through the Himalayas, climb a 6000M mountain in Nepal called Mt. Lobuche all in preparation for the ascent of the sixth highest mountain on Earth, Mt Cho Oyu in Tibet.

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I embarked on this journey to support my friend's Kheiry's dream and now, sadly he is gone and I am alone, left to attempt the summit. Less than a week ago, I was forced to evacuate Kheiry due to a suspected (and now confirmed) case of pulmonary and cerebral edema. Yesterday, I received confirmation that had Kheiry remained at the altitude in which I am writing this blog (5700M) he would have fallen unconscious and died shortly thereafter.

The following is the behind the scenes scenario of how we evacuated Kheiry. First of all: We are NOWHERE! The closest road is a half-day's walk away. Because we are in China/Tibet, helicopter rescues are forbidden so I knew we needed to walk him out. Without a doctor on our team, all I could do was assess the situation based on my own mountaineering experience. Apnea, headaches, nausea, loss of balance, possible water in the lungs... sounds like edema to me.

As a filmmaker-turned-climber, I ALWAYS ensure we have ample communication possibilities with the outside world. Although it is an expensive set-up at 6000M, it can be (as proven here) life-saving. We ran the generator, which powered my laptop, which powered my satellite BGAN (Internet in a box) and began sending emails to trusted friends, physicians and high altitude specialists in Canada and Europe. The consensus was that my partner did in fact have edema and needed a rescue. We mobilized, Kheiry had the humility to accept defeat (which believe it or not is often not the case) and through a storm and white out, we descended to 5400M to a small Tibetan camp where thankfully a jeep awaited us. Within four hours, he had descended with half the team and was safe at sea level where he now sips Irish Coffee in Kathmandu. Saved. Safe. Thank the universe.

So now what?

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I am currently living in a tent at 5700M at Advanced Base Camp where a few hundred other climbers are awaiting the perfect weather window to summit. You see, in order to reach the top of an 8000M peak, there are numerous factors which enable or prohibit you from reaching the top. At this point in time, the weather is the number one obstacle, not to mention the extreme low levels of oxygen, sub-zero temperatures and believe it or not, the other climbers on the mountain. It is a science up here and at 8000M, if anything goes wrong, no one can save you.

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I wasn't always a climber, in fact I prefer not to even label myself one. Professional mountaineers and expert guides are a far cry from what I am at best: A strong climber (who always carries a camera) with 15 years of physical fitness under his belt. I have never pushed myself beyond my physical limit above the clouds, as I am well aware that it is a recipe for disaster. The minute you become a liability, you place everyone else's life in danger. We all know this; it is the code of mountaineering. So if we know all of this, then why do we repeatedly see people putting their lives at risk on the mountain?

As I made my way to camp one yesterday, my first time touching 6400M, I noticed a Japanese woman making her way up the final stretch of the climb. What I saw was a woman exhausted who was unable to ascend safely. A woman who's face resembled a weathered beach ball and who could barely put one foot in front of the other. I asked her, "Shouldn't you be going down?" One of her two Sherpas replied "No, we're going to the summit." Oh boy... Well, at least she had the sense to hire two Sherpas, a luxury for most, as there are costs associated with hiring good Sherpas. These are the men who assist, guide and carry climbers' belongings to the top. They set up tents, boil water and cook the food. They do this, because most from the West simply CANNOT. Without them, it is extremely difficult to succeed.

I reached my goal, tuned into my body, realized I felt amazing for 6400M above sea level and decided it was smarter to descend, rest, then return another day, stronger, with more capacity to transport oxygen (acclimatize) and be safe.

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As I was making my way down, I stopped to speak with a couple who were climbing together and hoping to reach the summit. I noticed a caved-in tent with crushed poles and torn material. I asked them, "What happened there?" They replied that sadly a European climber died there yesterday. Twenty feet from where I was standing, a man lay dead. He decided to climb without the help of a Sherpa. It was also revealed to me that he was quite inexperienced and had taken a nasty fall days earlier. An avalanche then crushed him. He died alone in his tent.

To make matters worse, a friend of mine from Europe, a young female climber, was in her tent right next to him and was struck by very the same avalanche. She had the instincts to stand up immediately, block the snow and thankfully escaped with her life.

I stood dumbfounded, unsure what to think or what to feel. I couldn't believe that 20 feet away was the body of a dead climber. How will his family react? Does he have a wife? Kids? All this for what?

Sadly, as much beauty as there is high above the clouds, there is equally as much horror and tragedy. Men and women thrive and rise above their own peak potential, they rival the conventions of what is possible and yet others perish and become another permanent addition to the highest mountain range on Earth.

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I have a feeling this may be one of my last 8000M expeditions. I miss my family, my girlfriend and all of my close friends back home. Is it really worth it?

Mt Cho Oyu Night Timelapse Sequence- The Summit Push is On from Findinglifefilms on Vimeo.

Elia Saikaly
Adventure Filmmaker