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Standing on top of the world

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Marshall Warren recently returned from a trip that took him to new heights. Warren, who just turned 57, successfully completed his ascent to the summit of Mt. Everest on May 18th.

The 25-year Copper Canyon resident has been a pilot with Delta Airlines for 32 years.  Currently, he is flying Boeing 777s to Australia, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Israel and South Africa.  Warren is also one of seven Delta “Lead Line Check Pilots” on the B-777.  He trains other pilots and Check Pilots.  These “long hauls” normally involve flights of 14-plus hours and cruising at high altitudes. Being a pilot cruising in cabins at high altitudes for long periods of time also helped in his conditioning.  That is his “day job”.

But his passion is mountain climbing and his dream adventure has been to scale Mount Everest.  Few individuals have accomplished that awesome feat. 

Marshall and his wife Pam have been married 38 years this month, so she was not surprised at his personal climbing goal – nor were their three adult daughters, Brooke, Ashley and Rainey.  His previous climbs include Mt. McKinley, Aconcagua, The Matterhorn, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt.Hood, and Mt. Rainier.

Many interested individuals followed his adventure vicariously through emails and Facebook – his family, friends, Copper Canyon neighbors, Delta pilots, church groups, and even high school classes.  As friends told friends about the climb, there were thousands of well-wishers following his climbing group. 

For a year, Warren has been working out daily to develop his strength and coordination. He has run for an hour with a 40 pound pack on the bleachers at Marcus High School or the step mill machine at LA Fitness.  When he is away flying, he runs the emergency exit stairs at the hotels up and down for an hour. In January, he spent two weeks in Ecuador climbing three volcanoes of 19,000, 20,000 and 21,000 feet in height.

He left for Nepal on March 26th to spend six weeks getting acclimated to the extremely high altitudes.  This length of time allows the oxygen carrying red blood cells in his body to roughly double.   Even while using oxygen on the climb, these additional red blood cells are needed for him to make it to the summit.

All his climbing clothes are designed to keep him warm at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  This includes pants, jackets, climbing harness underwear, etc.  Warren said that his insulated water bottles, filled with hot water at the beginning of the summit climb attempt and kept inside his coat, were frozen by the time he reached the summit.

It was zero degrees even in his tent at night.  Everything in his tent froze each night, even his toothpaste. He was warm in his sleeping bag, but he could not even take his hands out to hold a book to read or his fingers would get too cold.  The moisture from his breath at night formed ice on his sleeping bag.  It also formed ice crystals on the inside of the tent fabric and would fall like snow if the tent fabric moved.  The sun rose at 5 a.m.  Warren said the long hours waiting inside his sleeping bag for each day to warm enough were incredibly boring.   It was “like being in prison.”   But the actual climbing he “loved!  “You see things you will never see again!”

His journey from Dallas to Nepal took about 35 hours, including 22 hours of actual flight time.  The route halfway around the world was via Atlanta, Dubai, Delhi India, and then Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. 

The last leg of his flight was from Katmandu to Lukla, known as the “most dangerous airport in the world”.  The landing strip is built into the mountain and you must land uphill.  Once the aircraft is lined up with the runway for landing, it must land. There are mountains that prevent an aborted landing.  Taking off, the plane is going downhill; and if the takeoff is aborted, it is very difficult to stop before the cliff that drops steeply away from the end of the runway.

From Lukla, Warren had to walk to base camp at 17,600 feet. This first leg of his hike took 12 days.  During the two months in Nepal he walked about 100 miles. 

The next leg of his journey was from the base camp through the “Khumbu Ice Fall” to Camp 1 at 19,100 feet.  His first trip through the ice fall took seven hours. 

Climbers consider this ice fall second only to avalanches in danger.  The ice fall is a huge glacier with crevasses hundreds of feet deep.  Some are so deep that you cannot see the bottom.  The crevasses are so wide that they can only be spanned with aluminum ladders.  Sometimes as many as four and a half 14-foot-long aluminum ladders are lashed together with rope.  In the middle of that span, the ladders begin to sway precariously.  The climbers walk the ladders with only a rope on either side to hold onto.  Warren had to traverse about 20 ladder bridges to cross that ice field.

The ice fall glaciers are most dangerous during their daily moves of up to three feet.  The movement is usually during the afternoon hours when the sun is beginning to melt some of the ice or in the night when the ice is refreezing.  The least dangerous time to cross the ice fall is in early morning, when movement is minimized.  Climbers trapped by the ice fall’s movement can easily be maimed or crushed to death.  Every day at least one of the ladder bridges is crushed.   Sherpa “ice fall doctors” specialize in carrying new ladders up the mountain each day and tie them back into place to replace the crushed ladder or ladders.  In the early years of climbing Mt. Everest each expedition would have their own doctor and build the route without the ice fall doctors.  Now the biggest climbing teams pool their money and pay for a base camp hospital and the ice fall doctors. 

There are a series of camps placed up the side of Mount Everest.  The base camp is at 17,600 feet; Camp 1 is at 19,100 feet and above the ice fall; Camp 2 is at 21,100 feet; Camp 3 at 23,000 feet on the Lhotse face; and Camp 4 at 26,600 feet.  Warren would climb twice to 23,800 feet, before he ultimately climbed the third time to the summit of Mount Everest at 29,035 feet.  It was only minus 10 degrees at the summit!

After weeks of acclimating to the altitude and because they had been at an altitude of 17,600 or above for nearly 30 days on preliminary practice climbs, Warren and the team walked two days from the base camp down through four tiny villages to stay four days at Deboche, a small village at 12,600 feet.  He and his fellow climbers needed to give their bodies a chance to rest and recuperate.  They slept in a tea house with real beds and no heat as usual.  There is no color or smell at high altitudes, but in Deboche there were signs of spring with green trees and plenty of oxygen.  In the eating area of the tea house they use wood to heat the room.  At the villages above this altitude, where there are no trees, they use Yak dung for fuel.

After the two day walk back to base camp, all they needed was the weather to be right for the summit try.  As a rule, there are two times each year that the weather is calm enough at the top of Mt. Everest for a summit attempt.  Once in the spring, and once in the fall.  The weather window of opportunity takes place as the jet stream moves north and before the monsoon moves in from the south.  There are meteorologists that specialize in predicting this and are paid by the Mt. Everest groups for this information.  From base camp it takes five days to reach the summit.  The weather must be right on the fifth day of the climb for a safe ascent.  If not, the expedition is over.  The climbers will have used their supply of oxygen necessary to make it to the summit and must descend.

Leaving Camp 4 at an altitude of 26,600 feet at 10 p.m. on May 17th, Warren’s climbing team ascended through a blizzard for several hours.  Then they reestablished a route in knee deep s
now.  They climbed above the clouds and into good weather about 1,500 feet below the summit.  They reach the summit at 8 a.m. the next morning, after climbing through the night for 10 hours.

Warren had taken a cell phone on his summit climb, so that he could call his wife Pam when he reached the summit on May 18th.  Though he had four bars of service, he could not complete the call to her because a Chinese tower on the other side of the mountain was overpowering the signal from the cell tower in Nepal. 

This is the first year in history that cell phone service was available in base camp for the climbing season. At the end of last season, a solar cell tower was completed in Gorak Shep, the closest village from base camp and about a two hour walk down the valley.   But Pam had been waiting and knew from the climbers Internet cyber cast that her husband had finally reached his goal!

Then began the descent.  Warren said that he never really felt safe until he had finally crossed the ice fall above the base camp for the last time.  The ice fall was always the most treacherous part of his climb.

Warren had promised to be home for his 38th wedding anniversary on June 1st and he made it.  Body and mind intact, though his weight had dropped from 170 pounds to 147 pounds (all the climbers lost about 25 pounds each).  Warren said he came home and began “eating everything…Ice cream, Mexican food, buffalo wings!”  He gained eight pounds in 10 days at home!

Not everyone returns from a visit to Mt. Everest.  In fact, three climbers perished there the same month Warren made his trek.  But the prayers must have worked.  Though the dead skin on his finger tips was peeling off from frostnip and he still had no feeling in four of his fingers, he said he had experienced this phenomenon after other mountain climbs and the feeling usually returned to his fingers in a month’s time.

Warren said he had promised his wife and Mom that his climbing days are done.  It will be interesting to see what new challenge in life he chooses.  (Go to www.alpineascents.com, click Everest, and you can see a cybercast of his ascent.  The website also has an interactive Google Earth Map, a 3-D Route Flythrough, and daily tracking of climbing and trekking teams via GPS.)

Incidentally, Warren’s head Sherpa, who served as a guide for his mountaineering expedition, was named Lakpa Rita Sherpa.  Warren said Lakpa is famous.  Every Sherpa knew him, because of the number of times Lakpa has successfully climbed to Mt. Everest’s summit.  As a youth, Lakpa would walk four hours daily from his village to the Edmund Hillary School and walk four hours after school to reach his home again.  He did this for four years during high school.  Lakpa now lives in Seattle, Washington and both his children attend the University of Washington.

A typical Sherpa only earns about $300-400 a year.  There are no children in the area, as everyone sends their children to school in Katmandu in hopes the children can escape the restricted life and severe climate of the villages.

Warren and his wife Pam have lived in Copper Canyon for 25 years.  Warren has served on the town’s Long Range Planning Task Force for Roads and as Chairman of the Town’s first Clean Up Day last October.  Happily, he has agreed to chair the event again this year on Saturday, October 1st.  If you are a Copper Canyon resident and would like to volunteer to help him, please call Town Hall at (940) 241-2677.

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