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Into the Death Zone
by Liesl Clark
Part 4 of 4

May 4—They slipped out of camp silently in the darkness, like the juniper smoke that drifts skyward from nearby burning altars, disappearing into the Moon over base camp Khumbu Icefall for what we think will be the last time this year. After nearly a year of putting together this project on Everest, the thought of sending our climbers off for the last time onto the mountain is at once frightening and overwhelming. David Breashears, Jangbu Sherpa, Pete Athans, Ed Viesturs, and Dave Carter left Base Camp this morning at 5:00 am for their summit attempt on Mt. Everest.

In the twilight, they slipped through the Icefall and climbed past Camp I directly up to Camp II, known as Advance Base Camp. They will all be climbing Rope up into icefall together for the summit attempt, along with New Zealand expedition leader Guy Cotter, Tashi Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay's grandson), and Finnish climber Veikka Gustafsson, who is climbing Everest this year without the aid of supplemental oxygen.

It was hard to let them out of our grips, knowing the dangers of what lay ahead. Still, this is undoubtedly the strongest team of climbers on Everest this year, with 15 successful summits of Everest between them: (Ed Viesturs four times, Pete Athans four times, David Breashears three times, Guy Cotter two times, Jangbu Sherpa once, and Veikka Gustafsson once). As they moved off into the blue ice pinnacles of the Icefall, crossing a frozen pond in the early morning light, all were in good spirits and ready to get up on the mountain. Little did they know they would be coming back down in a week's time without having had a chance to try for the summit.

Pete Athans putting on crampons For the NOVA documentary we filmed the climbers putting on their crampons at the base of the Icefall amidst blue ice pinnacles standing stately before the small ice pond crossing. The blues of the ice matched the early morning sky in a scene that had just enough light for the 16mm camera to make out the bright colors of the climbers' double boots, gators and shell jackets. First light hit the top of Pumori with an orange glow that lit up the climbers' faces—just enough for our high speed film to register their features.

Within three-quarters of an hour they were tiny dots on the jumbled glacial Climbers as dots in Icefall horizon that stretches up toward the top of the Icefall. Watching them climb higher toward Camp I was difficult for us; we believe that this will be the last we see of them before they head into the thin air above Camp IV, where we will be conducting neuro-behavioral tests on them with and without oxygen. The climbers will take regular pulse oximeter readings, measuring their pulse rate and the oxygen level in their blood, and report back to us at Base Camp. Expedition doctor Howard Donner will be maintaining close communication with them as they move to ever higher altitudes.

Continue: Climbing Higher

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