Faced with delays as her team tried to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the Canadian woman who died over the weekend was urged by her sherpas to turn back because she was tiring, but she was determined to pursue her climb, says her Nepalese trekking firm.
Toronto resident Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33, was one of four climbers who died on the 8,848-metre mountain.
“On that day, there were too many people to go climb the Everest, there were too many traffic jams,” her outfitter, Ganesh Thakuri, managing director of Utmost Adventure Trekking Pvt. Ltd., said by telephone Tuesday after he returned from base camp.
“When it was over 8,500 metres, she loses her stamina and she was very weak … They tried to get her to go back but [she] did not listen. She wanted to go to the summit anyhow. It took a very long time. It was 22 hours to go on top of Everest for her. On the way back down, she lost her energy.”
Having to spend extra time in the “death zone,” a treacherous area of extreme altitude, took a toll on Ms. Shah-Klorfine, said Priya Ahuja, a friend who spoke with the expedition manager after two sherpas who accompanied the Canadian returned to camp.
At some point in her descent, the weather suddenly changed. Strong winds struck the mountainside and Ms. Shah-Klorfine became disconnected from her oxygen supply, Ms. Ahuja was told.
The guides tried to help her. They placed her arms on their shoulders and helped her walk, but she was too weak and she collapsed.
“Save me,” she told them.
They tried to revive her, but it was too late.
Ms. Ahuja said the expedition manager didn’t mention to her that the guides advised Ms. Shah-Klorfine to turn back before she reached the peak.
An American climber, Jon Kedrowski, reported that there was a wait of up to two hours at a chokepoint when high winds shifted and gusts of more than 130 kilometres an hour blasted the trapped, exhausted climbers.
Dr. Kedrowski told Denver TV station KDVR that he and others tried to help disoriented, frostbitten climbers. He saw the four victims as they were freezing to death.
“[One man] was basically hallucinating, he took his hat off, his gloves were thrown away and then he kind of reached out and looked at me … he kind of reached out to me, kind of in a zombie-like fashion,” Dr. Kedrowski said. “At that point, there’s not a lot you can do for somebody that’s dying and frozen to death.”
He said one victim was lying face down in the snow with his or her headlamp still on.
He saw the face of the man who had thrown his hat off but didn’t recognize the others because they were fully clad and wearing oxygen masks.
The other victims were a German doctor, Eberhard Schaaf, 61, South Korean Song Won-bin, 24, and Ha Wenyi, 55, from China.
Ms. Shah-Klorfine had been training for two years, walking and running 19 kilometres a day with 20 kilograms on her back, but she had limited climbing experience.
University of Toronto surgeon John Semple, who was team doctor of a 2005 Everest expedition and has studied patterns of mortality on the peak, said delays caused by the crowding on Everest exposes climbers to extreme cold and depletes their oxygen supply.
This compounds other high-altitude problems, such as brain swelling that triggers cognitive impairment and loss of co-ordination.
“Even with oxygen, it’s a tough climb. It takes a lot more than just stamina,” he said.
Ms. Ahuja believes there should be tighter controls on the number of people climbing Everest at the same time to alleviate traffic jams. “We already lost our dear friend and I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Another friend and mentor, Bikram Lamba, said the family has appealed to Foreign Affairs in Ottawa to help them retrieve her body. They had asked the company but, according to Dr. Lamba, the firm said the task is too dangerous and not its responsibility.
The agreement Ms. Shah-Klorfine signed with Utmost Adventure Trekking gave the expedition team the authority to call off the climb if she wasn’t well, Dr. Lamba said.
“I don’t know what the reality is,” he said. “If they decided she wasn’t fit to go, why did you permit the sherpas to accompany her?”
Delays in getting to the summit, worsening weather and limited oxygen-tank supplies are all good reasons to turn around but it is not a decision that is easy to make for climbers for whom Everest is “the trip of a lifetime,” said Dr. Semple.
“At that altitude, you can’t pull somebody off. All you can do is recommend to them.”
Nepalese officials told The Associated Press a similar rush up the world’s tallest peak will begin again soon, with about 200 climbers expected to attempt to scale Everest between Friday and Sunday.
“The climbers have received the permits to climb within specific dates. We cannot say who gets to get to the summit on which dates because of the unpredictable weather. When weather clears up, they all want to benefit,” said Tourism Ministry spokesman Bal Krishna Ghimire.
EVEREST ‘DEATH ZONE’ IS SYMPTOMLESS KILLER
Above 8,000 metres in Mount Everest’s “death zone,” a swelling of the brain caused by the thinning air can hit with few preceding symptoms such as nausea or headache.
That cerebral edema, which causes cognitive impairment and loss of co-ordination, is compounded by fatigue and cold. It is the reason climbers die during descent from Everest, according to a 2008 study in the British Medical Journal.
One of the study’s co-authors, University of Toronto surgeon John Semple, was team doctor of a 2005 Everest expedition.
He said the health threat is made even worse by the traffic jams on the mountain, particularly at the Hillary Step, a 12-metre spur that’s the last major obstacle before the peak.
“There are so many people now on the top of Everest and the window of opportunity is quite narrow in terms of weather. So there are huge delays and people stand around … It takes a lot longer, they run out of oxygen on the way down. Once you stop climbing, you get very cold very quickly,” Dr. Semple said in an interview.
The study found that foreign climbers died at more than six times the rate of sherpas during the descent from the summit.
Sherpas are accustomed to the thin air. When they do die on the mountain, it’s usually at lower levels from avalanches or falls, Dr. Semple said. Foreign climbers are more likely to succumb at higher altitude.