Two local men bear witness to catastrophic Everest avalanche

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Two local men bear witness to catastrophic Everest avalanche
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By Katie Callahan (Courtesy photo)

Breathe, step. Breathe, step. Breathe, step.

It sounds natural enough, but for local businessman John Carney, sucking in thin mountain air before every lumbering step upwards took incredible concentration.

“When you climb, you get this incredible focus and there’s no room for anything else,” said Carney, reflecting on his most recent attempt to conquer Mount Everest in April during a talk at the Waterfront Market last month.

When undertaking one of the most dangerous treks in the world, that focus is at a premium. It can mean the difference between life and death.

And the line between those two extremes is as thin as the air up there, as Carney learned before his attempt to reach the summit even began. An avid mountaineer, Carney was on hand when a massive avalanche claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas, the Nepalese guides who lead climbers up and down the mountain.

Even before the tragedy, Carney’s previous neighbor and climbing partner, Mike MacNair, came perilously close to that line. Blind in one eye from a benign tumor and having overcome two knee surgeries, MacNair struggled with his depth perception on the way up.

Though a veteran of Iron Man competitions, he was unaccustomed to the unreliability of the ground he walked on. Fear threatened to paralyze him, but he forged ahead with a quiet single-mindedness, focusing only on finding his footing.

By following his own advice and “leaning forward and climbing the darn thing,” MacNair pushed his limits. His body begged him to stop, but he focused on the rhythm of his steps to forget the pain. Trekking poles in hand, he meditatively got through each day, simply by putting one foot in front of the other.

Ahead of him, MacNair saw the climbing group’s headlamps strung out around the mountain, like a pearl necklace. The sight — laying bare the enormity of the journey still ahead — nearly overwhelmed him. Instead, he concentrated on the lamp of the climber in front of him.

“When you’re shooting for the stars, you have to have a light in front of you because the big picture will drive you mad,” MacNair said. “Pick what you’re going to do every day because what you pick is going to get you to the finish line.”

Carney wouldn’t let MacNair stop; he was his rope line, tying him to his pledge to complete the trek. Those lines stretched back to their first climbing trip in 2003, facing off against Washington state’s monstrous Mount Rainier. This year’s trip to an Everest base camp was the pinnacle of many well-endured hikes together.

However, base camp was as far as MacNair would go. He had reached his goal and would soon descend, proud of his accomplishment. It was Carney alone who would bear witness to one of the mountain’s worst tragedies.

Waiting for his chance to ascend to Everest’s peak, Carney was still in base camp — nearly 18,000 feet up — when a sudden avalanche took the lives of 16 Sherpas.

“It was the closest I’d ever been to death,” Carney said, recalling the four-day mourning period following the tragedy.

A day before the accident, members of the base camp had joined the Sherpas in a religious ceremony. Reading from sacred scrolls, they beseeched the cold, silent giant.

The mountain had said no.

“The next day we got our answer. And it just stands as a reminder to be mindful of the present,” Carney said.

Carney had a front-row seat to the tragedy’s aftermath. Fellow climbers listened as the body count went up and up over the radio. Other Sherpas remained missing.

He watched as the grim recovery mission began. Helicopters lifted off with long lines — needed to carry the bodies — shepherding the dead back to a hospital at the camp.

A few will remain forever wedged in the ice.

Amid the recovery operation and the grief, the magnitude of the catastrophe sunk in for Carney. The question became, could they eventually carry on?

“When somebody that’s not in the mountaineering community sees that, they think, how can you even climb?” he said. “And there were people at base camp ready to climb after the accident. My feeling is it’s because you’re around the mountain, you’re around that, you know that these things can happen. So you’re already mentally prepared for those things to take place.

“If my expedition [leader] had said, ‘We’re climbing. John, do you want to climb?’ and I knew that the Sherpa were 100 percent in and ready to go, I would’ve climbed. … And it’s finding that way to respect and honor the lives of those lost while still understanding that all of those things encompass the full total of what mountaineering is.”

MacNair, who had descended a few days prior, got a different view of the catastrophe.

“When we got to Lukla [Nepal], they had the bodies laid out on the tarmac and the specific expedition organizations were identifying their employees and determining where those bodies needed to go back to for burial,” he remembered.

An eerie calm fell over the town as people did what was needed to assist the injured while also doing their jobs as usual at the foot of the mountain. The avalanche was the deadliest Everest has ever seen, despite the mountain’s reputation as a widow maker. Attempts to climb it were cancelled. Sherpas, incensed by the loss of life and the Nepalese government’s response, refused to guide people up the mountain.

So instead of going one-on-one with Everest, Carney came back down and the pair went to Katmandu, where they glimpsed the grief of so many during a memorial service. And they saw the anger at a protest decrying the treatment of the Sherpas.

“I went to pay tribute to the Sherpas who gave their lives for the cause. I really felt like I was in the middle of a union event where they were protesting for better benefits for the Sherpas,” MacNair recounted. “I didn’t want to be involved in the politics of it; I just wanted to memorialize the Sherpas.”

Carney’s second attempt to reach the top of Everest had come to an early end. But he remains undeterred. His plan is to go back the next chance he can get. This time, though, it might have to be through China instead of Nepal.

Carney undertook this climb as a part of what’s known as an “adventurer grand slam,” which involves climbing the highest mountain on each continent and reaching the North and South Poles.

Going into it, he knew that making the summit of Everest — or any of the other mountains, for that matter — can take multiple tries. Already, he’s climbed five of the seven mountains and reached the North Pole. Next month, he hopes to be atop Russia’s Mount Elbrus.

“There’s value each time I do it. It’s not a repeat of the same thing. I learn and grow each time. And as long as personal growth happens each time, I’ll go back,” Carney said.

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