Climber Cory Richards is safe and sound back in Boulder, but he still isn’t sure what happened to him up on Mount Everest.

On April 28, Richards, of Boulder, and National Geographic expedition leader Conrad Anker were climbing at about 7,000 meters — nearly 23,000 feet — toward Everest’s West Ridge route when Richards realized he was panting and couldn’t catch his breath.

“Conrad and I decided to turn around, because the path that we’d decided to do just seemed dangerous,” he said.

But when they returned to camp 2, Richards was still “just so short of breath,” he said.

At Camp 2, doctors checked him out and speculated about what could be wrong.

“My O2 saturation was really high, it was great,” he said. “So they’re like, ‘It’s not altitude, because if it’s altitude, your O2 stats go way down.’ There was no fluid in my lungs.”

The doctors wondered — could it be an embolism, a dangerous arterial blockage? But they couldn’t test for that high on the flanks of the world’s tallest mountain. They sent him down to Camp 1 for a helicopter evacuation.

“They put me in a sked — a sled-slash-stretcher — and they dragged me 20 or 30 minutes, and I eventually said, ‘This is ridiculous, I’m going to get out and walk, I’m fine,'” he said. But he still couldn’t catch his breath.

Clouds came into Camp 1, eliminating the possibility of a helicopter landing. So Richards went all the way back to base camp, even though his condition was worsening as he descended.

Back at base camp, he said, “We made the call to go to Kathmandu, just because that’s the only way to know it’s an embolism — you have to get an ultrasound, a CAT scan, tons of testing done.”

There, Richards went to three hospitals, saw many doctors and had chest x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds and multiple EKGs. Eventually, with his health in question, his team had to make a decision to continue the climb without him. It was the right call, he said: “It wasn’t a personal decision, it was a decision based on the overarching safety of the team.”

Now, back in Boulder, Richards said he feels great, aside from being disappointed that he had to leave the expedition and his friends and teammates from The North Face. (Richards is a professional photographer and climber and was documenting his climb with Anker for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.)

“We still don’t really understand what happened medically, there’s no explanation for it,” Richards said. “The only explanation I can come up with is, I was leading in my down suit, and I expected it to be much colder than it was, and I think it might have been minor heat stroke.”

“The other thing that leads me to believe it had something to do with heat — it got worse as we came down,” he said.

“It sounds silly, and I can certainly make fun of myself for this — to be a professional climber and to be evacuated off Everest for heat stroke? That’s hysterical. That’s a cosmic joke, to get evacuated off the highest mountain in the world for being too hot.”

Richards said it was disappointing at the time, but he’s already looking forward to training harder in the future and planning his next adventures.

“It’s almost like a trampoline,” he said. “You come down, and you go way down, and then it springs you back higher. And I think that’s the nature of climbing mountains and life in general. It takes lows to experience the highs. I don’t even look at this as too much of a low.”

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