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High Crimes, Chapter 11
Everest, Advanced Base Camp. [Photo] Michael Kodas
Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.
Back in Base Camp, it was not the persistent illnesses and relentless cold but boredom that caused the most discomfort. Books, stereos, and countless trips to Hotel California for beer and cards passed the time as the climbers acclimatized. Computers provided e-mail during the day and action films on DVD at night: Kill Bill at the Himalayan Experience camp; Gladiator at ours. Nobody brings romantic comedies to Everest. Beer flowed every afternoon. Vodka and whiskey marked special occasions.
During an evening of drinking, George gave Chuck a blow-by-blow account of the tension and infighting that plagued the Romanian national expedition he climbed with in 2003. But it was talk of raiding other teams' caches of oxygen that troubled Chuck.
"This is the Connecticut Everest Expedition. This is my name and my reputation. We're not stealing oxygen," Chuck told Anne afterward.
But a few days later Anne and Carolyn were surprised to hear Chuck say that there was plenty of excess oxygen and abandoned equipment in the higher camps, and that he would take whatever he needed.
"They've told me how to do it," he said, explaining that with found bottles of oxygen, you could just open up the valves inside a sealed tent, which then inflates with oxygen, thereby avoiding the inconvenience of wearing the oxygen mask while sleeping.
Although in dire circumstances climbers will take advantage of whatever resources they must to survive, most try to compensate the people whose supplies they use. However, the value of the tanks of oxygen—around $450—has made them a constant target for theft, and dozens of tanks are reported stolen every year. Veteran guide Wally Berg recounted to me how an entire shipment of his oxygen tanks vanished one year. One of his Sherpas tipped him off that a Russian team that claimed to be climbing without using supplemental oxygen had stolen his gas. Wally visited their camp and found a strangely shaped table in their mess tent. He pulled the tablecloth off, and there was his crate of oxygen tanks.
I couldn't believe Chuck would appropriate anything vital to the survival of other climbers. He had enough oxygen to get to the summit without helping himself to anybody else's. And for all I know, he got there using only the gas he purchased.
To some mountaineers, rows of tents stocked with equipment are a buffet. With only a thin sheet of nylon and a zipper in between them and whatever resources they need to get to the top of the mountain, survive a desperate situation, or increase their earnings when they get back down, many just help themselves. But even petty thefts at this altitude can be deadly.
Marcin Miotk, a Polish climber, arrived at Everest's Chinese Base Camp in May 2005, after making an unsuccessful attempt to climb Annapurna, the deadliest of the 8,000-meter peaks. He planned to ascend Everest solo, without Sherpas, and using no supplemental oxygen—the first Polish mountaineer to climb Everest without it. On May 29, Marcin started toward the summit, stocking tents at Camp One and Camp Two with gear, but retreated to ABC due to high winds that made a summit attempt without bottled oxygen too dangerous. Austrian friends who continued up left a sleeping bag for him in Camp Three, the highest camp on the mountain.
Two days later, an unprecedented late weather window opened and Marcin headed for the summit, climbing fast enough to make it to Camp One at midday, which proved to be fortuitous. When he opened his tent flap, he found that it had been raided. The Gore-Tex clothes he had left there for extra warmth had been stolen. He was irritated, but could get by without the clothes, and had planned to climb all the way to Camp Two that day anyway. But when he arrived at Camp Two hours later, he discovered his tent there had also been pillaged, this time burglarized of equipment crucial to his survival—his sleeping bag, gloves, windstopper pants and jacket, socks, and headlamp. With night coming on, the situation was desperate, so Marcin borrowed an unused sleeping bag from a nearby tent, which he returned in the morning before heading up again. With no supplemental oxygen or extra layers of clothing, Marcin was vulnerable to the cold, but the loss of his headlamp was the real problem in continuing his ascent. Without it, he wouldn't be able to start the climb from Camp Three to the summit in the middle of the night as almost every other climber does, forcing him to make his summit bid dangerously late in the day and leaving him little time to make it back to his tent before dark. Since he was climbing without bottled gas, he already had very little margin for error. During his climb to Camp Three, Marcin passed nearly fifty climbers heading down the mountain and asked many of them to borrow a light. Nobody would lend him one. He moved in at Camp Three, set up his gear for the night, and started for the summit at five thirty the next morning, climbing without a backpack so as to move more quickly. All the other climbers he saw were on their way down, having already summited or turned back. Marcin reached the top at two thirty that afternoon, the last summit of the season. He was back at his tent between seven and seven thirty; the setting sun was just touching the horizon. Exhausted, he wanted only to crawl into his sleeping bag and start his stove. But his tent had been looted again. Marcin picked through the mess that was left and tried to find his equipment, but it was all gone. His sleeping bag, stove, extra clothes, even his medications were stolen. And with the sun going down, he had only a few minutes to find replacements before he froze to death.
"Everything that seemed of any value was gone," Marcin wrote in an open letter to various mountaineering Web sites. "At 8300 meters, during summit push!...No shame, no ethics—only money counts."