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Dr. Robert Sullivan had the ultimate mountain top experience last year—he spent 30 minutes standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world.
It is 29,000 feet above sea level and the air is so thin at that point that you would die if you stayed there too long without oxygen. The temperature is -71F and winds blow at 50 mph.
This is not a climb for a novice and Dr. Sullivan, who is 45, is an experienced climber and has climbed a number of tall peaks, including Mt. Rainier, in Washington.
“When you see the steam come out, you think ‘Maybe it [climbing the mountain] is not such a good idea,” he commented. Steam comes out of Mt. Rainier because it is an active volcano. But volcanoes give advance warning, through earthquake activity, so climbers would be warned days before an actual eruption.
Mt. Everest is not a volcano. It’s just very tall and the altitude, along with the difficulty of the climb, makes it dangerous. Dr. Sullivan said that as many as 6 percent of the people who attempt the climb die. Nevertheless, many try it and there were multiple climbing parties making their final push for the summit when he was there. Four climbers were killed that day. A total of 10 died during the short climbing window that year. The corpses of people who die in the process of climbing Everest are still there. Dr. Sullivan said that the altitude and the difficulty of the climb make it impossible to bring them down.
It takes a long time to make the climb. Dr. Sullivan spent nearly three weeks above 10,000 feet, moving to progressively higher altitudes — moving up 1,000 feet higher each day — to acclimatize. This gave his body time to make adaptations to the thin air so that his blood could carry more oxygen.
Even getting there was an adventure. They had to fly into Lukla Airport, which is considered the most dangerous airport in the world. There is no safety margin if something goes wrong.
“A foot off the runway it drops off 5,000 feet,” he said.
The actual climb up Everest begins on a glacier, at an altitude of 19,000 feet, and proceeds up what amounts to an ice fall, the glacial equivalent of a waterfall.
“For me, personally, it was the scariest part of the expedition,” Dr. Sullivan said.
Their last base camp was at 25,000 feet.
“We slept there overnight without oxygen,” he said.
Then the final push to the summit began. At that point, they donned down suits and carried oxygen. That’s because the “death zone,” the point at which bad things start happening to you if you don’t have oxygen bottles with you, begins at 26,000 feet.
“I felt really good up there,” Dr. Sullivan commented.
One thing he noted was the sky, particularly when looking up.
“It’s very, very deep blue,” he said. “It’s almost black.”
That’s because he was at a point where most of the Earth’s atmosphere is below him.
Then came the climb down. Dr. Sullivan said that it is more difficult coming down than going up because you’re tired.
His next climb will be a father/daughter expedition. He and his daughter, Mattie, who is an E. C. Glass High School student, plan to climb Mont. Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. It rises to nearly 16,000 feet.
Dr. Sullivan told 258 Forest Middle School students about his experience last week. He was wearing a medal that the Nepali government awards to everybody who makes it to the summit — and then makes it back down.
According to Nancy Young, the school’s librarian, all of the students who heard Dr. Sullivan completed a reading challenge. They read “Peaks,” a fictional book about a boy who climbs Mt. Everest and then they passed a comprehension quiz.
“It just provided reading and gave a real life connection,” said Young.
The real life connection was hearing from a local man who actually did it.
“It really did motivate the kids to read,” she said.