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In the icefall there is no system, no repetition, no rhyme or reason to the lay of the frozen land. On the other hand, "it is so specific in terms of where you can step," Erik recalls. "Sometimes you're walking along and then boom, a crevasse is right there, and three more steps and another one, and then a snow bridge. And vertical up, then a ladder and then a jumbly section." It took Erik 13 hrs. to make it from Base Camp through the icefall to Camp 1, at 20,000 ft. Scaturro had allotted seven.
A typical assault on Everest requires each climber to do as many as 10 traverses through the icefall, both for acclimatization purposes and to help carry the immense amount of equipment required for an ascent. After Erik's accident, the rest of the National Federation of the Blind (N.F.B.) team discussed letting him stay up in Camp 1, equipped with videotapes and food, while the rest of the team and the Sherpas did his carries for him. No way, said Erik. No way was he going to do this climb without being a fully integrated and useful member of the team. "I wasn't going to be carried to the top and spiked like a football," he says. The next day he forced himself to head back down through the icefall. He would eventually make 10 passes through the Khumbu, cutting his time to five hours.
Sometimes, when Erik is giving a motivational speech for one of his corporate clients, such as Glaxo Wellcome or AT&T, a fat, balding middle-aged middle manager will approach him and say, "Even I wouldn't do that stuff." Erik calls it the Even I Syndrome. And he has to resist an impulse to say, "You're fat, out of shape and you smoke. Why would you even think of doing any of this stuff? Just because you can see?" Erik is not impatient or smug, but he tires of people assuming that sight will trump all other attributes and senses combined.
By all accounts, Erik is gifted with strong lungs, a refined sense of balance, a disproportionately powerful upper body, rubbery legs and flexible ankles. His conditioning is exemplary and his heart rate low. He is stockier than most mountaineers, who tend toward lanky, long muscles. But he possesses an abundance of the one indispensable characteristic of a great mountaineer: mental toughness, the ability to withstand tremendous amounts of cold, discomfort, physical pain, boredom, bad food, insomnia and tedious conversation when you're snowed into a pup tent for a week on a 3-ft.-wide ice shelf at 20,000 ft. (That happened to Erik on Alaska's Denali.) On Everest, toughness is perhaps the most important trait a climber can have. "Erik is mentally one of the strongest guys you will ever meet," says fellow climber Chris Morris.
Everybody gets sick on Everest. It's called the Khumbu Krud, brought on by a combination of high altitude, dirty food, fetid water, intestinal parasites and an utterly alien ecosystem. On Erik's team, at any given moment, half the climbers were running fevers, the others were nauseated, and they all suffered from one form or another of dysentery, an awkward ailment when there's a driving snowstorm and it's 30[degrees] below outside the tent. You relieve yourself however you can, in the vestibule of your tent or in a plastic bag. "It can be a little bit gross," says Erik. "But if you go outside and take your pants down, you'll have two inches of snowpack blow into your pants in about 10 seconds."