(6 of 8)
He argued to anyone who would listen that he was an experienced mountaineer and that if he failed, it would be because of his heart or lungs or brain rather than his eyes. He wasn't afraid of physical danger--he had made dozens of skydives and scaled some of the most dangerous cliff faces in the world--but he was frightened of how the world would perceive him. "But I knew that if I went and failed, that would feel better than if I didn't go at all," Erik says. "It could be like [the wrestling] Junior Nationals all over again. I went out to Iowa, and I got killed. But I needed to go to understand what my limits were."
Oxygen deprivation does strange things to the human body. Heart rates go haywire, brain function decreases, blood thickens, intestines shut down. Bad ideas inexplicably pop into your head, especially above 25,000 ft., where, as Krakauer famously wrote in Into Thin Air, climbers have the "mind of a reptile."
At that altitude, Erik could rely on no one but himself. His teammates would have to guide him, to keep ringing the bell and making sure Erik stayed on the trail, but they would be primarily concerned about their own survival in some of the worst conditions on earth. Ironically, Erik had some advantages as they closed in on the peak. For one thing, at that altitude all the climbers wore goggles and oxygen masks, restricting their vision so severely that they could not see their own feet--a condition Erik was used to. Also, the final push for the summit began in the early evening, so most of the climb was in pitch darkness; the only illumination was from miner's lamps.
When Erik and the team began the final ascent from Camp 4--the camp he describes as Dante's Inferno with ice and wind--they had been on the mountain for two months, climbing up and down and then up from Base Camp to Camps 1, 2 and 3, getting used to the altitude and socking away enough equipment--especially oxygen canisters--to make a summit push. They had tried for the summit once but had turned back because of weather. At 29,000 ft., the Everest peak is in the jet stream, which means that winds can exceed 100 m.p.h. and that what looks from sea level like a cottony wisp of cloud is actually a killer storm at the summit. Bad weather played a fatal role in the 1996 climbing season documented in Into Thin Air.