Sun, February 15, 2004
Everest, take two
Warden almost died in 2000, but he has a peak to reach
By GREG DI CRESCE, STAFF REPORTER
He couldn't sleep. He just lay there, coughing, wheezing and watching his tent fluttering in the mountain wind, thinking tomorrow he might die.
At 7,164 metres (or 23,500 feet) above sea level in a one-man tent on the face of Mount Everest, Jeff Warden had spent about a month and a half to come to within 1,800m of the summit.
The search-and-rescue sergeant with Winnipeg's 435 Squadron had no intention of turning back.
But, as he hacked up more and more dried mucus that at times clogged his windpipe and stopped him from breathing, fear slowly and insidiously eroded that intent.
He'd get up the next morning, bleary eyed and on bottled oxygen, and climb another frightening 500m and then go no further. What's called the Yellow Band -- at roughly 7,600m (or 25,000 feet) the colour of the rocks on Everest become yellow tinged -- would be his finish line in May of 2000.
Warden, who's anything but yellow, was certain if he'd gone any further that day toward the 8,848-metre peak, he may as well have slit his own wrists.
This April, four years later, the 41-year-old airman returns to Everest to take a second shot at reaching the top.
Of course, a lot has changed in his life since the last time he was there.
He's gotten married, he became a father, and he's knocked off two more of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent) -- Elbrus in Russia and Australia's Kosciusko -- leaving only Vincent Massif in Antarctica and Everest on his to-climb list.
For Warden, the Himalayan giant is more than a name to be ticked off a checklist.
It's something far more personal, especially because of what occurred last time.
Despite all that's changed in his life, he's still got a score to settle with the mountain, and, perhaps even more importantly, with himself.
"I could see it. It was right there," said Warden, wistfully recalling the unclouded summit of four years ago.
"Why couldn't I make it? Well, it all started a week or so before I was up there lying in that tent."
It was a failure rooted in boredom, in impatience, in a soccer ball, and, somewhat paradoxically, in what's made him such a successful climber -- an inability to do anything half way.
Weather is the real boss at Everest base camp. Its whims decide the climbing schedule.
Something a restless Warden learned over and over again while he hurried up and waited to make his ascent, watching the prime climbing days and weeks of April and May slip away.
"I was getting pretty antsy there. I wanted to get it over with and go home," he said.
In early May, after a nasty bit of food poisoning and then a promising summit bid called off due to bad weather, Warden found himself wrestling with a serious case of ants in his snow pants.
And so, when some folks at base camp asked him if he'd like to play soccer, he practically sprinted to the frozen pitch. Then he sprinted after the ball and sprinted and sprinted and caught ... bronchitis.
"Every day in the ice fall there was an ice rink basically where we all play soccer," he said. "Now, when I say 'we' it was mostly expedition support such as media, doctors, so forth. Anyway, me, being the antsy type, I finally went and played this game of soccer and just totally overdid it.
"What can I say? I tend to do things full bore or not at all. The next morning I woke up and was diagnosed by a Canadian doctor as having bronchitis."
Although he didn't know it then -- he'd find out about eight days later during that sleepless night at Camp 3 -- his eagerness to bend it like Beckham had undermined his Everest enterprise.
"I spent about six days recovering, eating nothing but chicken soup, before trying to climb again. But now it was much more difficult," the airman said. "It was like breathing through a straw and that straw is periodically clogging up completely. ... So, after not sleeping a wink at Camp 3 and constantly coughing up this dried snot, I was getting to the sense that if something happens here, I'm totally on my own. No one is really going to be able to do anything for me at this elevation."
Despite those fears, Warden did soldier on using oxygen the next day.
However, it wasn't long before his energy was sapped and he realized "at any second I could die. And I knew if I had gone on, there was a very, very good chance -- in fact, I was convinced -- I wouldn't be coming back. Absolutely. And I'm still convinced of that."
OK, certain death is a pretty good reason to turn around but why return?
And why go back now after having just settled down and started a family?
"My wife is extremely supportive of me," he said. "But the child has really changed things. Clearly, though, it hasn't totally sunk in. Look at my lifestyle, look at my job.
"I've got to jump out of an airplane if I'm told to do so or deem it necessary on the ring of a phone.
"But do I think about my actions a whole lot more now before I participate? Without question."
Hmmm ... Does having a child perhaps help curb some of that impatience that did in the climb last time?
"It could. But, then again, maybe I won't push the envelope when I need to," he said. "Still, all in all, it increases my chances of coming home alive."
And your chances of summiting?
"Maybe in some respects it helps that too because this time I know I'm not climbing Everest alone."