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Local mountaineers conquer Everest on tragic weekend

By: NATHAN VAIL
May 22, 2012
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photo - In this Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, the last light of the day sets on Mount Everest as it rises behind Mount Nuptse as seen from Tengboche, in the Himalaya's Khumbu region, Nepal.  Mountaineering Department official Gyanendra Shrestha said Monday, May 21, 2012,  that a German, a Nepal-born Canadian and a Korean died Saturday while descending from the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit.  Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, the last light of the day sets on Mount Everest as it rises behind Mount Nuptse as seen from Tengboche, in the Himalaya's Khumbu region, Nepal. Mountaineering Department official Gyanendra Shrestha said Monday, May 21, 2012, that a German, a Nepal-born Canadian and a Korean died Saturday while descending from the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Charles Lalonde and climbing partner Robert McDonald of Colorado Springs successfully reached the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest early Saturday morning — the day that ended in tragedy for four other climbers.

Their 7:30 a.m. summit time likely helped them avoid the severe storm that trapped some climbers on the mountain later in the day and led to the deaths. It was the highest death toll on the world’s highest peak since eight people died on May 10, 1996.

The Colorado Springs men were among more than 150 people who attempted to summit Everest during a small break in the weather on Friday and Saturday, but many apparently tried to summit well after 11 a.m., when the risk of bad weather increases. Climbers are warned to avoid summiting after late morning.

Mona Comeau, Lalonde’s wife, and Ann McDonald last spoke with their husbands Sunday when the men were at base camp. Both of the climbers spoke of the congestion on the mountain.

“He [Lalonde] was well aware of the high traffic,” said Comeau.

“He was also aware of the deaths, but he didn’t know who had died,” she added.

The victims of Saturday’s disaster were Dr. Eberhard Schaaf, a 62-year-old German doctor, Wang-yi Fa a 55-year-old Chinese climber, Shriya Shah, a 32-year-old Nepal-born Canadian, and 44-year-old South Korean Song Won-Bin.

Lalonde, 52, is a third generation physician and works at Printers Park OB/GYN. He has been climbing for more than 10 years.

McDonald, who will turn 60 in June, is a retired business owner. “He’s lived his whole life with his hair on fire. He’s full speed ahead,” said Ann McDonald.

The two have climbed numerous mountains together, including Mount McKinley in Alaska and Aconcagua in Argentina. “Rob told me that if they conquer Everest they would want to do Antarctica next,” Ann McDonald said.

Lalonde and McDonald left for Nepal on March 23. The two were safe in the Khumbu Valley on Tuesday and hope to be in Kathmandu on Saturday.

Retired Lt. Col. Pete Solie, who climbed Mount Everest in 2010 and is a local mountaineer, offered some advice:

“The first thing is to account for planning. You have to have the capability... Prevention is the first step,” he said.

The issue at hand today is “addressing the congestion. More and more people are targeting Everest and it’s becoming a crowded mountain.”

Solie thinks there should be a lottery to “queue the climbers accordingly.”

The most perilous part of the expedition is the descent. Climbers are often exhausted and end up having low blood oxygen when in the “death zone,” or elevations above 8,000 meters.

“More risk is expected when people delay later and later” in the day, Solie said.

As Mount Everest becomes more crowded, expeditions must stagger and there’s a longer wait to climb. “And you end up having road rage at 26,000 feet,” Solie said.

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